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Review of  The Semantics of English Prepositions

Reviewer: Thora Tenbrink
Book Title: The Semantics of English Prepositions
Book Author: Andrea Tyler Vyvyan Evans
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 15.296

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Date: Mon, 26 Jan 2004 10:54:02 +0100
From: Thora Tenbrink
Subject: The Semantics of English Prepositions

Tyler, Andrea & Vyvyan Evans (2003) The Semantics of English Prepositions:
Spatial Sciences, Embodied Meaning, and Cognition. Cambridge University

Thora Tenbrink, University of Bremen, Germany


This book is a comprehensive account of English spatial prepositions in
the cognitive linguistics tradition. Pursuing a "principled polysemy"
approach, the authors present an analysis of the semantic networks of
altogether 15 spatial prepositions, giving a detailed case study of
'over' and sketching the basic features of the other particles. Many of
the presented insights are well-founded in the literature -- major sources
are Langacker (e.g., 1987, 1991), Talmy (e.g., 2000), and Grady (1997)
-- while others are original. Central to the book is the methodology
developed to identify primary and secondary senses associated with each

While it is the authors' conviction that all other senses of a
preposition are derived from an originally and primarily spatial sense,
the relationship is nevertheless not viewed as metaphorical as in various
previous approaches, but as experiential. In their view, experiencing
regular and motivated correlations of events and scenarios in the real
world motivates the integration of such regularities into language. In
this way, 'up' became associated with 'more', since it is a regular
experience in spatial scenarios that larger amounts correlate with
increased vertical extension (e.g., liquid in a glass). Together with
pragmatic strengthening it may then happen that concepts that were
originally simply associated with other concepts in the usage of a
certain preposition, come to be expressed by that preposition even
without the presence of the original concept. Thus, in 'The prices have
gone up' there is no longer a spatial sense of vertical direction
involved. Basically, Tyler and Evans' approach is in line with previous
analyses in the cognitive linguistic tradition, distinguished mainly in
their methodology that is designed to steer away from the traditional,
rather vague conception of underlying metaphorical relationships, towards
a more systematic investigation of how such cognitive dependencies may be


Chapter 1. The nature of meaning.
The first chapter serves as an introduction presenting the main aspects
of the authors' theoretical views: Spatial prepositions have developed
their semantic potential on a transparent experiential basis. The
meanings associated with each particle are related in systematic and
motivated ways (underscoring the adopted principled polysemy in contrast
to homonymy or monosemy approaches). As a general trait, linguistic
expressions are underdetermined; they serve as prompts for meaning
construction, which is a conceptual process. In other words, language
does not directly refer to the real world but to human conceptualizations
of it. The human conceptual system, in turn, is a product of how we
experience and interact with the real world. In this way, linguistic
expressions and their usage are shaped by our experience. In
comprehension, the selection of a particular meaning out of the available
meaning potential is determined by conceptual integration in the given

Chapter 2. Embodied meaning and spatial experience
In this chapter, the authors develop their ideas as to how the functional
nature of spatial scenes give rise to correlated non-spatial inferences,
a process they term "experiential correlation" (cf. Grady 1997). For
instance, spatial relations such as containment are interconnected with
experiences such as being protected, being constrained and delimited,
etc., which constitute functional rather than spatial relations.
Similarly, perceptual resemblances can lead to perceived shared
characteristics, as exemplified by 'She's just a twig.' The authors
propose that underlying such a sentence is not metaphorical transfer but
rather a "process which relies on conscious human perceptual
organization", which, just as experiential correlation, leads to the
conceptualization of one kind of entity in terms of another.

Chapter 3. Towards a model of polysemy networks: spatial scenes and
In the third chapter, the authors warn that the polysemy approach can
lead to the fallacy of exaggerating the number of distinct senses
associated with a preposition. To avoid this problem, they propose a
methodology for determining a particle's "primary sense" and filter out
further distinct senses that are not derivable from the context. For the
primary sense, the following criteria are put forward:
1. earliest attested meaning,
2. predominance in the semantic network (the unique spatial configuration
that is involved in the majority of the distinct senses found in the
3. use in composite forms,
4. relations to other spatial particles,
5. grammatical predictions.

To determine further distinct senses, a candidate sense must
1. contain additional meaning not apparent in any other senses associated
with a particular form, and
2. there must be instances of the sense that are context independent (the
distinct sense could not be inferred from another sense and the context
in which it occurs).
For the primary sense, a spatial proto-scene can be depicted that is an
abstraction of real-world spatial scenes represented by the particle.
Furthermore, each primary sense is associated with a functional element
(such as "containment" for 'in').

