LINGUIST List 10.702

Sat May 8 1999

Sum: Prepositions/Functional Uses

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Andrew McIntyre, Prepositions/functional uses

Message 1: Prepositions/functional uses

Date: Fri, 7 May 1999 11:39:05 +0000
From: Andrew McIntyre <>
Subject: Prepositions/functional uses

Dear linguists,
this summarises answers to my questions (10.301.2)
on 'functional' uses of prepositions.
Some uses of some prepositions are specialised to 
configurations where the located object (LO) and 
reference object (RO) interact in a manner 
typical for the entities in question. Often this 
involves the use of the RO in its standard 
function. E.g., 'Bob is on the train' cannot be 
used in a situation where Bob is inside an old 
train on display in a museum, since uses like 'on 
the bus/train/boat' presuppose that the RO be 
able to function as a means of transport. (In my 
(Australian) variety, I cannot say 'the workers 
got on the bus to fix the windows', but, as some 
replies pointed out, my English acceptability 
judgements in the earlier posting were too harsh 
and unrepresentative, for which I apologise 
profusely. Nevertheless, I want to explain such 
interpretations when they do occur. I am not
saying that such constraints occur in every use 
of the prepositions with which they are 
A second example is that 'over' in (1) 
forces the coindexation of 'his' with 'prisoner' 
while (2) is either neutral in this respect or 
(in my variety) implies a situation where the 
soldier is holding the sword above his own head. 
Here 'over', unlike 'above', implies that the 
sword interacts with its RO in some way (i.e. the 
prisoner's head is a potential target for the 
sword, while the soldier's head isn't). 

(1)The soldier intimidated the prisoner by waving
a sword over his head. 
(2) The soldier intimidated the prisoner by 
waving a sword above his head.

Some respondants suggested that functional 
interpretations are 'just' pragmatic or 
contextual. Yes, they could well be 
conversational implicatures. They should not be 
stipulated in the meaning of the preposition 
(excepting some idiosyncratic cases and 
diachronic relics, arguably including 'on the 
bus', and German 'auf der Post' ('at', lit. 'on' 
the postoffice). But we must work out how the 
semantics of the spatial uses of some 
prepositions licenses functional uses when 
apparently similar preps don't get functional 
readings. One finds functional uses e.g. with 
'over, at, in' but not 'above, near, inside': If 
the (admittedly cancellable) interpretation that 
being 'at a desk' implies being in a position to 
use it in its function as a support surface, why 
does being 'near a desk' not do so? This is why I 
am searching for independently motivated aspects 
of the spatial meanings of preps. which predict 
the (non)occurence of functional readings. This 
aim has not been aspired to systematically in the 
literature I have seen. It is not easy to fulfill 
this aim in a non-circular manner. 
I would add that the specialisations in 
functional preps. are clearly related to other 
specialisations such as those in some classes of 
Germanic particle verbs (cf. 'put a record on' 
implies putting it on the surface where it can 
perform its function). Trying to assess this is 
what got me into this functional preposition 
business in the first place. I cannot go into 
satisfactory detail here. Please email me if you 
are interested in more data. Now for the specific 

