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This is from the BBC Mr. Stanton

Mr Stanton was a father to a four-year-old daughter and a sports fan.

As I read, "to be a father to someone" drew my attention. I wondered why "...father of...." instead of "...father to..."?

I made some research about differences in meaning between the two, and I learned from some language forums that "father of" might indicate "biological father" while "father to" might indicate "being like a father".

I am not sure whether the difference is so distinct among native speakers.

If yes, why does the "BBC" use "father to"?

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  • I learned that "father of" indicates "biological father" while "father to" means "being like a father" - where did you find this? As a native speaker, this doesn't seem like a distinction I would make.
    – stangdon
    Jul 6, 2023 at 20:24
  • @stangdon, It is mostly forums: For example: english.stackexchange.com/questions/230011/… And here is another one: quora.com/…
    – Yunus
    Jul 6, 2023 at 20:34
  • @stangdon When referring someone who is not a father, but is like a father, only "of" is used: "He's like a father to her"; incorrect: "He's like a father of hers."
    – gotube
    Jul 6, 2023 at 21:13
  • @gotube It looks like you meant to write, 'only "to" is used' for someone who is like a father. Jul 6, 2023 at 23:33
  • @gotube Thanks for explaining. I think the difference you see in those forum posts has more to do with the difference between "He is X of Y" and "He is X to me" in general than with anything to do specifically with being a father. For example, "He is a friend to her" is more natural than "of her", but neither has anything to do with biology.
    – stangdon
    Jul 6, 2023 at 23:53

1 Answer 1

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The preposition to is and always was perfectly valid in such contexts, and it's starting to be used more often lately. But mostly we still prefer of...

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OP's idea that the choice of preposition reflects actual biological parenthood as opposed to [adopting a child and] acting in the role of a parent is completely spurious. Except it's more idiomatic to say John is the father of Jane than John is father to Jane for true parenthood, and it's always John is like a father to Jack for figurative / adoption contexts. It's the idiomatically established construction that dictates the preposition.

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  • I could say that someone was like a father to me, but not that he was like a father of me (or of mine). Jul 6, 2023 at 20:43
  • Syntactically, there's no reason why you couldn't use of after like a father. It's just a matter of what's become idiomatically established. I think we tend to use X to Y when X is the more "important" component, but I wouldn't like to put money on it either way. Jul 6, 2023 at 20:58
  • They say it's a wise man who knows who his father is. 'He was like a father of mine' sounds distinctly odd from a biological point of view (how many fathers does a fellow need?). Nobody says 'that's a coat of me', or am I being obtuse? Jul 6, 2023 at 21:52
  • @MichaelHarvey, Nobody says 'that's a coat of me'. Yes, that is right but interestingly, everybody says "a picture of me" instead of "my picture".
    – Yunus
    Jul 6, 2023 at 21:58
  • I say 'my picture' about an image in which I appear, or 'his photo/picture/portrait' about one somebody else appears in. The cat doesn't look anything like its picture is something I might very well say. Probably to do with being born in 1837, I daresay. Jul 6, 2023 at 22:01

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