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Concourse 2

Prepositions of place

place 

There is an essential guide to prepositions in the initial plus training section and a guide to prepositional phrases in the in-service section.


many prepositions

How many prepositions of place are there?

Lots.  In the graphic at the top, there are nearly 60 and that's not a full list.  Some, of course, such as athwart, abeam, chez and astride are rarely used but many are very common.  It's our job to make some sense of all this for our learners and to do that we have to do some serious language analysis.
Here's an unclassified reference list of the usual prepositions of place:

abaft
abeam
aboard
about
above
across
against
ahead of
along
alongside
amid
amidst
among
amongst
apart from
around
aside
astern of
astride
at
athwart
atop
away from
before
behind
below
beneath
beside
between
beyond
by
chez
close to
down
far from
from
in
inside
into
near
near to
next to
off
on
onto
opposite
opposite to
out (of)
outside (of)
over
past
round
through(out)
to
towards
under
underneath
until
up
up to
upon
via
with
within
If you would like that list as a PDF document, click here.

It is not too surprising that our learners have a bit of trouble with these, is it?


many prepositions

What do prepositions of place do?

Three things:

  1. They act as adjuncts which relate an event or state to a place.  For example, We were talking in the garden.
  2. They act as postmodifiers telling us where something is.  For example, the man on the corner.
  3. They form the predicate after the verb be.  For example, The wheelbarrow is in the garden.

recognise

How do we recognise a preposition of place?

That's not as simple as it might seem.  We have to look at the three things that the prepositions actually do and then decide.  Words which are often seen as prepositions actually occur masquerading as different parts of speech quite regularly.  You don't always know that a word is a preposition until you put it in context.  Here's what's meant.
Which of the following contains a preposition?  Click on the table when you have an answer.

place prepositions 1


analyse

How do we analyse prepositions of place?

It's not at all easy because many do not lend themselves to neat categories and many overlap in meaning with others but we can make some sense of them by considering two factors:

  1. What dimension do they refer to?
    1. a point
    2. a line or a surface
    3. an area or volume
  2. Do they refer to position, to movement to a destination or to both?

Once we have those two factors in mind, life gets (a bit) simpler.  Try analysing the following prepositions in use and ask yourself:

  1. What sort of dimension do they refer to?
  2. Do they refer to position, to movement to a destination or can they refer to both?

Then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

He walked to the corner eye open
  1. Dimension = point
  2. Movement to a destination only
He stood at the corner eye open
  1. Dimension = point
  2. Position only in this case because of the verb but it is also possible to use the preposition to refer to movement to a destination as in, e.g., Put it at the corner.
He put it onto the table eye open
  1. Dimension = surface
  2. Movement to a destination only
He put it on the floor and it's still on it eye open
  1. Dimension = surface
  2. Either movement to a destination (first use) or position (second use)
He took it away from me and told me to keep it away from the children eye open
  1. Dimension = point
  2. Either movement to a destination (first use) or position (second use)
The helicopter took them off the ship ...eye open
  1. Dimension = surface
  2. Movement to a destination in this case although you can have they are now off the ship where off refers to position
... and they are now out of danger eye open
  1. Dimension = area or volume (metaphorically)
  2. Movement to a destination although you can have He stood out of danger where position is meant.
I put it into my pocket eye open
  1. Dimension = volume
  2. Movement to a destination only
I put it in my pocket and it's still in there eye open
  1. Dimension = volume
  2. Either movement to a destination or position

A few more comments

It is fairly easy to see from the above and with a bit of reflection on the list at the beginning, that most prepositions of place can be used to describe location and movement to a destination but some can only do one or the other.
For example, in, above, under and on can refer to both locations and movements to destinations:
    Put it in the box | It is in the box
    I hung it on the wall above the fireplace | It's always been on the wall above the fireplace
etc.
However, into, onto, past and away from can only refer to movement to a destination:
    Put it into the box | *It is into the box
    I nailed it onto the wall | *It's onto the wall
    I ran past the shop | *I stood past the shop
etc.
A smaller set can only (usually) refer to static location.  This very short list includes: at, beside and by:
    I was at the station | *I went at the station
    I sat by/beside my aunt | *I went by/beside my aunt
Even with some of these, it is possible to use verbs of movement providing the relative positions of the two participants are unchanged, e.g., I ran beside him all the way.
The other thing to note is that by (in common with some other prepositions) has alternative meanings.  In the sense of past, rather than next to, it can be used for movement: I ran by [past] the shop.

Movement towards a destination is sometimes described as positive and away from a destination as negative but that is something we can ignore for teaching purposes.


classroom

Putting the analysis into practice in the classroom 

Explaining and exemplifying

Using this kind of analysis, it becomes a little easier to explain to a learner what a preposition 'means'.

Example 1: if you were asked to explain along the road, what would you say?  Click eye open when you have decided.

Example 2: if you were asked how at, on and in differ, how would you reply?  Click eye open when you have decided.

Using graphics

Many people respond well to graphical representations of the relationships set by prepositions and they are easy to invent off the cuff.  The two issues (position vs. movement and dimensions) are the things to consider.  Here are some cut-out-and-keep diagrams:

point
surface 1
surface 2
volume 1
volume 2 

distinctions

Other distinctions

Apart from movement vs. location and the three dimensions, there are some other distinctions to be made when explaining prepositions of place to your learners:

  1. Relative vs. absolute position and speaker orientation
  2. Horizontal vs. vertical position and movement
  3. Passage vs. destination
  4. Touching or not (contiguity)

One at a time, then.

