Prepositions in most Western languages precede their complements, that is, the nouns (or other words) that they govern. The prep + comp forms a prepositional phrase (PP), and the complement is usually a noun (NP, noun phrase, e.g. with her, in the restaurant), but other types are possible.
- We met at the restaurant. (NP comp)
- I regard that as inefficient. (Adj comp) 
- He emerged from under the car. (PP comp)
- He didn’t arrive until after the meeting had begun. (clausal complement)
- He was worrying about who he should confide in. (clausal comp. - relative clause)
- He raised the question of why it had been concealed. (clausal complement)
Sometimes prepositions are optional i.e. they may be deleted with some temporal phases, especially in colloquial discourse.
- We have lived here (for) a long time.
- We’re going to Cheju (on) Friday.
- I have lived in Seoul (for) two years.
- I usually go to bed (at) midnight.
Sometimes preposition deletion (ø) is obligatory or strongly preferred (e.g., with determiners and similar modifiers).
- Elmer will be busy ø next Friday
- ?Elmer will be busy on next Friday.
- Fritz stayed in Gyeongju ø all week.
- *Fritz stayed in Gyeongju for all week
1 Etymological distinctions
|Simple prepositions:||at, in, to, below ...|
|Compound prepositions:||into, onto, underneath|
|Complex prepositions:||aside from, in accordance with, with reference to, on the strength of|
|Derived from pres. participles:||concerning, considering, notwithstanding, regarding|
|Derived from past participles:||given, granted|
2 Meaning & use
The meaning of a preposition is a sort of schema, which gets extended to other uses, such as being used as a phrasal verb particle (PVP), the second component of a phrasal verb such as get out, get over, get around. The meanings of prepositions and the corresponding PVPs work like this. Each of these words has a basic, core meaning, usually a spatial meaning referring to location or position, such as the original physical meanings of over, around, up, and such. Often, these are extended to temporal meanings, such as time expressions and other references to times and events, e.g., “it’s over” = “it has finished.” Very often, the spatial and temporal meanings get extended to metaphorical meanings. Many phrasal verbs represent metaphorical uses of these words, as do many of their uses as prepositions.
- spatial: original physical, spatial, locational meaning
- temporal: meanings and references related to time and events
- metaphorical extensions of #1 and/or #2
For example, take the meaning of over as shown in the diagram below. The original spatial meaning refers to an object (or person) moving over another object (the dot, which serves as the reference point), lead to the completion the movement. An observer can rest in a position over the top, or one can look at the completed action. From point A, we can say, for example, you are looking over something physically; this idea can be extended metaphorically to being over something, such as being in charge or in control (I am over a company of 500 people). From point B, we can speak of something being finished or done, even metaphorically (“I’m over you!” said to an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, meaning that one is emotionally finished with the relationship, the breakup, its consequences, and one no longer has any interest in him/her anymore). Other metaphorical uses of over derive from the meanings of over for position or movement.
With up you can view the action from the top level, where something is coming up toward you. You can also look at the action from the bottom of the container, and speak of something going up from that vantage point. From point A, you can speak of something ‘sneaking up’ on you by surprise, or events that ‘come up’ unexpectedly. From point B, you can speak of something growing or rising, such as water boiling up. You can speak of processes growing or finishing, such as ‘finish up, wrap up.’ Just as liquid can boil up and over a container, you can speak of things that metaphorically go somewhere, or go too far, like when you say “I’m fed up” or “what’s up?”
Prepositions are regularly borrowed and used in phrasal verbs, e.g., get over it. In this case, it may no longer be a true preposition syntactically, but a phrasal verb particle, and oftentimes, the meanings of the PVP as well as true prepositions can be rather metaphorical; see prepositional metaphors. See also Lindstromberg (2010).
Phrasal verbs are a sort of compound verb, and their metaphorical extensions are similar to those of compound verbs in Korean. For example, 버리다 = ‘throw away’ is used metaphorically in compounds like 잊어버리다 and 죽어버리다.
A preposition can sometimes indicate that NP prep. objects are understood as being relatively unaffected or less affected by the action encoded in the verb.
- She kicked the dog.
- She kicked at the dog.
- They climbed up the mountain.
- They climbed the mountain.
- They fed us with junk food (but most of us didn’t eat it).
