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Language in time and space: the semantics of English prepositions

Angela Sharpe
Colorado State University



This paper is an exploration of the semantics of English prepositions with the underlying
purpose of drawing implications for teaching prepositions to English language learners. English
prepositions are a relatively closed class of words or one that does not readily accept new
members. Semantically, the most central members of the preposition class express spatial
relations. In this paper, I will explore some of the research on the semantics of prepositions;
specifically, I will examine research focused on 1.) the roles, meanings, and spatial relationships
of some prepositions, 2.) the idea of image schemas as an approach to understanding the spatial
relations carried in the semantics of prepositions, and 3.) I will consider a few of the approaches
used to describe prepositional meaning in terms of a polysemic network.
Some meanings of prepositions
Most of the frequently used prepositions in English and in many other languages have
meanings that are locational in origin. In other words, prepositions express a relationship
between two parts of sentence, most often in terms of how the two parts are related in space or
time (Grubic 2004, p. 6). Huddleston and Pullum (2002, p. 647), outline how in forming spatial
relationships, usually one entity is thought of as a reference point or area with respect to where
another item or entity is located. They, and many linguists, refer to this reference point as a
landmark and the item or entity whose location or movement is specified as the trajector. For
example, in the book is on the table, the book is the trajector and the table is the landmark. In
She fainted in the shower, the trajector is the event of her fainting and the shower is the
landmark. Trajectors, therefore, can be physical objects, abstract objects, or situtations, such as
events and states. Landmarks can be physical objects or places in space. However there is a
robust amount of examples in which the locative domain is the source for meaning extension into
non-locative domains through linguistic relational devices such as meronymy and metaphor.
Huddleston and Pullum (2002, p. 651-652) use the preposition out to describe the many extended
(metaphorical) meanings that are a matter of perspective. Two contrasting examples are:
(a.)The sun is out.
(b.)The light is out.
In example (a.) the meaning is that the sun is visible, however in example (b.) the meaning is the
light is invisible. The difference lies in where the observer is located in respect to the observed
event. In (a.) the observer is located in an outer area so that the sun (also located in the outer
area) is within the observers field of vision. In example (b.) the perceiver of light is located in
the inner area so that out in this case indicates that the trajectory (the light given off by a light
source) is not visible in the inner area or is hidden from the observers vision. The spatial
domains of the prepositions up/down are also often extended metaphorically to describe
geographic locations. If we speak of something being north from where we are located we use
up while something south is down (e.g. My parents live up north, We are going down to Denver


this weekend). These examples also demonstrate the close relationship and influence that
language usage can have on, for example, the convention of mapmaking.
In utterances that express a physical change of location, there is an initial location and an
end location, these locations are referred to as source and goal. For example:
Stella ran from the couch to the door.
In this example, the preposition from marks the source and the preposition to marks the goal.
The semantics of the verb combine with the semantics of the preposition to denote a path. In
chart (1) Huddleston and Pullum (2002, p. 648) outline the prepositions which are used to
express location, goal, and source meanings:



Another source preposition is away which occurs either with a from complement or on its own.
This preposition, much like off and out, can also be used for static location meaning. In this
meaning it contrasts with the preposition at. For example, compare He is at his desk/ He is away
from his desk. As a source, away sometimes alternates with from as in the examples: He moved
away from the window/ He moved from the window (Huddleston & Pullum 2002, p. 648). The
prepositions away, from, off, and out are the only source prepositions in English (Huddleston &
Pullum 2002, p. 648). In their static uses, off and out are the semantic negative counterparts of
on and in. Tyler and Evans (2001, p. 108) refer to these clusters of prepositions that divide up
spatial dimensions (whether in their static or dynamic meaning) as compositional sets. Above,
over, under, and below form a compositional set which divides the spatial vertical dimension into
four related subdivisions. Tyler and Evans (2003, p. 122) illustrate these divisions below:
Other compositional sets include in and out, on and off, and up and down. The meaning of each
is related to and depends upon the construal being prompted by context. In other words, what we
call up is determined in that context by what we call down. Therefore, the construed meaning of
a preposition which participates in a compositional set is determined by its contrast with other
members of the set.


