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Review of English prepositions explained

posted February 6th, 2012

English prepositions explained. Revised edition. By Seth Lindstromberg. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2010. Pp. xiii, 273. ISBN 9789027211743. $149.

Reviewed by Natalia Levshina, University of Leuven

The goal of this large-scale study of ninety English prepositions is to explain the semantics of these small but tricky words by establishing the functional and image-schematic similarities between different usages, meanings, and senses. As a useful addition to the information provided in dictionaries and reference grammars, the book should help teachers of English to explain, and learners of English to grasp and remember the subtleties of, prepositional use, for instance, in notoriously difficult idiomatic expressions. In comparison with the first edition of 1998, this revised edition contains more prepositions, more examples from corpora, and more illustrations. The book also deals with some of the adverbial modifiers and particles that are homonymous with prepositions (e.g. up, to) or are commonly used with them, such as away (from).

The book comprises twenty-one chapters, a list of references, a glossary of the basic concepts, and the general index with the prepositions and terms. The first chapter describes the structure, scope, and aims of the book and introduces key semantic notions, such as the ‘subject’ (in the meaning of the trajector) and the ‘landmark’, which are used in semantic explanations throughout the book. The subsequent nineteen chapters focus on the functionally determined ‘clusters’ of prepositions, which have the core and the periphery. For instance, Ch. 9 describes in detail the prepositions above and over, and also briefly considers across, through, via, during, and throughout, which partly overlap with over.

The structure of the chapters is centrifugal. Every chapter begins with a description of the basic meaning of the core preposition(s). Moving further from the semantic core of the cluster, the author investigates the extensions from the basic meaning and describes the differences between the near-synonymous prepositions. The book covers the most common metaphorical usages and abstract meanings. For instance, temporal expressions (e.g. over a month) are traced systematically throughout the book as a special type of extension. Many idiomatic and set expressions are discussed as well. The final chapter of the book is purely concept-based, or onomasiological. It contains a list of important abstract concepts and functions, such as agentivity, repetition, and comparison. For every function, there is a list of corresponding prepositions with comments on their meaning and usage.

The book is a true encyclopedia of prepositions, impressive in scope and rich in detail. The author uses figures, schemas, and corpus examples to illustrate the similarities and differences between prepositions or their senses. Although the cognitive reality of the basic meanings still needs to be supported empirically, as the author honestly admits himself, this does not undermine the pedagogical value of the descriptions or the synthesizing power of the book.