Spatial Prepositions

Prepositions Indicating Spatial Locations and Temporal Relationships

SPATIAL PREPOSITIONS are used by both speakers and writers in order to talk about the place they occupy in the surrounding world, the location of objects in the environment and relations between them.

The primary function of SPATIAL PREPOSITIONS, therefore, is to locate things in space. And based in this role, can be classified according to whether they describe a static location or a change of location. Spatial prepositions within the latter category can be sub-divided into:

In the tables underneath, you will see that some prepositions fall squarely into a certain category, while others occupy more than one category. For instance, many prepositions that are used for static locationat, behind, between, beyond, and so on. — can also show movement toward a goal when they appear after verbs of motion.

    For example:
  • The dog ran at him

Similarly, certain prepositions that indicate a source, such as off, can be used to describe static location.

    For example:
  • The house is just off  the main road.

Away is another example; it can indicate movement from a source.

    For exmaple:
  • She walked away from me
  • but can also describe a static situation, as:
  • He is away from the office right now.
PREPOSITIONS INDICATING STATIC LOCATION
PrepositionExample
acrossMy classroom is across the hall.
againstHe’s standing against the wall.
amongHe stood among the trees.
aroundHe spent two hours walking around the park.
at She’s been at the library for hours.
away (from)She’s away from her desk right now.
beforeI can remember standing before that judge.
behindWe waited behind the building.
belowI can feel something just below the surface.
beneathThere’s a door just beneath the stairs.
besideShe sat beside the pool.
betweenI found a quarter between the cushions.
beyondThe bridge is just beyond that tollbooth.
byI love reading by the pool.
inThe letter is still in the envelope.
inside It’s inside the box.
off Our favorite restaurant is just off the road.
on The dictionary is on the shelf.
opposite The school is opposite a large park.
over This painting will look great over the fireplace.
under My keys were under the dresser.
PREPOSITIONS INDICATING A SOURCE
PrepositionExample
away (from)The horse galloped away from its owner.
fromI got a call from my son today.
out (of)I walked out of the house at 6:00.
offThe stampeding cattle ran right off the cliff.
PREPOSITIONS INDICATING A GOAL
PrepositionExample
againstThe boy was tossing a ball against the wall.
atI shot at the target.
behindI dropped my wallet behind the dresser.
beneathThe ship quickly disappeared beneath the surface.
beyondWe traveled just beyond the border.
inCan’t you put your dirty laundry in the hamper?
insideI ran inside the house and answered the phone.
intoHe walked into the room and slammed the door.
onPlease don’t throw things on my desk.
ontoThe entire team ran onto the court.
toFrom Paris he flew to Berlin.
towardThe troops marched toward the village.
underThe puppy crept under the chair.

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.

Extended meanings of spatial prepositions

The meanings of many prepositions that express a spatial relationship may be extended to express other meanings. For example, the preposition from, which has the basic meaning of marking a source location (e.g., She drove from New York to Boston), also has the extended causal meaning, as illustrated in sentences such as He died from pneumonia. However, this use of from is restricted to diseases or other physical conditions or problems (exhaustion, back pains, etc.). Thus, we cannot say *The barn was destroyed from a tornado.

From can also be used with the verbs hear and learn to express the communication of information, as shown in 5). In instances like this, from can emphasize the source of the information that is received.

  • 5a)  I heard it from her.
  • 5b)  We learned a lot from Professor Kearns.

From can also be used with a fairly large number of verbs of persuasion and abstention, such as ban, block, delay, discourage, dissuade, distract, divert, exclude, exempt, prevent, and prohibit. With these verbs, as illustrated 6), the preposition has been extended from its role as an indicator of the source of some action to an indicator of an action (described in a following gerund) that is held back or prevented.

  • 6a)  He dissuaded her from reporting him to the director.
  • 6b)  They prevented her from leaving the meeting.
  • 6c)  She abstained from casting a vote of no confidence.

The spatial location meaning of many prepositions can also be extended to the domain of time. For example, the spatial location meaning of at in 7a) also marks a fixed point in time, as illustrated in 7b).

  • 7a)  A compass is useless at the North Pole.
  • 7b)  He said he was coming at four o’clock.

Similarly, by has a basic locative meaning of proximity, as is the case in 8a), which is extended to motion past something in 8b), and can also be extended to temporal contexts like that in 8c).

  • 8a)  She was standing by the window.
  • 8b)  The troops marched by the stand where the general and guests were seated.
  • 8c)  Time is passing by.

Other temporal meanings conveyed by prepositions we have looked at are shown in the table below. There are only two prepositions in the table — during and for — that do not also occur in prepositional phrases that describe spatial relations.

PREPOSITION INDICATING TEMPORAL RELATIONSHIPS
PrepositionMeaningExample
aboutapproximatelyIt was about 3:00 when we stopped.
aroundapproximatelyWe stopped around 3:30.
atfixed pointWe are meeting at 8:00 pm.
beforeprior to/earlier than I can see you before 3:00.
betweenin this intervalShe’s coming between 2:00 and 3:00.
bynot later thanI’ll be there by 4:00.
duringfixed durationHe works during the day.
fordurationThey worked for three hours.
fromstarting point of fixed durationYou will work from 8:00 to noon every day.
inpoint in fixed periodHe came here in 2003.
overspanning a periodOver the years, he became wiser.
throughin the course of/
for a period
Through the years, she became more proficient.
They worked through the night.
toend point in a time periodHe worked from 3:00 to 4:00.
towardsometime close to Toward morning, he fell asleep.
underless thanShe completed the assignment in under an hour.

Linguistically, for a long time, spatial prepositions have been regarded as a function or grammatical words with little semantic content. However, present advances in cognitive linguistics allow us to have a better insight into the nature of the content expressed by spatial prepositions bringing about the conclusion that prepositions encode rich and diverse information both grammatical and semantic.