I am wondering whether or not there is any difference between these. Would you possibly explain your invaluable explanation in a more detailed way?

that idiot of a doctor

a real palace of a house

a fine figure of a woman


that doctor of idiot

a house of a real palace

a woman of a fine figure

Any help would be appreciated

3 Answers 3


Think of it as

"An example of something."

But the 'something' is actually a generalisation, using one 'something' (doctor, palace, woman) to describe all doctors, palaces, women.

So it becomes

"An example of a something."

One particular subject, referenced against the 'ideal subject' (acme) or even just 'most common variety of subject' (epitome).

"An idiot of a doctor"

compared to all the doctors I've ever known or even just seen on TV, he's not as clever.

"A palace of a house"

compared to all the houses I've ever seen, this one is very impressive.

"A fine figure of a woman"

compared to all the women I've seen… [1]

Once you start to interpret them this way, you'll see your second collection of examples no longer make sense.

[1]This particular expression does not actually refer directly to her physical characteristics, i.e. her figure, as in her measurements, but to her stature in the community, her bearing, the way she carries herself. It contains hints of a slight pun because it can be interpreted both ways, but is so common an idiom that I would imagine most native speakers got the joke many years ago & don't even 'hear' it in the sentence any more.


As Tetsujin and ultrasawblade have aptly mentioned, this wording is used to describe the quality of something – usually something extremely good or bad:

that idiot of a doctor (a terrible doctor who is an idiot)

a real palace of a house (a house so big and splendid that it's almost like a palace)

a fine figure of a woman (a distinctive woman with exemplary qualities)

As for how to "reverse" these, that's tricky. Read on.

I'll start with "a real palace of a house" – that simply means the house is like a palace:

Indira lives in a real palace of a house.


Indira lives in a very palatial house.

Or, you could say the same thing with a little hyperbolical metaphor:

Indira lives in a house as nice as a palace!

However, I believe part of your question is asking: if we can say "palace of a house" to indicate a big, fancy house, then why can't we say "a house of a palace" to indicate a small, humble palace? (I hope that's what you're asking, because that's a great question!)

No, I don't think we'd say "a house of a palace," because "house" is too neutral a word. To use this construct effectively, the first word needs to have a strong negative or positive connotation (like "idiot" or "palace"). So, you couldn't say:

It was a real house of a palace.

Although you could say:

It was a real dump of a palace.

or maybe even:

It was a real hovel of a palace.

if you wanted to emphasize how unimpressive the palace was.

Now, on to the idiot doctor. You could rephrase this simply by removing the "of a":

That idiot of a doctor prescribed the wrong medicine!
That idiot doctor prescribed the wrong medicine!

Some might say that idiot is a noun, so the revised sentence should read, "That idiotic doctor prescribed the wrong medicine!" – and they'd be right. However, for some reason, the word idiot does get used colloquially as an adjective; for example:

Morgan wouldn't do that. He's not like that idiot doctor that you had back in the city.1

I think some idiot doctor told you you were in very poor health. I think some idiot doctor dwelled a bit too much on that and not enough on the future.2

As a matter of fact, Ngrams shows more hits for "idiot doctor" than it does for "idiotic doctor".

But what about:

That doctor of an idiot

Can we say that?

Well, the word doctor can be used to mean "expert." While "doctor of idiot" doesn't sound quite right, I suppose that, if you wanted to describe someone in a disparaging way, you could say:

Our boss is a doctor of idiocy!

meaning he does stupid things all the time, not just once in a while.


He was a fine figure of a man.

(I've switched the gender on this one, because I want to make sure we don't get confused about the word figure.) NOAD says that figure can mean:

a person's bodily shape, esp. that of a woman and when considered to be attractive : she had always been so proud of her figure


a person of a particular kind, esp. one who is important or distinctive in some way

So, I want to make sure we're talking about a fine figure of a woman (such as Margeret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, or Marie Curie), and not a fine figure on a woman (which might be used when describing, say, Kim Kardashian or Gisele Bündchen).

This one can't be reversed quite like the other two. I can say:

The mayor is a fine figure of a man.


The mayor is a man of good stature.

These are both idiomatic ways of praising someone, but they don't work when reversed:

The mayor is a good stature of a man.
The mayor is a man of fine figure.

1Cheryl Wolverton, What The Doctor Ordered, 2012
2Celeste Bradley, When She Said I Do, ‎2013


When you say "X of Y" in these manners, you are saying X is a particular rank or quality of Y - there's a bit of an evaluative or comparative subtext to it - as though you have looked over or sized up X and this is your opinion on how good X is.

Thus, X needs to be something that can describe a quality of Y, and if you switch them, it won't make sense in a lot of cases.

that doctor of an idiot

Doesn't really make sense.

a house of a real palace

The "real" in "real palace" makes "real palace" a modifier, so it sounds weird.

a real house of a palace

would work, but I don't hear someone use the word "house" to describe the rank or quality of palaces too often, so it still sounds a bit weird

a woman of a fine figure

This sounds like you are trying to say "a woman of fine figure" which is saying she has a fine figure, but there's no "comparative" meaning behind it anymore.

  • First thanks. And, having taken into account above explanations, what about the followings? Or do we observe or distinguish for these? The standard version of a program VS. a program of this standard version.
    – nima
    Nov 29, 2014 at 14:46
  • ell.stackexchange.com/questions/40748/…
    – nima
    Nov 29, 2014 at 18:07
  • "Program" can only be a quality of "standard version" if you are talking about a suite of related programs that were released together under a single version. This may hold true for a suite of software like Microsoft Office - "a Microsoft Office program of the 2007 version" but will still sound awkward in my opinion.
    – LawrenceC
    Nov 29, 2014 at 19:06
  • I am reviewing all these explanations. I will come back soon
    – nima
    Nov 30, 2014 at 19:01

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