Prepositions in and on retain aspects of spatial meaning in abstract contexts


Prepositions such as in and on convey not only spatial relationships between objects, but also abstract relationships, such as ‘Mary is in love’ and ‘Tim’s on a roll’. Although such uses are often thought to be purely idiomatic, we hypothesized that these abstract, non-spatial relationships might preserve one specific aspect of prepositions’ spatial meaning: the degree to which the figure or the ground controls the figure-ground relationship (Coventry, 1992; Coventry, Carmichael & Garrod, 1994; Feist & Gentner, 1997, 1998, 2003). We found that locus of control distinguishes in and on in common abstract metaphorical contexts (e.g., in love/on a roll), matched abstract contexts (e.g., in/on time), and novel abstract contexts. These findings suggest that prepositions retain aspects of their spatial meaning when used abstractly.

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