Chapter 4. The case of over
In this chapter, Tyler and Evans provide a detailed analysis of 'over' on
the basis of their proposed methodology to illustrate how it can be
applied. They offer a spatial proto-scene for 'over' in which the
trajector is higher than but within potential contact of the landmark.
The associated functional element is that landmark and trajector are
conceptualized as being within the sphere of influence of each ofter.
Contrary to previous analyses, the authors claim that 'over' does not
have an associated "Path" sense, neither in its primary sense nor in its
other distinct senses. They go to some length in explaining how,
according to their analysis, all path interpretations in 'over' sentences
can be derived from the context. Furthermore, the proposed semantic
network of 'over' is presented in full, giving evidence as to how each
distinct sense - such as the "Above-and-beyond", the "Completion" and the
"Transfer" senses, among others - may have been derived from the primary

Chapter 5. The vertical axis
The notion of a "contrast set" is introduced. The authors point out that
lexemes often do not constitute oppositional pairs, but are
simultaneously dependent on and independent of other lexemes. Thus, the
contrast set 'over', 'above', 'under' and 'below' divides up the vertical
axis into four distinct spatial locations. But the functional elements
associated with each particle are dependent on the implications of each
specific spatial proto-scene and are therefore not complementary in the
same way as the spatial meanings. With regard to the spatial arrangement,
a (subjective) sense of proximity is claimed to be associated with 'over'
and 'under', as contrasted with distality in 'above' and 'below'. As a
consequence, the latter prepositions do not allow for contact, and they
are not conceptualized as involving possible influence between trajector
and landmark. But the semantic network of 'under' does not mirror that of
'over' because entities that are lower in verticality are often less
accessible; therefore, there are fewer experiential correlations
associated with 'under' than with 'over'.

Chapter 6. Spatial particles of orientation
Chapter 6 deals with particles whose semantics - according to the
authors' analysis - involves orientation of either trajector ('up',
"down", "to", "for") or landmark ("in front of", "before", 'behind',
"after"). A clear distinction between orientation, path, and motion is
made; these three concepts are often conflated in other approaches since
they often occur together. Before/after differ from in front of/ behind
in that they involve a sense of sequence: the trajector is construed as
leading/following the landmark.

Chapter 7. The bounded LM
In this chapter, prepositions are analysed that are sensitive to
boundedness on the part of the landmark: 'in', 'into', 'out', 'out of'
and 'through'. Bounded entities are defined as those that possess an
interior, a boundary and an exterior. Often, they are associated with the
notion of containment, which itself entails several functional
consequences which are reflected in the various senses of 'in' (and
partly 'out' as well).


Altogether, the book gives an impressive insight into the semantic
networks of spatial prepositions, showing clearly and (for the most part)
convincingly how new meanings develop from established ones on the basis
of experiential correlations. Accounting for such processes in language
without simply relying on the often too vague concept of "metaphorical
extension" which has frequently been claimed to be responsible for the
usage of similar forms in different domains is a major achievement.
Furthermore, the notion of "contrast set" is very useful in accounting
for the relationships of prepositions to each other, which are often not
sufficiently explained by opposing features. Thus, the basic approach is
both innovative and convincing and will provide thought-provoking impulses
for a broad readership.

In the following, I will point to some specific weaknesses that do not
diminish the value of the book's achievements as a whole.
The book is readable and well-edited, providing a clear general structure
and a detailed keyword index. However, one major shortcoming on this
scale is the pervasive usage of large footnotes - sometimes extending
over almost one page. The footnotes often do not relate directly to the
main text but digress considerably from the current train of thought. At
times, issues dealt with in footnotes are taken up later in the main
text, providing no new information: in those cases, the earlier footnote
should either be left out or simply refer to the later main text.
Another problem related to the book's structure concerns the fact that,
in spite of the authors' constant reference to their own proposed
methodology, they do not present a comprehensive overview of the proposed
criteria for determining the primary and further senses, for example, in
the form of a list with detailed and specific information with regard to
how the criteria should be applied, which could be used for reference.
Furthermore, in spite of the fact that they refer to "semantic networks",
which could easily be visualized, they only provide a graphical depiction
of the network of 'over', but not for the others. Since diagrammatic
representations are often amazingly informative with regard to the
implied relations (which is obvious through the depictions of
proto-scenes provided throughout), the authors thus abstain from a
valuable and feasible way of conveying insights about the analyses of the
other 14 prepositions that could not be presented in detail.