Along this same line, prepositions also demonstrate flexibility in their meaning, what
Huddleston and Pullum (2002, p. 649) label plasticity of meaning. To illustrate this they use
the preposition in which prototypically means a trajector is an object which is contained by a
clearly bounded landmark. However, there are many cases where the notion of contained applies
more loosely. A comparison between the following examples demonstrates this:
(a.)the man in the car
(b.)the man in the bath
In example (b.) the trajectory is only partially contained within the boundary of the landmark.
Similar points can be made about the flexibility of the preposition on. The prototypical
meaning for on is one in which the trajector and the landmark are in physical contact with one
another. The landmark is usually below the trajector supporting it, however there are instances
where this scenario is not exactly the case. Huddleston and Pullum (2002, p. 650) give the
following two examples to illustrate this:
(a.)the pen on the desk
(b.)the wrinkles on his face
In example (a.) the physical contact and support are in a vertical relation instead horizontal
which is more commonly associated with the notion of support. In example (b.), any sense of
separateness between the landmark (face) and the trajectory (wrinkles) is more imaginary than
Image schemas and prepositions
I now turn to discuss research into how we as humans may conceptualize the spatial and
extended meanings of prepositions. Much of the research on prepositional semantics comes
from the field of cognitive linguistics. Cognitive linguists hold that semantic structure comes
from and mirrors conceptual structure. How we experience the world and what we experience
according to the world around us determines the conceptual structure we have for form-meaning
associations. However, it is vital to keep in mind, especially when discussing form-meaning
associations, that the linguistic form(s) we use in language greatly underdetermine and
underspecify meaning. The fact that prepositions do not morphologically change their linguistic
forms from one utterance to another utterance, but do change their meaning, illustrates this and
also points to one reason why learners often have problems with prepositions (Grubic 2004, p.
Tyler and Evans (2003, p. ix) refer to English prepositions as an important subset of
English spatial particles which represent evidence of the complex interaction between a language
users conceptual system and language use. One way to think of prepositions, in terms of a
language users conceptual system, is by describing the notion of a spatial scene. Lakoff and
Johnson (1980) describe a spatial scene as a stored concept of spatial interactions derived from


repeated real world spatial experiences (as cited in Boroditsky 2000, p. 2). The particular spatial
interactions that we experience are very meaningful and affect our word choice, specifically our
choice of prepositions. For this reason, from a semantic point of view, English prepositions are
an excellent resource for investigating the ways in which our spatial experiences ground many
other types of non-spatial and non-physical concepts, such as time, and ways in which we extend
these meanings.
Dodge and Lakoff (2005, p. 60) describe the primitive schemata we store of spatial
experiences as image schema. Their conception of image schemas comes from earlier empirical
research on spatial relations done by Talmy (1972,1975, 1978,1983) and Ron Langacker
(1976,1987), who independently found that even in closely related languages the meanings
associated with spatial relation terms vary widely (as cited in Dodge & Lakoff, 2005, p. 57).
However despite the variations, they found that spatial relation terms seemed to be made up of
universal primitive schema, e.g. paths, bounded regions, contact, forces, and metaphorical or
extended meaning versions of these. In this way, image schemas play a vital role in linking
language to experience. Lakoff (1987, p. 42) describes a very basic image schema for a motion
experience as a SOURCE-PATH-GOAL image schema. This image schema has very few parts
but applies over a wide range of motion experiences (Dodge & Lakoff, 2005, p. 60). For
example, Dodge and Lakoff (2005, p.61) exemplify the following:
(a.) He walked to the kitchen.
(b.) He walked into the kitchen.
Both of these examples describe a movers motion (changing location) with respect to the same
landmark (e.g. the kitchen). Although both of these sentences mean something different, they
both have the same image schema structure of SOURCE-PATH-GOAL. Example (b.) evokes a
second but connected image schema, that of a contained area which has boundaries (walls), a
door to enter within the boundaries, an interior, and an exterior. The preposition into in sentence
(b.) indicates that the GOAL location is inside the kitchen whereas the preposition in in sentence
(a.) indicates that the GOAL or end of the motion is near the kitchen but not necessarily inside
the kitchen because the mover could be in the doorway of the kitchen or right outside of the
kitchen. Dodge and Lakoff (2005, p. 62) refer to a second image schema evoked in sentence (b.)
as the CONTAINER schema. However, it seems that both image schemas would in some respect
have to evoke the notion of the kitchen being a container in order to give the prepositions spatial
relation meaning in terms of a landmark. Research by Mandler (1992) into first language
acquisition shows that prior to language learning infants go through a stage where they
repeatedly put things in and take them out of different objects, including their mouths, suggesting
that we have an understanding of the CONTAINER image schema from a very early age and
more importantly pre-language (as cited in Dodge & Lakoff 2005, p. 60).