Relative vs. absolute position and speaker orientation

Some prepositions refer to the relative positions only of two items or people.  I.e., they express where something is in relation to where something else is.  For example:
    Tom is in the town
is true wherever the observer is standing and wherever the town is so it is not concerned with relative position, only with the absolute position of Tom.  However:
    The car is behind the van
is only sensible if one knows where the observer is standing.  Move the observer or the second object (i.e., the object the car is relative to) and you change the relationship.  If the observer moves the sentence may become
    The car is in front of / on the left of / on the right of the van
etc.  Move the van and the sentence changes again.
Prepositions like this come in pairs of converse words.  If we say, e.g.
    My keys are underneath the newspaper
we are also implying that
    The newspaper is on top of my keys
It is not sensible to infer from
    Tom is in the town
that
    The town is around Tom
so that relationship is not relative.
Move the town and we still know where Tom is; move the newspaper and it all changes.

Can you classify the following?  Click eye open when you have done that.
above, over, under, beneath, in front of, in, inside, at, beyond

Prepositions describing movement to a destination are always relative because one of the objects at least is moving relative to the other.

Horizontal vs. vertical position

This is related because we are referring to relative positions, of course.
Can you classify these based on whether they refer to horizontal or vertical relationships?
Click eye open when you have done that.
on top of, underneath, below, in front of, on the right of, behind, beyond

Horizontal vs. vertical movement

When it comes to prepositions referring to movement, the same distinction applies.
Classify these and then click eye open:
up, down, along, across

That was pretty easy but note that up and down are often used to describe horizontal movement: He went down the road, He went up the street.

Passage vs. destination

Three common prepositions refer to passage: through, across, past.
However, the dimensions they refer to are different.
Compare, e.g.:
    They walked across the garden.
    They walked through the forest.
    They walked past the house.
What do you notice?  Click eye open for a comment.

Touching or not (contiguity)

Compare
    It is below the table
to
    It is underneath the newspaper
to see what's meant by this.
Some prepositions such as on top of and underneath clearly imply that the two objects are in contact.  Others do not, although the objects may be touching, e.g.:
    I hid under the blanket
vs.
    I hid underneath the blanket
.
A note on over, above, below, and under:
over and under imply a direct vertical relationship: the plane flew over the town, the river flowed under the bridge etc.
above and below can describe such a relationship but they can also imply simply a difference in elevation: the town is above the valley, the river is below the market place.
If you swap the prepositions around in those examples, you'll soon see what is meant.

the use of all

If some prepositions are modified with all, the sense may change slightly and be more pervasive:

  • He ran over the garden vs. He ran all over the garden
  • He ran through the park vs. He ran all through the park
  • I walked along the street vs. I walked all along the street
  • I walked around Sussex vs. I walked all around Sussex

and finally:

If we use a verb of movement whose meaning involves the sense of a preposition, we can omit the preposition without affecting the sense.  Compare, e.g.:

  • He passed the park vs. He passed by the park
  • Turned the corner vs. He turned round the corner
  • She jumped the wall vs. She jumped over the wall

classroom

More classroom implications

Alerting our learners to whether a preposition refers to point, line or surface, area or volume and movement or location (or both) is part of the battle.
Step 2 is to consider the other variables:

  1. The orientation of the observer can usually be handled with simple diagrams such as
    orientation
  2. Relative position and horizontal vs. vertical position can be handled the same way:
    vertical etc.
    Which of the following are true?
    Statement True? False?
    The blue box is over the green box     
    The black box is above the yellow box     
    The black box is over the yellow box     
    The yellow box is below the blue box     
    The brown box is under the red box    
    The red box is behind the yellow box    
    The pink box is under the black box    
    and so on and on and on.
  3. Issues of movement can also be illustrated.
    What can you say about the picture using went over, walked under, drove across, went along, walked through
        The train went over the bridge
        We walked under the bridge
        The boat went along the bridge

    etc.
  4. across, through and past cause conceptual difficulties (not least because they rarely translate exactly, if at all) so need some kind of visual hook:
    through
    across
    past the hotel
    The taxi drove along the street and past the hotel without stopping.
  5. Dimensions
    As we see above, dimensions and viewpoints can easily be illustrated with five simple shapes (and an arrow if you want to show movement).  Here they are:
    point line surface
    point line surface
    area volume arrows
    area volume movement arrows
    Point of view can be added with three curves and a dot:
    eye
    With those simple shapes, in various combinations, you can illustrate virtually all the prepositions of place and alert your learners to their characteristics.
    Try it for yourself with some prepositions of place we have not considered in detail here like:
    against, ahead of, alongside, amid, among, between, close to, far from, next to, opposite to, towards, via etc.

And so on.  Your imagination, and that of your learners, determine the limits.


Summary of prepositions of place

prepositions of place summary



Related guides
place adjuncts for an overview of how else we signal where something occurred in English
prepositions of time for a similar guide to another set of prepositions
prepositional phrases for a guide to prepositions and their complements
7 meanings of over for a short video presentation of the meanings of a troublesome preposition
elementary prepositions for a lesson for elementary learners with a short video to help them understand place and movement
place adjuncts a guide which also considers adverb adjuncts and investigates some word order and syntactical issues


Main reference:
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman