The Multiple Functions of Of-Preposition Phrases

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Abstract: In this article we discuss three of the structures that may be instantiated by preposition phrases headed by the preposition of. We focus on the meaning differences between the constructions, and mention why distinguishing between them may be of use in developing NLP applications.

Preposition phrases headed by of fall into different classes. Our goal in this article is to discuss several of the distinctions made among of-preposition phrases that are part of a noun phrase.

First distinguishing criterion

Consider first the two classes represented by the of-preposition phrases contained within the bracketed noun phrases in the sentences in (1) and (2).

(1)

  1. [The team of our former president] lost the game.
  2. We had breakfast with [three good friends of Kim’s] and dinner with four others.
  3. [The renovation of the building] makes us very happy.

(2)

  1. [The pianist of the highest caliber] is Kim.
  2. This is [a matter of no importance].

The of-preposition phrases in (1) have a close semantic affinity with genitive noun phrases in determiner position (like John’s in John’s house). In fact, the bracketed noun phrases in the sentences in (1) can be paraphrased by noun phrases where the of-preposition phrase is replaced by a genitive noun phrase, as in (3)1.

(3)

  1. our former president’s team
  2. three of Kim’s good friends
  3. the building’s renovation

In contrast to the of-preposition phrases in (1), those in (2) have no semantic affinity with genitive noun phrases in determiner position; the bracketed noun phrase in (2a), for example, cannot be paraphrased by the highest caliber’s pianist.

The relevance of the distinction to NLP tasks

The grammatical difference between of-preposition phrases like those in (1) and of-preposition phrases like those in (2) may be relevant to various NLP tasks. One such task is generating and detecting paraphrases, where the NLP tool would have to recognize that, for example, the team of our former president should be paraphrased as our former president’s team, but the pianist of the highest caliber should not be paraphrased as the highest caliber’s pianist. Another such task is machine translation: the different types of English of-preposition phrases have different counterparts in certain languages; in Hebrew, for example, the counterparts of the of-preposition phrases in (1) are headed by the preposition shel, the counterpart of the of-preposition phrase in (2a) is headed by the preposition mi, and the counterparts of the of-preposition phrase in (2b) are headed by the prepositions lelo or bli.

The structures assigned to the two types of Of-preposition phrase

In accordance with the above, Contextors’ syntactic parser assigns different structures to of-preposition phrases of the two kinds. In (1’) we give the parse of the bracketed noun phrase in (1a) and in (2’) the parse of the bracketed noun phrase in (2a).

(1’)

noun_phrase
determiner
determinativethe
nominal
nounteam
post_noun_complement
preposition_phrase
prepositionof
preposition_complement
noun_phrase
determiner
noun_phrase (genitive)
nounour
nominal
internal_pre_modifier
adjectiveformer
nominal
nounpresident
The syntactic structure of the team of our former president: the of-preposition phrase is a complement of the head noun.

(2’)

noun_phrase
determiner
determinativethe
nominal
nominal
nounpianist
internal_post_modifier
preposition_phrase
prepositionof
preposition_complement
noun_phrase
determiner
determinativethe
nominal
internal_pre_modifier
adjectivehighest
nominal
nouncaliber
The syntactic structure of the pianist of the highest caliber: the of-preposition phrase is a modifier of the head noun.
Relational of-preposition phrases

We follow Payne and Huddleston (2002) in analyzing of-preposition phrases like those in (1) as complements of the head-noun and of-preposition phrases like those in (2) as modifiers. One of the reasons Payne and Huddleston give for analyzing of-preposition phrases of the first type as arguments is that they express semantic arguments of the head noun. This is clearest with deverbal nouns like renovation, which, like the verb renovate, expresses a relation (between the agent carrying out the renovation and the object undergoing it). In (1c), the noun renovation stands in the same semantic relation to the building, the noun phrase complement of of, as the verb renovated to the direct object the building in They renovated the building.

In (1b) the head of the bracketed noun phrase is the noun friends. This is a relational noun - in order for someone to be a friend, that someone needs to stand in a certain relation to at least one other someone. Partee (1983/1997) (see also Lyons 1986, Partee and Borschev 2002) calls the of-preposition phrase complements of relational nouns (friend, mother, brother, etc.) inherent R possessors, the ‘R’ standing for relation. Here the head noun friends combines with of Kim’s to designate those people who stand in the friendship relation to Kim.

In (1a), the head noun team does not seem to inherently designate any relation in which a team may stand to our former president (referred to by the noun phrase complement of the of-preposition phrase). But such a relation is usually supplied by the context: the former president may be the owner of the team, one of its players, one of its fans, etc. Partee (op. cit.) calls the of-preposition phrase complements of non-inherently relational nouns like team free R possessors, because the entity designated by their complement noun phrase may stand in various relations to the head noun.

Non-relational of-preposition phrases

In contrast to the of-preposition phrases in (1), those in (2) do not designate an entity standing in a certain relation to the entity designated by the head noun. In (2a), for example, of the highest caliber is simply predicated of pianist, giving the meaning that the pianist has attained the highest level of pianistic competence.

