Kochkinekova Alena Vasilevna
Altai State Pedagogical University
Department of Foreign Languages, Ph.D (in Linguistics)

The given article examines the existing classifications of prepositions on the semantic principle. An attempt has been made to distinguish seven separate groups of spatial prepositions.

Category: Linguistics

Article reference:
Prepositions in the context of semantic classification // Humanities scientific researches. 2015. № 5. P. 1 [Electronic journal]. URL:

View this article in Russian

In recent times there has not yet been developed a unified system of prepositions classification on the semantic principle. There is no such kind of classification that would comprise all the expressed by the prepositions relations.  Among the existing classifications, the classification by V.V. Vinogradov deserves special attention. The scholar distinguishes the following types of relations:

  • local or spatial
  • temporal
  • ablative that indicate deprivation, deletion, contrast, etc.
  • transgressive that actualize the transition from one state into another
  • comitative that denote compatibility, “accompaniment” or joint participation
  • goal-oriented
  • causative and the others [1].

R. Jackendoff and B. Landau emphasize that spatial prepositions are much more frequently used than other types.  The linguists write in one of their research works that only 9 of all English prepositions do not possess spatial meaning: ago, as , because of, during, for, like, of, since, until [2].

The dominance of spatial prepositions can be explained from the point of their prototypical character. Spatial prepositions were the first to appear in comparison with other prepositions. The fact that space is one of the major ontological categories speaks in favor that spatial prepositions are so frequently used in English.

Spatial prepositions often undergo research analysis where the peculiarities of spatial relations verbalization are revealed. In the context of spatial prepositions study, they can further be subdivided into static and dynamic. In A. Herskovits’ research work the following types of the spatial prepositions are distinguished:

  • prepositions of static location (in, on, at, under, above, between, beyond, etc.)
  • prepositions of dynamic location (to, via, from, downward, into, out of, through, toward, etc.) [3].

Some researchers assert that the boundaries in this classification are fuzzy. They say that there is a possibility of the prepositions transition from one group to another and vice versa. For example, a dynamic preposition from can be used in the static meaning: The table is 4 feet from the wall. A static preposition behind, in its turn, is used in the dynamic meaning in the following sentence: John went behind the door [3].

Taken into consideration the peculiarities of the mentioned-above approaches and basing on the prototypes theory, the following groups of the prepositions with spatial semantics can be distinguished in the present research work:

  • at, on, in;
  • inside, within;
  • through;
  • above, over, below, under, underneath, beneath;
  • behind, in front of;
  • across, along, over, between, about;
  • to, from.

The first group of the prototypical spatial prepositions has in its basis n-dimension principle. The preposition at in this respect does not represent any configuration and indicates one-dimension space. The preposition on, in its turn, can be interpreted in the terms of two-dimension space where it is represented as the preposition with semantics of the surface location. The preposition inactualizes the idea of three-dimension space and is considered as a preposition with stereoscopic configuration [4].

The second group of the prepositions includes the prepositions within (inside the range or limits of smth) and inside (on or to the inner part of smth/smb [5]). This group is based on the idea about stereoscopic perception of space. The enumerated prepositions accentuate “inner closed space.”

The only representative of the third group is the preposition through (used as a function word to indicate movement into at one side or point and out at another and especially the opposite side of [5]). Through indicates the idea of a through (direct) passing of space that is perceived as stereoscopic.

The prepositions that implement a stratified function in terms of verticality are included in the fourth group [4]. The idea of stratification lies in the prepositions semantics. The preposition above, for example, (at or to a higher place or position than smth/smb [OALDCE 2010: 4]) shows that one of the described objects is situated higher than other. The preposition over (in or to a position higher than but no touching smb/smth) is also able to represent relations in terms of verticality. The preposition below (at or to a lower level of smb/smth) denotes that the located object is situated at the definite distance  from the object located lower (sometimes distance can be considerable). Below is used only while describing static relations and isn’t used in the description of movement. The preposition under (in, to or through a position that is below smth) in its prototypical spatial meaning shows that a described object is located lower than other is. At the same time, the distance separating these objects is not considerable as a rule. Underneath (under or below smth else, especially when it is hidden or covered by the thing on the top denotes the idea of stratum from top to bottom. The preposition beneath (in or to a lower position than sm/smth; under smb/smth) in its prototypical spatial meaning marks shorter distance between the objects in comparison with its synonymic preposition below [6].

The fifth group is represented by the prepositions of stratum direction on the horizontal axis: in front of – in a position that is further forward than smb/smth but not very far away: behind – at or towards the back of smb/ smth, and often hidden by it or them [6]. The described prepositions accentuate stratum character.

The next group of the analyzed prepositions is employed in the description of the material object location on the plane (surface). This group is characterized by its own peculiarities: the first four prepositions: across (from one part to the other part of smth; on or over a part of the body); along (from one end to or towards the other end of smth); between (separating one place from another, and over (resting on the surface of smb/ smth and partly or completely covering them/it [5]) delineate  conventional spatial borders, the fifth preposition of the group – about marks “environment” [6].

The last group of the distinguished group coincides with the idea of the initial spatial point (from – used to show where smth/smb starts) and the idea of direction to the «goal-oriented point») (to – in the direction of smth [5]).

To round off, in this article, I have attempted to classify the much more frequently used spatial prepositions arranging them into seven separate groups. I have set out some guidelines for a more accurate treatment of their semantics and possible attempts of their classification. My hope is that even this brief study underscores the importance of the prepositions studies and their analysis will contribute to the understanding of the language peculiarities. The availability of studies of prepositions semantics in English will facilitate studies in linguistics and particularly in the sphere of semantics.

  1. Виноградов, В.В. Русский язык [Текст]: грамматическое учение о слове /  В.В. Виноградов. – М. : Высш. шк., 1986. – 640 с.
  2. Jackendoff, R., Landau B. Spatial Language and Spatial Cognition // Bridges between Psychology and Linguistics: A Swarthwore Testchrift for Lila Gleitman. Hellsdale (New Jersy), 1991. – P. 145-169.
  3. Herskovits, A. Language and Spatial Cognition. An Interdisciplinary Study of the Prepositions in English / A. Herskovits. – Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1986. – 208 p.
  4. Quirk, R. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language [Text] / R. Quirk, S. Greenbaum, G. Leech , J. Svartik. – London : Longman, 1985. – 1779 p.
  5. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English [Text] / Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2010. – 1796 p.
  6. Аксененко, Б.Н. Предлоги английского языка [Текст] / Б.Н. Аксененко.– М., 1956. – 319 с.

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