- They fed us lots of vitamins. (from Dixon, 2005)
3 Other languages
Most Western languages use prepositions followed by nouns. One exception is Latin poetry, where a preposition might be placed after its noun complement for metrical reasons, or a adjective modifying the noun complement appears before the preposition. A few such expressions have come into English, e.g.:
- magna cum laude = with high praise
- summa cum laude = with highest praise
Another exception is the German entlang, which comes after the noun, and thus acts more like a postposition:
- Er lief die Strasse entlang = He walked along the street.
Korean commonly uses postpositions, which attach to the end of nouns; e.g.,
- 한국어로 hangugeo-ro = in Korean
- 집에 jib-e at/to home.
Korean uses the general postposition -에 (at, in) for general locations, and often combines it with a more specific indicator for more specific meanings, e.g., 집안에 inside the house.
The syntactic term adposition can be used to describe both categories, prepositions and postpositions. Chinese often uses a combination of a general preposition and a more specific postposition.
- zai zhuozi shang
- LOC desk - on-top-of
- = on the desk
4 Cognitive semantics perspective
In the cognitive semantic framework, prepositions embody spatial schemas, involving a figure (the item in the foreground, the focus of attention), ground (background, or scene of the action), and a path and/or goal of the movement. The prepositions in, on differ from into, onto in terms of the ground – in, on profile a more general background, while into, onto profile a more specific background, moving from one to another. E.g., when we say "throw it in/into the can," we have a choice of evoking a more general scene of movement into a container, or a more specific scene of motion from a space outside the container to inside the container. For the preposition over, its conceptual schema might be represented as follows:
For a sentence like "the ball flew over the fence," the ball is the figure or focus of perceptual attention in the motion event, and it moves along a given pathway or trajectory toward its endpoint or goal, as represented by the arrow. The dot represents the observer’s reference point, and/or the background against which the movement occurs, namely, the fence. Semantic or metaphorical extensions are derived from aspects of this schema. For example, from the idea of physically being over something, we get metaphors of authority and supervision like to be over someone, look over something; from the endpoint suggesting completion of an action we get expressions like "it’s over" and "I’m over you."
The reference point can change with other semantic extensions. Here, if the reference point or background (ground) becomes a container, then we derive expressions like the water overflowed the pot / flowed over the brim / bubbled over / boiled over, and metaphorical expressions like "overflowing with joy" or "bubble over." The figure / ground distinction explains why the prepositional object is usually the more permanent object; the figure is the less permanent object that can move relative to the ground. Violation of this rule would lead to pragmatically odd sentences (if you uttered sentences like the question-marked statements below, others might question your mental state).
|The book is on the table.||cf.||? The table is under the book.|
|The table is on the tile floor.||cf.||? The tile floor is under the table.|
|My apartment is in Seoul.||cf.||?Seoul contains my apartment.|
In English phrasal verbs, the verb particles often specify the path or direction of motion, as in go in / out / away. Another dimension of the schema is manner of motion, which in English comes from the main verb: go (non-specific), boil, bubble, float. Thus, the main verb indicates manner of motion, while the particle expresses path or directional information, including metaphorical directions or paths:
- boil over, float away, float up, squirm away, wrest away, pawn off, pull the wool over someone’s eyes
- take off, blast off, whisk away, fess up (=confess, in dialect), give in, bum off of someone, hit up, hit on
Korean uses verbal compounds, where compound elements indicate manner of motion, and sometimes direction / path information, including direction to / from the speaker’s perspective (with 가다, 오다, for distinctions that English does not make).
|걸어가다||verb/path + direction|
|들어가다||verb/path + direction|
|죽어버리다||verb + manner|
5 See also
- Another possible Adv. comp: “I’ve heard nothing since then." However, this item may be questionable as an example of a PP; many would regard it as a conjunction plus an adverb.
- Lindstromberg, Seth. (2010). English Prepositions Explained. John Benjamins.
- “The primary use of prepositions in English is to introduce a peripheral noun phrase, providing a locational or temporal specification (e.g. in the house, at three o’clock) or marking an instrument (with a stone), a beneficiary (for Mary), a recipient (to John), etc.” (Dixon, 2005) “If the activity referred to by a transitive verb does not achieve a definite result . . . then a preposition may be inserted between verb and NP, to mark the deviation from an ‘ideal’ transitive event” (Dixon, 2005).
- Dixon, R. M. W. (2005). A semantic approach to English grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.