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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 3; Issue 3; May 2001

(Sometimes) Against the grain

Seth Lindstromberg (Hilderstone College, Kent, U.K.

Are English prepositions really incredibly idiomatic?

In this issue my topic is spatial prepositions and preposition-like directional adverbs (e.g., away).

Many people think that—

  • prepositions are highly idiomatic (i.e., that there are many set phrases in which their meaning is unclear or unrelated to basic meaning[s]),
  • they are very often 'delexical' (i.e., without significant meaning at all),
  • a great way to learn how to use prepositions naturally is to memorize lots and lots of set phrases in which they occur occur.

As it happens, these are three opinions commonly held by advocates of the Lexical Approach, lately so fashionable in the U.K./U.S. TESOL establishments. (See the Reading Tips at the end of this article.) comprehensively demonstrate either that most spatial prepositions are, in fact, exceedingly consistent in their semantics (but they are) or that memorizing phrases will not get learners very far toward the goal of using them naturally (and it won't). I can, however, show how such an argument can begin and suggest how it can continue.

Example 1 -> pay in cash, pay in kind vs pay by check, by credit card, by direct debit

If you pass by something such as a church, the church is not the end of your journey. It is somewhere after the beginning of your trip but before the end; it is in between. In addition, the church may be near your way but not directly on it.

    Now, since we are going to be thinking about means, it is no accident that the word means is derived from a Latin word for something that 'is between'.
    So, if you pay by check, the check is a means by which you pay. But, it is not payment in itself! Not yet. The person you give the check to receives payment only when the check is cashed. So the check is between the beginning and the end of the transaction.
    A cash payment is different. The cash is the payment; there is nothing in between. (The same is true of so-called 'payment in kind'--which is when, for example, to buy 20 potatoes, you pay with 1 chicken.)
    The term, payment in cash, then, means 'payment in the form of cash'. The cash is the end of the transaction. If you ask: "Where is the payment, where is the end of the transaction?" The answer is: "Look. It is here. In this cash."

General comment So then: Are expressions such as pay by direct debit and pay in cash full blooded idioms? I think not. Both prepositions have meanings in these phrases that they often have in other contexts. A great many apparent prepositional idioms are like this. But if and only if you know what English prepositions mean, in the first place. Sadly, this knowledge is difficult for non-native speakers to acquire. U.K. Published course materials are simply terrible on prepositions. U.K. published learners' dictionaries are only a little better. Native speakers are almost always poor sources of advice because their understanding of prepositions is largely 'unconscious'. Do you know of any coursebook or learners' dictionary that can, for instance, tell you something as simple as the difference in and within? Do you know any native speakers who can?

    So I guess there is something difficult about prepositional meaning. But luckily for learners…and for us teachers (because we ought to know how to explain prepositional usage)…scores of clever and determined linguists have, here and there, published different bits of the puzzle. I believe that there is now available a body of knowledge about prepositions and what they mean which has excellent potential to help everyone engaged in learning or teaching English.

Example 2 In vs within

If in is used in this sentence,

    These chemicals only occur in / within the cell walls.
    then native speakers tend to understand that the chemicals are in the walls themselves, perhaps as constituents of the walls. Within, on the other hand, strongly suggests a different meaning -> that the chemicals are in the space enclosed by the walls. This is because within means 'well and truly in, not just a bit in'. Expressed iconically, within has this meaning, - . The meaning of within is very specific. The meaning of in is much less so. For instance, in can describe an arrangement like this - , or this -- or like that involved when we say, There are various chemicals in the cell walls. Within is untypically used to describe arrangements like this - and probably never ones where something protrudes from a medium or container.
    This is why we may speak of 'an enemy within' rather than 'an enemy in'… the most dangerous enemy is one who is not just at the walls, or half in and half out, but one who is well inside the defensive perimeter. Now, why is it we cannot say within the water? After all, water is something one can be well and truly in. Look again at the icon for within. The icon expresses the fact that 'best example' uses of within are ones where a thing or stuff is not in definite contact with whatever is containing it. But if you are totally immersed in water, it touches you. This is why within is inappropriate here. A proponent of the Lexical Approach would probably just say that within the water is an 'unnatural collocation, a useless bit of mental circularity if ever there was one.

