Subjects formed with multiple nouns connected by of can mean consisting of, or taken from, for example ‘piece of cake’, but can also mean belonging to, or with the purpose of, such as ‘father of the bride’. ‘Bird of prey’ can be confusing, though, because it seems to have the opposite meaning – bird of prey may sound like it belongs to prey, but actually it is a predator. So how do these different examples work?
Forming noun phrases with ‘of’
Start by noticing the difference between a ‘piece of cake’ and a ‘bird of prey’ is that in the first instance, when the object is a part of something else, the main object comes after of. In the second example, when the object has a purpose or belongs to the second noun, the main object comes before of.
Consider the examples:
- piece of cake – describes cake, as a portion
- type of car – describes a car, as a category
- bird of prey – describes a bird, whose purpose is prey
- father of the bride – describes the father, who belongs to the bride
- president of the country – describes the president, who belongs to the country
While the last two examples demonstrate belonging, then, it can seem odd that the bird of prey does not belong to the prey. This is because it shows a purpose, rather than belonging. In this way of can sometimes show what something is for, or, alternative, what something possesses. Another example would be ‘man/woman of many talents’ – possessing or using talents, rather than belonging to them.
‘Man of war’ is another archaic example – now typically used to describe a type of ship, it would also mean in its original sense a man whose purpose was war.
I hope this goes some way to clear up why we have this seemingly contradictory construction in certain noun phrases. Let me know if you have any questions!