Similar to the above examples, Dodge and Lakoff, (2005, p. 62) offer the following
example which contains the same image schema as example (b.) above but as an inverse:
(a.)Harry sauntered out of the room.
The preposition out of has the same image schema as example (b.) above but, in this case, the
exterior or outside the room (CONTAINER) is the GOAL location. Semantically this seems very
obvious, but it is important to understand that image schema can appear in reverse order with a
minimal shift in linguist form. This maintains the ideas that prepositional meaning, in terms of
motion experience and spatial relations, is made up of very few image schemas which can be
reversed and combined and the form greatly underdetermines meaning.
Approaches to understanding Prepositional polysemy networks
Tyler and Evans (2003, p. 94) define semantic polysemy as a phenomenon in which a
single linguistic form is associated with a number of related but distinct meanings. Polysemy is
an important concept in linguistics in that it demonstrates a way of understanding the
organization of the metal lexicon. With respect to polysemy, image schemas play a large role in
connecting language to experience in that they can help to define and categorize experiences that
are captured by the same word in many contexts. Polysemy then further illustrates how linguistic
form greatly underdetermines and underspecifies meaning. Agreement among linguistics on the
structure of polysemic networks for prepositions stems from lack of definitive criteria to
differentiate and categorize the meanings associated with one prepositional form. There are also
many variations on the image schema idea which will be shown in the following paragraphs.
However, many of the theories and approaches utilized to explain the polysemic networks of
prepositions have at their core a notion very similar, if not identical, to image schema.
In the full-specification approach, Lakoff (1987) characterizes the polysemy of the
preposition over using a fine grained analysis. He uses the following examples to show that each
sense is represented by a distinct image-schema:
(a) The helicopter hovered over the ocean.
(b) The hummingbird hovered over the flower.
(as cited in Tyler & Evan 2001, p. 98)
In these examples Lakoff (1987) attempts to show that since the objects in the prepositional
phrases are so topographically different (i.e. measurable spatial difference in and between the
trajector and landmark), over must then have two distinct senses to account for this variation in
image-schema (as cited in Tyler & Evans 2001, p. 98). Therefore, over, in this approach, would
have many distinct but related senses in order to account for the various image-schema
associated with the preposition. Tyler and Evans (2001, p. 100) argue that Lakoffs model
vastly inflates the number of proposed distinct meanings associated with a preposition such as


over. A consequence of this is real-world knowledge (i.e. encyclopedic knowledge) as well as

context, both which are used in the conceptual process of inferencing and meaning construction,
are undervalued or even neglected. Therefore, Lakoffs (1987) full-specification seems to
represent a very unconstrained approach to characterizing the polysemic network for
prepositions by attempting to show that each new image-schema triggers a distinct sense for a
preposition. The storage capability of the human mind is finite, while the possibility of different
meanings in terms of the spatial relations of trajectors and landmarks is almost infinite, therefore,
this approach would seem to require a lot of hard-drive space in the human mind.
Kreitzers (1997) partial-specification approach, on the other hand, offers some
refinement to Lakoffs (1987) approach because he is able to constrain the number of senses
within a polysemous network. In this model there are distinct levels of schematization inherent in
a conceptualization: the component level, the relational level, and the integrative level. The
component level consists of conceptual primitives such as trajectory, landmark, PATH, contact
between or lack of contact between the trajectory and the landmark, and the vertical/horizontal
orientation and extension of the landmark. These primitives combine to form the relational level.
The relational level schema becomes the basic level which represents the sense of the preposition
(Pawelec, 2010 p. 89). This differs from Lakoffs model where each additional topographical
component equated to a different sense, while in Kreitzers approach, the components combine at
the relational level to form an image schema. Image schema transformations in Kreitzers
approach seem to widen the applicability of a few senses. However, the limitations put on
distinct senses, in this approach could lead to senses for the same word so distinct that they seem
unrelated. Kreitzer (1997) gives the following examples to illustrate the three senses he posits
for the preposition over:
(a.)The picture is over the sofa. (static sense)
(b.)Sam walked over the hill. (dynamic sense)
(c.) The clouds are over the sun. (occluding sense)
(as cited in Taylor & Evans, 2001, p. 101)
Although this model is successful in constraining the number of senses for over it seems to also
constrain the notion of a polysemic network as it is difficult to see how the above senses are
linked or polysemic except that they describe a spatial relation. This approach also does not
discuss how sentential context or encyclopedic knowledge contribute to the semantics of the
over. Hence, this approach implies that much of our understanding of the semantics of
prepositions in context comes from inferencing.
Tyler and Evans (2001) propose a semantic network for over which includes 14 distinct
senses related around a protoscene. They define a protoscene as the abstract primary meaning
component in which all other distinct senses are accounted for through their relationship or
interaction with the protoscene. The criteria or felicity conditions for which their principled
polysemy framework uses to determine a distinct sense are 1.) a sense must involve a meaning


