Prepositions and Thematic Roles

UNDERSTANDING prepositions and THEMATIC ROLES relationship

Over the past three decades, linguists have developed the notion of thematic roles, a concept which helps learners understand the meanings of prepositions when they appear in different environments.— The Teacher's Grammar of English, Ron Cowan (2008)

PrepositionsOpens in new window and Thematic RolesOpens in new window relationship illustrates that the meaning of a preposition can often be understood in terms of the thematic roles with which it is associated. For instance, the meanings of prepositions “from” and “to”, may be understood in terms of the thematic roles of source and goal, respectively.

The meanings of many English prepositions can be understood in terms of the thematic roles occupied by their object NPs.

We’ll spend the remainder of this entry taking a closer look at the meanings of prepositions in relation to their thematic roles, and also look at their extended meanings .

location Thematic role

Prepositions are classified according to whether they describe a static location or a change of location.

Different prepositions are used to indicate a static location with increasing specificity. In is used before countries, regions, states, and cities, but at is used to designate a more precise landmark within any of these larger locations, as the examples in 1) show. This distinction is taught in some ESL/EFL textbooks.

  • 1a)  I met her in the United States/the Midwest/Illinois/Chicago.
  • 1b)  I met her in Chicago at the Lyric Opera.

Static location can also be conceptualized either as an object’s fixed position or as its position in terms of a path that must be taken to reach it. The latter is referred to as endpoint location. This distinction is illustrated in 2) with the preposition over.

  • 2a)  The portrait of their mother hangs over the fireplace. (fixed static location)
  • 2b)  The house lies just over that hill. (endpoint location)

A change in location involves movement from a source and toward (or to) a goal, as the examples in 3) show.

  • 3a)  We want from Chicago to Zurich.
  • 1b)  The ball fell off the table, onto the floor, and rolled under the bed.

With verbs of motion that do not have a fixed duration (drive, walk, run, roll, etc.), prepositions such as across, by, over, past, through, and under can express the idea of an intermediate, temporary location on a path toward an endpoint location.

In 4a), through indicates a location that is temporary and transitory but is bounded ultimately by the edge of the forest. In 4b), through indicates an intermediate position, Kassel, between the origin location, Frankfurt, and the endpoint location, Hannover.

  • 4a)  When he awoke they were driving through the forest.
  • 4b)  We drove from Frankfurt through Kassel to Hannover.

Instrumental Thematic Role

Another basic thematic role of prepositions is that of instrument. The most common prepositions for instrumental meaning are by and with, as the examples in 5) show. Instrumental prepositional phrases answer the question “How?” or “By what means?”

5a)  He opened the jar by unscrewing the lid.instrumental
5b)  They came by train.mode of transportation
5c)  The thief came in by the window.route/access
5d)  It was sent to the wrong destination by accident.causal

In addition to the locative and instrumental meanings and their extensions, the noun phrase following by can have a number of specialized meanings, some of which are illustrated in 6). In 6a), by is used to indicate the size of a gap or a difference; in 6b), it indicates a time deadline; in 6c), it is used to describe the measurement of an area; and in 6d), it is used to indicate the unit of measurement by which something is divided and sold.

6a)  The Hammers won by two goals.size of a gap or difference
6b)  The boss wants it on his desk by two o’clock.time deadline
6c)  The living room is 25 feet long by 14 feet wide.measurement of an area
6d)  It’s sold by the kilo.unit of measurement

By is also part of a number of idiomatic phrases, some of which have an adverbial function, as is the case in 7).

  • 7a)  They walked down the aisle side by side.
  • 7b)  I like doing things by myself.
  • 7c)  They came ashore by night.
  • 7d)  Day by day he sat in the library, taking notes for his book.

This property of prepositions, that a single form such as by can have many different meanings, is known as polysemy (See POLYSEMYOpens in new window), and it is frequently cited as one of the reasons that the meanings of prepositions are so difficult teach.

Comitative thematic role

In the preceding section, we saw that with is one of the two prepositions that express an instrumental role. However, another basic meaning expressed by prepositional phrases headed by with is the notion of accompaniment, as shown in 8).

  • 8)  Alicia went to the ball with her old boyfriend, Bill.

This Comitative Role of with has been extended to other contexts, some of which are shown in 9). These include location, as shown in 9a); properties of NPs, as in 9b) and 9c); manner, as in 9d); and agreement, as is the case in 9e).

9a)  I left the keys to my house with my neighbor → location
9b)  He works for a young Iranian with long black hair → properties/characteristics
9c)  John always had a weakness for fast cars with powerful engines → properties/characteristics
9d)  She wrote about her cause with great passion → manner
9e)  I’m with you on this → agreement

Synonymous preposition

The same way a single preposition can exhibit a range of meanings, certain meanings can be expressed by more than one preposition. For example, the proximity meaning of by can also be expressed by near. She lives by the railroad station means essentially the same thing as She lives near the railroad station. Other examples of this overlap are shown in 10).

  • 10a)  She lives next to / beside the school yard.
  • 10b)  I found it behind / in back of the house.
  • 10c)  The family portrait was hanging above / over the fireplace.
  • 10d)  We drove by / past the old house we used to live in.
  • 10e)  He finally found it under / underneath / beneath the sink.
  • 10f)  Right below / under the painting was a metal plaque that identified the artist.
  • 10g)  He pointed at / to / toward the man and said, “That’s him.”
  • 10h)  She said she would be here at a quarter to / of four.
  • 10i)  They always take a trip to Europe during / in the summer.

Sentences 10a) through 10g) all relate to location in space, whereas 10h) and 10i) relate to time. Note that native speakers do not always agree that sentences with these alternate prepositions necessarily have identical meanings. For example, in 10g), at the man indicates a precise goal, whereas, for some native speakers, toward would mean “in the general direction of.”