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“What is it about these people who are drawn to the top of the pyramid?” Mr Kinnear asked of the Macbeths in a break between rehearsals.

The sentence is from an article. What does "asked of the Macbeths" mean in the passage? Does it mean that Kinnear actually referred to the Macbeths when he was talking about "these people"?

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My short answer is yes.  My long answer takes an extended detour.

 

Do me a favor. 
Ask me a question. 
Tell me a story. 

These are ditransitive clauses.  The verbs have two arguments, an indirect object and a direct object.  In these examples, the indirect object of each clause is the personal pronoun "me". 

Do a favor for me. 
Ask a question of me. 
Tell a story to me. 

These are monotransitive clauses.  The verbs have one argument, a direct object.  Instead of an indirect object, these examples have prepositional modifiers -- the phrases "for me", "of me" and "to me". 

“What is it about these people who are drawn to the top of the pyramid?” Mr Kinnear asked of the Macbeths in a break between rehearsals. 

At first glance, this seems to follow the monotransitive pattern.  The quoted question is the direct object of the main clause.  The phrase "of the Macbeths" could serve the same semantic role as an indirect object, indicating the recipient of the question and the source of the answer. 

 

But, that doesn't make sense.  Lord and Lady Macbeth are dramatic characters.  Unless the question is a line from their play (it isn't), it's not literally possible to ask them anything.  Neither is he asking the actors playing those characters, given that he himself is one in this production. 

 

You're right.  The phrase "of the Macbeths" represents the topic or nature of the question, not the question's recipient.  The category "these people who are drawn to the top of the pyramid" includes the Lord and Lady of the play, as well as similar but nonfictional people. 

 

We see the same sense of the preposition "of" in phrases like:

a question of style
a question of semantics
a question of national security

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No, he is asking the Macbeths if they know the answer to his question. "These people" are the people who are drawn to the top.

  • Do you mean the phrase "these people" is referring to the people drawn to the top, separate from the Macbeths? I'd definitely add quotation marks to clarify that. I think you're correct. – the-baby-is-you Sep 7 '18 at 3:47
  • @the-baby-is-you you're right, I've added quotation marks. – anouk Sep 7 '18 at 17:14

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