10.702, Sum: Prepositions/Functional Uses

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LINGUIST List:  Vol-10-702. Sat May 8 1999. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 10.702, Sum: Prepositions/Functional Uses

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Date:  Fri, 7 May 1999 11:39:05 +0000
From:  "Andrew McIntyre" <mcintyre at rz.uni-leipzig.de>
Subject:  Prepositions/functional uses

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Fri, 7 May 1999 11:39:05 +0000
From:  "Andrew McIntyre" <mcintyre at rz.uni-leipzig.de>
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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