Prepositional metaphors

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The meaning of a preposition is a sort of schema, which gets extended to other uses, such as being used as a phrasal verb particle (PVP), the second component of a phrasal verb such as get out, get over, get around. The meanings of prepositions and the corresponding PVPs work like this. Each of these words has a basic, core meaning, usually a spatial meaning referring to location or position, such as the original physical meanings of over, around, up, and such. Often, these are extended to temporal meanings, such as time expressions and other references to times and events, e.g., “it’s over” = “it has finished.” Very often, the spatial and temporal meanings get extended to metaphorical meanings. Many phrasal verbs represent metaphorical uses of these words, as do many of their uses as prepositions.

  1. spatial: original physical, spatial, locational meaning
    E.g.: get up, go up
  2. temporal: meanings and references related to time and events
    E.g.: The semester is over. I'm going to Bali for a week.
  3. metaphorical extensions of #1 and/or #2
    Please speak up - I cannot make out what you're saying.
    Hey, it's over - I moved on with my life already.


For example, take the meaning of over as shown in the diagram below. The original spatial meaning refers to an object (or person) moving over another object (the dot, which serves as the reference point), lead to the completion the movement. An observer can rest in a position over the top, or one can look at the completed action. From point A, we can say, for example, you are looking over something physically; this idea can be extended metaphorically to being over something, such as being in charge or in control (I am over a company of 500 people). From point B, we can speak of something being finished or done, even metaphorically (“I’m over you!” said to an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, meaning that one is emotionally finished with the relationship, the breakup, its consequences, and one no longer has any interest in him/her anymore). Other metaphorical uses of over derive from the meanings of over for position or movement.

Over.annotated.png


With up you can view the action from the top level, where something is coming up toward you. You can also look at the action from the bottom of the container, and speak of something going up from that vantage point. From point A, you can speak of something ‘sneaking up’ on you by surprise, or events that ‘come up’ unexpectedly. From point B, you can speak of something growing or rising, such as water boiling up. You can speak of processes growing or finishing, such as ‘finish up, wrap up.’ Just as liquid can boil up and over a container, you can speak of things that metaphorically go somewhere, or go too far, like when you say “I’m fed up” or “what’s up?”

Up.annotated.png


Prepositions are regularly borrowed and used in phrasal verbs, e.g., get over it. In this case, it may no longer be a true preposition syntactically, but a phrasal verb particle, and oftentimes, the meanings of the PVP as well as true prepositions can be rather metaphorical; see prepositional metaphors. See also Lindstromberg (2010).[1]


List of prepositions / PVPs

The following is a list of prepositions that also serve as PVPs in English. They have similar metaphorical meanings, whether used as a true preposition or as a PVP. For example, over has similar metaphorical meanings, regardless of whether it is used as a true preposition or as a PVP in a phrasal verb, so its metaphorical meanings can be considered together regardless of its grammatical category.

  • about
  • after
  • across
  • apart
  • around            
  • at
  • away
  • back
  • by
  • down            
  • for
  • from
  • in
  • into            
  • of
  • off
  • on
  • onto
  • out
  • over
  • through            
  • to
  • up
  • with


  1. Lindstromberg, Seth. (2010). English Prepositions Explained. John Benjamins.