that is not purely spatial in nature and/or in which the spatial configuration between the trajector
and the landmark is changed by the other senses associated with a particular preposition, and 2.)
there must be instances in which the distinct senses are context independent (Tyler & Evans
2001, p. 105). From these criteria they derive a principled network of 14 senses radiating from a
protoscene sense. However, upon inspection of their distinct meanings, it becomes clear that
some of the senses described, such as completion as in the example The cats jump is over., are
not functioning as prepositions, instead it seems that the authors are using a spatial relational
meaning as a criteria for classifying over as a preposition. Another example is: Mary looked
over the manuscript carefully which is part of the examining sense, but it seems that over is
part of a phrasal verb and not a preposition. One more example where the preposition over is not
functioning as a preposition is in Jerome found over 40 kinds of shells on the beach. In this
example, over is functioning as a quantifier but, from a spatial and semantic perspective, it
relates the quantity of shells found to higher than or over 40. This example demonstrates how a
preposition denotes a spatial relation between quantities.
Tyler and Evans (2001) find fault with most other theories on the semantics of
prepositions as most fail to recognize the importance of sentential context and encyclopedic
knowledge, both of which form the bases for making inferences. However, although, this
approach to a polysemic network for prepositions utilizes image schemas and protoscenes as
abstractions from what they actually represent in order to give meaning, the approach depends so
heavily on context and encyclopedic knowledge that it almost crosses into pragmatics instead of
literal meaning.
Likewise, Goddard (2002) observes four distinct senses for physical contact using the
preposition on. Using the semantic primes proposed by Natural Semantic Metalanguage
framework as criteria, Goddard (2002, p. 281) posits the following explications to devise a
polysemic network for on (see also Wierzbecka 1996, Goddard and Wierzbicka 1994, 2002).
The following explications use NSM semantic primes to define on in every distribution of the
Explication [A]: X is on Y; e.g. The book is on the table
a. X is touching Y somewhere for some time
b. Because of this, X can be in the same place for some time
Explication [B]: X is on Y; e.g. The keys are on the hook.
a. Part of X is touching part of Y in some way for some time
b. Because of this, X is like part of the same thing as Y for this time
c. Because of this, X can be in the same place for some time.
Explication [C]: X is on Y; e.g. The handle is on the door.
a. Part of X is touching part of Y in some way for some time


b. Because of this, X can part of Y for this time

Explication [D]: X is on Y; e.g. The shadow is on the wall.
a. When someone sees Y, this person can see X at the same time
b. A person could see something like this, if X was something touching Y
The explications above focus only on physical contact between one entity and another. Although
this network seems to leave no room for metaphorical extenstion, and, in my opinion somewhat
denies any common meaning among the uses of the preposition on, this definitional approach
illustrates another version of a polysemic network. However, as Sandra and Rice (1995, p. 98)
state: although there is general agreement that spatial prepositions involve a network of
interrelated senses, there is no consensus on specific details or criterion for establishing these
Conceptual semantics treats the semantics of words as the equivalent of the concept that
the word is associated with (Murphy, 2010, p. 66). Although strict conceptual semanticists often
adhere to a componential model of word meaning, where the meaning of the whole is from the
meaning of its parts, these meanings are embodied in concepts and mental representations which
come from our experiences in the world. The semantics of prepositions allow us to convey the
concepts of spatial relation between entities. The semantics of prepositions can be viewed in
terms of a polysemic network where the various meanings for a preposition seem to be variations
of a core theme. The implication for teaching prepositions to learners lies in the underlying
notion of spatial relationship between a trajector and a landmark. As a future teacher, I think
discussing spatial relations may provide a better basis for introducing the meanings of
prepositions. From this students may be able to better understand a given preposition within a
sentence as dependent on the spatial relation between a trajector and a landmark instead of a
word whose multiple meanings can seem disparate.
Implications for teaching ELLs
As a second language teacher, it is also important to understand some of the error
tendencies that learners have with prepositions. Grubic (2004, p. 22) shows three types of
problems that non-native speakers tend to have with prepositions:

1. Using the wrong preposition, e.g.:

*My grandfather picked the name on me. (for)
2. Omitting a required preposition, e.g.:
*I served the Army until 1964. (in)



3. Using an extra and unnecessary preposition, e.g.:

*I studied in Biology for three years.
An analysis of these errors, from a semantic point of view, could possibly be alleviated
somewhat if learners were taught to think about prepositional meaning in terms of spatial
relationships and temporal relationships between one entity and another in the context of the
utterance. A learners control of prepositions is a good indicator of fluency, so taking the time to
teach learners these forms through their meanings can help them greatly improve their fluency.

Boroditsky, L. (2000). Metaphoric structuring: Understanding time through spatial metaphors.
Cognition, 75(1), 1-28.



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