General comment

A student with a poor understanding of the basic physically grounded meanings of English spatial prepositions is certain to become confused about why we sometimes use one preposition rather than another which seems similar in meaning. What teachers and materials writers should be doing is helping learners to see, for instance, which prepositions are relatively general in meaning (e.g., in, under, on…) and which are not (e.g., within, below, on top of…). Further, learners need to know just how these latter prepositions are specific. For instance, some are unambiguously dynamic--and, therefore, potentially very emphatic. Onto (as opposed to on) is one such preposition. There are other important facets of prepositional meaning—more than can be covered in a short article, but not too many to learn. (I will say more about this in the next issue.) There is room here, though, to broach another important matter—prepositions used metaphorically. The word I focus on in the example is away, which has been traditionally called a directional adverb. But its meaning is very prepositional--in that it is about a spatial relationship--so I will call it a preposition here. (Some linguists call directional adverbs such as away 'intransitive prepositions' for the reason that, like intransitive verbs, they don't have an explicit grammatical object.)

Example 3: away as an expression of 'free continuation'

It seems uncontroversial to say that, in the phrase drive away from a house, we see the basic 'physically grounded' (or 'concrete' or 'literal') meaning of away. That is, something (here, a car) becomes more and more distant from a reference object (here, a house). This meaning can be indicated iconically like this: '[] ->', where the box represents the house and the arrow, the path of the car. Notice that there is no suggestion of an endpoint. This absence of an endpoint makes away very different from, say, towards, the meaning of which we can represent like this -> [] . Here, the house is the likely endpoint if movement continues.

    This may not seem like much information yet it is relevant to the meanings of expressions such as beaver away, sing away, chatter away (and so on) as follows.
    The meaning of away includes no idea of an endpoint, or limit. Thus, away is a good preposition to use in order metaphorically to convey the idea that an action is not moving towards an immediate end. The contemporary meaning of an expression such as sing away may, thus, have the following semantic history: Basic meaning: "away == 'further and further with no clear endpoint'" + sing So, sing away = 'sing and sing with no clear endpoint'. Which becomes, 'sing and sing without a restriction as a time limit'. Which becomes, 'sing and sing freely, without inhibition'.

General comment

In a classroom, the amount of detail teachers should give about the meaning(s) of this or that preposition depends, of course, on their students. Will they understand? Will they be interested? My explanation of 'free continuation away' just above is too detailed for most learners. It is probably enough in most cases for a teacher simply to point out that away can add the notion of 'freely' into the meaning of a number of non-motion verbs. But if your learners have a good understanding of the basic physically grounded meaning of away, they may be able to get a sense of the metaphorical chaining on their own. And if they know about the physically grounded sense of 'continuative' on (as in sing on), they should have a good chance of understanding the clear difference in meaning between sing away and sing on—a difference which brute phrase memorization is most unlikely ever to reveal.


It is not at all uncommon for both low and high proficiency learners to remark that the English preposition system is confusing. But this state of affairs is due in large part to defective coursebooks, defective learners' dictionaries and to the defective knowledge of teachers who have themselves been very poorly served by published materials.

    From the point of view of learners, English prepositions are a major problem which has been kept locked in the closet by a few generations of U.K. and U.S. publishers. The book I wrote on English prepositions was rejected by every U.K. publisher I showed it to. The reason given (when a reason was given) was that prepositions were idiomatic and quirky and I was wrong to think any different. But the book was snapped up by the first Continental European publishing house I sent it to because, I believe, people who have had to struggle with English prepositions themselves not only take the problem seriously but also know that almost everything presently available about prepositions is inadequate, or worse. People who haven't had to struggle (i.e., British and American commissioning editors) are, by and large, clueless.
    Because prepositions are such a big issue with learners of English, I will write a bit more about it in the next issue.

You can read more about prepositions in--

    Lindstromberg, S. 1996. 'English prepositions: meaning and method.' ELT Journal, 50/3: 225-236. Oxford U. Press. [About teaching prepositions—the key example preposition is on.] -- 1997. English Prepositions Explained. John Benjamins Publishing Co. [This is a full book of explanations; also additional suggestions for further reading.] -- 1999. 'Spatial prepositions in three U.K. published general English courses'. Folio, 5/2: 19-22. -- 2001. 'Preposition entries in U.K. monolingual learners' dictionaries: problems and possible solutions'. Applied Linguistics, 22/1:79-103. Oxford U. Press. [This is mainly about on and about how five U.K. published advanced learners' dictionaries fail to present its meaning particularly well; the list of references mentions, for instance, key journals.]

An introduction to applying the Lexical Approach…
Lewis, Michael. 1993. The Lexical Approach. LTP. [Very polemical but readable.]

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