In line with previous approaches in the cognitive linguistics tradition,
the authors mostly rely on their own intuitions regarding the potential
usage of the prepositions under analysis. They provide convincing
naturalistic examples that seem to cover the variations of usage fairly
well. However, as the authors note themselves in the conclusion, without
a systematic corpus-based analysis this remains speculative. Considering
the authors' proposal that one important ingredient of the proposed
methodology is the criterion of predominance, this is a major drawback.
The authors' proposed methodology is altogether fairly convincing.
However, it is not always transparent in how far it is actually put to
use in their analysis. This may in part be due to the fact that a
comprehensive summary of the methodology is missing, in part to the fact
that they do not apply the criteria systematically one after the other,
and in part to the fact that some of the proposed criteria (e.g., the
"predominance" criterion and those proposed for determining additional
distinct senses) still very much depend on subjective assessment. Thus,
the reasons for the decisions made are sometimes not traceable and
therefore still open to discussion.

One major point of discussion would be the authors' claims about
prepositions that are not predominantly spatial in current usage, such as
'before' or 'of'. In the analysis of 'before' they propose a spatial
"In-advance-of" sense involving an "in tandem" configuration for the
proto-scene, from which a temporal sense is derived. While the view that
'before' should be regarded as originally spatial is quite prevalent in
the literature, it does not become clear from the present analysis how
this could be proved (nor can this view be regarded as self-evidently
true since it is subject to much controversy). The authors themselves
acknowledge that 'before' in current usage is mostly regarded as a
predominantly temporal preposition, and that the etymological aspect in
this case does not suffice for determining the proto-scene. Even the
earliest uses of 'before' were overwhelmingly sequential and temporal -
two facets of meaning both involving time. Thus, their proposal of a
spatial primary sense of before seems to be due to their theoretical
orientation towards spatial scenes, rather than objective criteria. That
temporality in ordinary 'before'-sentences is crucial perhaps becomes
most evident when contrasting them with one of the few occurrences of
locational 'before':

(1) They knelt before the Queen.
(2) They knelt before the Queen did.

(1) can be characterized by a functional locational interpretation, as
outlined by Tyler and Evans. But crucially, 'before' does not temporally
divide the scene into an earlier and a later event, as is the case in
(2), where two events happen at two different times. No specific
orientation (such as an "in tandem" configuration) of the participants is
needed. Thus, the two senses of 'before' differ fundamentally with regard
to the temporality they are capable of expressing, contrary to the
authors' claim that there is an underlying spatial proto-scene which
corresponds closely to both. It should further be noted that Tyler and
Evans (like many other authors dealing with these terms) do not comment
on the striking fact that 'before' and 'after', unlike most other terms
under analysis, can also be used as a conjunction - often with very
similar semantics (though regularly with different implications) as the
prepositional form, as in: 'They arrived before Bill (did).'

In the case of 'of', they state that "it appears to be one of only a few
spatial particles, which, in synchronic terms, seems to have become
largely dissociated from its spatial origin". In other words: What makes
the particle "spatial" for the authors is its etymology rather than any
of the other objective criteria proposed to determine a particle's
spatial proto-scene.

Considering these problems, one wonders whether what is stated in the
book's cover abstract really reflects the authors' stance, namely, that
"all English prepositions originally coded spatial relations" (a
statement which accords with the book's title, which strangely does not
restrict the book to spatial prepositions). If that were the case,
explanations for prepositions like 'during', 'despite', 'since', etc.
must be regarded as missing in the book. Quite naturally, however, the
authors do not attempt to provide spatial proto-scenes for such
uncontroversially non-spatial prepositions (although, notably, it is
surely not impossible to find spatial representations for abstract
relationships of other kinds denoted by prepositions).

Altogether, the book is highly recommended to all researchers interested
in the semantics and usage of spatial expressions as well as the
underlying cognitive processes. It offers new insights and a promising
general approach to the treatment of semantic networks.


Grady, Joseph. 1997. Foundations of meaning: Primary metaphors and
primary scenes. PhD dissertation, Dept. of Linguistics, UC Berkeley.

Langacker, Ronald W. 1987, 1991. Foundations of cognitive grammar. Vol I
(1987): Theoretical Prerequisites. Vol II (1991): Descriptive
Application. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Talmy, Leonard. 2000. Toward a Cognitive Semantics, 2 vols. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.

Thora Tenbrink is a research assistant in the DFG Collaborative Research
Center SFB/TR8 "Spatial Cognition: Reasoning, Action, Interaction"
(Bremen & Freiburg, Germany). Her dissertation project deals with the
question how objects and events are localised relative to other objects
and events using spatial and temporal expressions in natural discourse.
Previous work has dealt with discourse relations and information
structure, presuppositions and non-temporal implications of temporal
connectives, especially 'before' and 'after'. Her current focus is on
empirical research on spatial reference systems in human-robot

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