(A) Literature on 'functional uses'. The closest 
thing to an article-length treatment I have seen 
is Hottenroth (1981), which deals with Italian 
'a'. Vandeloise's (1986) functional view of 
relationships which other writers see as purely 
spatial is also very relevant. Otherwise, the 
studies below mention the subject in a cursory 
manner. There are doubtless many other studies 
which do so. As I haven't seen all the following 
refs., I cannot vouch for their relevance. But 
most of them are probably worth reading because 
of their info. on spatial semantics in general. 
Incidentally, I particularly recommend Becker 
1994 for its empirically and theoretically 
valuable analyses on spatial expressions in 
Turkish, French, German, English. 
-BECKER, A., Caroll. M. & Kelly, A., (eds.) 1988. 
Reference to Space. Strasbourg/ Heidelberg
-BECKER A., 1994. Lokalisierungsausdr\252cke im 
Sprachvergleich. T\252bingen: Niemeyer. 
-BOWERMAN M.: The origins of children\180s spacial 
sematic categories. In: Gumperz / Levinson: 
Rethinking linguistic relativity. CUP 1996. 
-CIENKI A., 1989. Spatial Cognition and the 
Semantics of Prepositions in English, Polish and 
Russian. Munich: Otto Sagner. 
-Coventry, K. R. & Mather, G. (in press). The real 
story of 'over'. In P. Olivier (Ed.), Spatial 
Language: Cognitive and Computational Aspects. 
-Coventry, K. R. (1998). Spatial prepositions, 
functional relations and lexical specification. 
In P. Olivier and K. Gapp (Eds.), The 
Representation and Processing of Spatial 
Expressions, pp247-262. Lawrence Erlbaum. 
-Coventry, K. R. & Prat-Sala, M. (1998). Geometry, 
function and the comprehension of over, under, 
above and below. Proceedings of Cognitive Science 
Society. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ. 
-Coventry, K. R., Carmichael, R. and Garrod, S. C. 
(1994). Spatial prepositions, object-specific 
function and task requirements. Journal of 
Semantics, 11, 289-309. 
-Cuyckens, H. 1984. At - a typically English 
preposition. Papers and Studies in Contrastive 
Linguistics 19, 49-64. 
-Cuyckens, H. 1994. Family resemblance in the 
Dutch spatial preposition op. In: M. Schwarz 
(ed.) Kognitive Semantik. T\252bingen: Narr. 179-96. 
-Grabowski, J., 1999. Raumrelationen. Opladen: 
Wesdeutscher Verlag. 
-Herweg, M., 1989. Ans\228tze zu einer semantischen 
Beschreibung topologischer Pr\228positionen. In: C. 
Habel, M. Herweg & K. Rehkaempfer (eds.): 
Raumkonzepte in Verstehensprozessen. T\252bingen: 
Niemeyer. 99-127. 
-Herskovits, Annette. 1985. Semantics and 
Pragmatics of Locative Expressions. Cognitive 
Science 9:341-378. 
-Herskovits, A. 1986. Language and Spatial 
Cognition. Cambridge University Press. 
-Hottenroth, P. 1981. Italien a - allemand an : 
une analyse contrastive. In: C. Schwarze (ed.) 
Analse des pr\233positions. T\252bingen: Niemeyer. 
-Jackendoff, R. & Landau, B., 1995. Spatial 
Language and Spatial Cognition. In: Jackendoff, 
R. Languages of the Mind. Cambridge, Mass: MIT 
-Miller G. & Johnson-Laird, P, 1976. 
Language and Perception. Cambridge, Mass.: 
-Pustejovsky, J., 1995. The Generative 
Lexicon. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 
-Seliverstova O.N., Malyar T.N. (1998). 
Prostranstvenno-distantsionnye predlogi i 
narechiya v russkom i angliyskom yazykah (Space 
and distance in some Russian and English 
prepositions and adverbs). Slavistische 
Beitraege: Band 362. Sagner, Muenchen. (Victor 
Peckar comments: 'especially extensive on this 
topic. The authors distinguish between various 
types of functional relations between objects, 
such as possessive, psychosocial etc, and ways in 
which Figure and Ground may switch the roles of 
Agent and Actant of the functions.') 
-Vandeloise, C. (1992). Analysis of the 
preposition dans. Lexique. Vol: 11, 1992, 15-40 
-Vandeloise, C. (1986). L'espace en francais. 
Paris: Editions du Seuil. (English: Spatial 
Prepositions. University of Chicago Press.1991) 
-Wesche, B., 1987. At ease with 'At'. Journal of 
Semantics 5. 385-399.

(B) Query 10.587.3 clarifies my vaguely 
formulated typological question. One finds 
functional specialisation in languages like 
Turkish, Indonesian which have a generalised 
locative marker which covers most of the ground 
of Eng. 'at', 'in' and 'on'. The only detailed 
analysis I have read is Becker 1994 above for 
Turkish. For Korean I received the tip: Bowerman, 
M. (1996). Learning how to structure space for 
language. In P. Bloom, et al. (Eds.), Language 
and space. MIT Press.

(D) [P+bare N] structures like 'in school, in bed,
in store', German 'bei Tisch', French 'en voiture'
often show functional specialisation, cf. 'the
champagne on ice' vs. '*the ice tongs/empty bottle
on ice' (ice has a cooling function here) or
French 'en vitrine' (on display in the display
window) vs. 'dans la vitrine' (in the display
window for another reason). These PP's often form
idiosyncratic paradigms (e.g. 'in hospital'
(non-American.) vs. '*in clinic'). I was 
wondering if P+bare N is some type of lexically 
generated construction, but there is no 
good evidence for this. Probably much of the 
semantics of these constructions has less to do 
with the prep. than the absence of the article. 
As Bart Geurts notes, one doesn't want to say 
that 'to' has different entries in 'they took him 
to hospital' and 'they took him to the hospital 
on Elm St'. On the other hand, it is interesting 
that French has a clear division of labour 
between 'dans' and 'en' (both='in'), such that 
the latter mostly has an articleless complement 
and gets a functional/idiomatic reading. (On 
'en', cf. Franckel, J. & Lebaud, D. 1991. 
Diversit\233 des valeurs et invariance du 
fonctionnement de en pre\233position et pr\233verbe. 
Langue Fran\231aise 91: 56-79 (whole issue of 
journal devoted to preps.)) Are 'en/dans' an 
instance of suppletion or are they distinct 
preps? I would be grateful for further 
info. Pierre Larrivee informs me that the 
presumed rarity of articleless constructions in 
French is a myth (cf. Ruwet's book 'Syntax and 
Human Experience') For articleless constructions 
in general, cf. 
-Stvan, Laurel Smith. 1993. Activity Implicatures 
and Possessor Implicatures: What Are Locations 
When There Is No Article? In 29th Regional 
Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. 
-Stvan, Laurel Smith. 1998. The Semantics and 
Pragmatics of Bare Singular Noun Phrases. Ph.D. 
Dissertation, Northwestern University, Evanston, 
-Stvan, Laurel Smith. 1999. Bare Singular NPs 
as Generic Expressions. Paper read at Linguistic 
Society of America, Jan. 8, 1999, at Los Angeles.

Have a nice day,
Andrew McIntyre
Dr. Andrew McIntyre
Institut fuer Anglistik, 
Universitaet Leipzig
Bruehl 34
04109 Leipzig

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