Restrictions on the use of of-preposition phrases as modifiers

The use of of-preposition phrases as modifiers in noun phrases is quite restricted. It seems that the noun phrase complement of of must be headed by either 1) a substance-denoting noun (wood, steel, etc.), or 2) an abstract noun (quality, importance, honor, caliber, disposition, etc.).

From the restrictions on the head of the noun phrase complement in of-preposition phrase modifiers follow some restrictions on the structure of the noun phrase complement. Abstract nouns are often resistant to the indefinite article. Like proper nouns, they can be determined by this and that, but do not accept the definite article, unless modified by an adjective (which, in the case of abstract nouns heading the noun phrase complement in of-preposition phrases, must be in the superlative) or relative clause. Abstract nouns can also be determined by a genitive noun-phrase. A few examples of noun phrases with of-preposition phrase modifiers are given in (4a-f).

(4)

  1. a researcher of the highest quality
  2. a leader of courage and wisdom
  3. many documents of great importance
  4. a house of this size
  5. some person of her status
  6. a door of steel

Partitives

There is a third class of of-preposition phrases, represented by the of-preposition phrases in (5).

(5)

  1. [A group of the students] will leave tomorrow.
  2. [Many of the participants] expressed their disappointment.

Bracketed noun phrases like those in (5) are called ‘partitives’ (see, for example, Hoeksema 1984 for a detailed discussion): the of-preposition phrases in the bracketed noun phrases designate a whole, and the bracketed noun phrases themselves designate a part of this whole.

We call the of-preposition phrases in (5) ‘partitive complements’ of the head noun. They differ from the of-preposition phrases in (1) in not having any semantic affinity with genitive noun phrases in determiner position: it is impossible to paraphrase many of the participants as the participants’ many, and even though the students’ group is a possible noun phrase in English, it doesn’t have the partitive meaning of a group of the students.

Note that the bracketed noun phrase in (5b) does not have a head noun. This is often the case with partitives, which may be headed by quantificational elements like many, few, most, etc. or by nouns like group, band, majority, minority, etc. We follow Payne and Huddleston (op. cit.) in analyzing many in (5b) as what they call a ‘fused determiner-head’, i.e. an element that serves in (5b) as both determiner and head2. Our parses of the bracketed noun phrases in (5) are given in (5’) and (5’’).

(5’)

noun_phrase
determiner
determinativea
nominal
noungroup
partitive_complement
preposition_phrase
prepositionof
preposition_complement
noun_phrase
determiner
determinativethe
nominal
nounstudents
A partitive construction with a head noun.

(5’’)

noun_phrase
modified_fused_determiner_head
fused_determiner_head
determinativemany
partitive_complement
preposition_phrase
prepositionof
preposition_complement
noun_phrase
determiner
determinativethe
nominal
nounparticipants
A partitive construction without a head noun.

Conclusion

Our parser, then, must distinguish between three different types of of-preposition phrases inside noun phrases. We saw that of-preposition phrases functioning as internal post-modifiers (for example, of the highest quality) are much more restricted than those that can function as post-noun complements (for example, of the building, of Kim’s); and that partitive noun phrases are also restricted in various ways. Therefore, when our parser comes across an of-preposition phrase inside a noun phrase, it checks whether it may function as one of the two more restricted types, and if the answer is in the negative, the of-preposition phrase is assigned the post-noun complement role. We keep looking for ways to refine our characterization of the two restricted types so that we do not miss any of their members and do not let any non-members in.


References

Hoeksema, Jack (1984) ‘Partitives’. Manuscript. University of Groningen.

Partee, Barbara (1983/1997) ‘Uniformity vs. versatility: the genitive, a case study’. Appendix to Theo Janssen (1997), ‘Compositionality’. In Johan van Benthem and Alice ter Meulen, eds., The Handbook of Logic and Language. Elsevier. Pp. 464-470.

Partee, Barbara and Vladimir Borschev (2002) ‘Possessives, relational nouns and the argument-modifier distinction’. Handout of a talk given at the Mathesius Institute, Prague, Match 18-22, 2002.

Payne, John and Rodney Huddleston (2002) ‘Nouns and noun phrases’. Chapter 5 in Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, eds., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 323-523.


  1. Note that while there is a clear semantic affinity between of-preposition phrases like those in (1) and genitive noun phrases in determiner position, of-preposition phrases whose complement noun phrase is in the genitive (for example: of Kim’s) cannot appear in the same positions as noun phrases whose determiner is a genitive noun phrase; for example: whereas that friend of Kim’s is a grammatical noun phrase, that Kim’s friend is not (see Lyons 1986 for more details and analysis).

  2. We follow Payne and Huddleston in assuming that many in (5b) functions both as the head of the noun phrase and as its determiner. We do not exactly follow the syntactic structure they assume, however (see Payne and Huddleston, section 9).

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