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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 3; Issue 4; July 2001

Against the grain

Seth Lindstromberg (Hilderstone College, Kent, UK)

In the last issue I took issue with one aspect of the Lexical Approach, which might also be called the Collocational Approach. I mentioned then that there was more to say on that score.

More about spatial prepositions

Useful terms

In the phrase, the cat on the mat, three constituents are of interest here-> the 'Located Object', or LO, (the cat); the preposition (on); and the 'Reference Object', or 'Landmark' (the mat). That is, the preposition tells us where the LO is in relation to the Landmark.

    These three terms can be used to refer either to the words or to things in, or aspects of, the real world to which the words refer, e.g., particular cats and particular mats.

By some counts there are more than 130 prepositions. A list this long includes words such as than and worth because they have the same syntactic behavior as prepositions like in. A list of spatial prepositions totals about 70…unless you include prepositions from dialects (e.g., Scottish outwith) and ones which are no longer in use (e.g., unto).

    Spatial prepositions can be categorized a number of ways. For instance, most are 'transitive' (which is to say they may have an object, e.g., the cat on the mat) while a few are 'intransitive' (which is to say they never have an explicit object; e.g., go away is fine whereas *go away me is not). This is a categorization according to syntactical patterning. In contrast, the distinction between 'depictable' prepositions (such as on) and 'undepictable' ones such as with, is a semantic categorization. That is, you can say a lot about the commonest spatial meaning of on through a very simple drawing, or icon, such as a blob sitting on a line. All you have to do is say that this is a side view of a ball on a rug. This done, your icon represents 'Landmark (rug) supporting LO (ball) from below', which is the prototypical, or 'best.example' arrangement which on is used to describe. But with is too vague to depict except through a series of icons linked by or's. For instance, a hammer that is with some other tools can be under them, on them, next to them, among them, between them, hanging above them, and so on. With is, in fact, our preposition for 'non-specific proximity'.

Variables in the semantics of spatial prepositions

Different prepositions of place tell us different things about physical arrangements. For instance, they tell us….

  • about the shape of the Landmark—e.g., along tells us that it is long or longish (go along this street); behind tells us that the Landmark is not flat.
  • about the number of Landmarks—e.g., between tells us there are two, among tells us there are more than two.
  • about the physical nature of the Landmark—e.g., among tells us the Landmarks are discrete and individual whereas amid tells us that the Landmark is amorphous, even foglike.
  • about the distance between Landmark and LO—e.g., beyond tells us that the Landmark and LO are not particularly near each other; near tells us that they are not far apart but also that they are not touching; against tells us that they are touching..
  • how many dimensions of the Landmark are relevant—e.g., at is for dimensionless representation, along is for one dimensional representation, in is for two or three dimensional representation.
  • about the function of the Landmark—e.g., on tends to represent the Landmark as a support
  • about which side(s) of the Landmark is/are relevant—e.g., behind tells us that the LO is near the far side.
  • about the 'perfection' of the arrangement—e.g., the pencil is underneath the book (as opposed to under the book) tells us that the pencil is probably not visible, not sticking out anywhere.
    And this is not all.
    As for prepositions of direction, or of 'path', they tell us…
  • about the endpoint of a path—e.g., to the shop
  • about the origin of a path—e.g., out (of) the shop
  • about an intermediate part of a path—e.g., by, past the shop
  • about the orientation of a path—e.g., toward(s) the shop
    about the shape of a path—e.g., (a)round the shop
  • about the side of the Landmark that is relevant—e.g., go under the bridge
  • whether there is an element of force—e.g., against says there is such an element.
    Further, prepositions can be commutative like with and near (if A is with B, B is with A) or not, like in. And there is more.

Why are spatial prepositions worth attention?
There are several reasons why learners need to know the meanings of English spatial prepositions. Here are three:

  1. As a class, these words occur very frequently in all types of discourse.
  2. Words that describe physical arrangements cannot be unimportant.
  3. Via systemic metaphor, prepositions are used to shape and express a few dozen 'notions', some of which are hugely important.
It is the last point (nr. 3) that I would like to turn to now.

Spatial prepositions and non-spatial notions

Here is a short list of non-spatial notions expressed by spatial prepositions--

    Accessory, Activity/Event, Addition, Agent, Allotment/Mapping, Basis/Prerequisite, Belonging/Appurtenance/Possession-at-the-moment, Cause, Circumstance, Constituent/Ingredient, Contact, Continuation, Ear-marking/allocation, Evidence/logical grounds, Focus of attention, Function, Image, Impact, Linkage of events in time, Manner, Means/Method/Instrument, Purpose/Reason, Recipient, State, Target, Topic, Valuation

Let's look at just one, 'circumstance'.

Spatial prepositions and the notion of 'circumstance'

There are several spatial prepositions which figure in common expressions of circumstance. Each yields its own nuance. Each nuance derives from the basic spatial meaning of the preposition in question. Let's look at five of them.

  • By accident/chance/coincidence -> We routinely speak of events and actions as if they involved motion (e.g., I am going to do it, The accident came about this way, Constable, What's going on?, etc.). By adds the idea, when speaking of circumstances of occurrence, that an event or action was not directly on a route. This idea, in turn, suggests 'lack of intention' (cf., by-product).
  • With all this noise, with his eyes wide open. -> With expresses 'non-specific proximity'; there is no further nuance. Thus with is exceedingly common in expressions of circumstance..
  • In trouble. We routinely use the same language to speak of circumstances that we use to speak of physical containment and physical surroundings. The nuance contributed by in is that a circumstance is all around the LO. English is far from unique in expressing 'circumstance' in terms of surrounding. For instance, circumstance comes from Latin, with circum being Latin for 'around' and stance deriving from the Latin for 'stand'.
  • On what condition will you do it? -> On characterizes a circumstance as a basis. There are zillions of examples of this usage—I did it on your advice / on the pretext of / on the assumption that…/ on a hunch… Also, a path is a kind of basis (on which one can move and continue to move), so we see such expressions of dynamic circumstance as: We are on the attack / on the warpath/ on course / on the defensive….
  • Under what conditions will it fail? Are we under attack? -> Under characterizes a circumstance as a burden, as is clear from the wrongness of on here: Will this material stand up under (*on) difficult conditions?


The gist of this article is that spatial prepositions are not only worth understanding because their physically grounded (or 'literal', or 'concrete') spatial meanings are important but also because these meanings are used to express and to nuance dozens of abstract notions, some of them absolutely central to thought. A collocational approach to teaching or learning prepositions will never reveal the difference in meaning between on what condition and under what condition. It is, quite simply, daffy to try to teach or learn English to a high level of proficiency with no serious attempt to develop a detailed understanding of what spatial prepositions mean. Learners can not become competent at using and understanding prepositions through the memorization of phrases.


Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1987. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press. [A very readable classic. Available in paperback.]
Lewis, Michael. 1993. The Lexical Approach. LTP. [This is a readable, account of the Lexical Approach by a true believer.]
Seth Lindstromberg. 1997. English Prepositions Explained. John Benjamins Publishing Company. [The only book length survey of the semantics of English prepositions that I know of. The bibliography will point you to sources of some of the ideas presented here.]
Seth Lindstromberg. 2001. 'Preposition entries in U.K. monolingual learners' dictionaries: problems and possible solutions'. Applied Linguistics, 22/1:79-103. Oxford U. Press. [This is mainly about on and about how five U.K. published advanced learners' dictionaries fail to present its meaning particularly well. The bibliography is fairly up-to-date.]

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