Up: Linguistic aspects of lexical
Prepositions have not been much studied in traditional lexical
semantics [Zel93], [Tru92], [VanD94], [Lin97]
compared to the large amount of work devoted to verbs and to nouns.
They nevertheless play a very important role in semantics and have
many connections with most of the other syntactic categories. They
have been, however, extensively studied in psycho-linguistics, in
particular spatial prepositions.
Main organization of prepositions
Prepositions occur in the following three main syntactic situations:
- as heads of prepositional phrases,
- as an element in verbal compounds (e.g. turn out, give up,
aufsteigen, anrufen, etc. or a more complex form as: sich fressen
gegenseitig auf), where they largely contribute to the semantics of
the expression. This compound is subject to various more or less
strong constraints, in particular in Germanic languages,
- some prepositions function s case markers as in:
donner qqchose à Marie where [ à Marie] can possibly be
analysed not as a PP but as an NP[prep=a] or a
- as a `connector' in nominal compounds (planche à voile,
plancha a vela, plan de vuelo) (REF),
- as introducing small clauses in a number of languages,
- preposition may be incorporated [Bak88] (to climb (up)
versus to climb down, where down is obligatory whereas up may be
incorporated into the verb).
When dealing with prepositions, a clear distinction appears between
semantically full and semantically empty prepositions.
- Semantically empty prepositions are prepositions which
are strongly bound by a predicative head, like on, in the
example: John relies on his father where on cannot be
substituted by a semantically close preposition like in or over. They are considered to be case markers by some approaches
(as suggested by [Pol87] and developped by [Bad96]). These
prepositions are lexically predicted by the predicative head and,
therefore, do not contribute to the semantics of the sentence. In a
Machine Translation system like EUROTRA 3.9.1, they are
featurised (o elevated) in the process of parsing : that is, they
disappear as lexical nodes and their lexical value is encoded as an
attribute of the predicative head. This implies that they are not
translated, ut are generated in the target language from the
information encoded in the entry of the predicative head.
- Full prepositions, on the contrary, are heads of
prepositional phrases (see2.9.2) . They always subcategorize for (only) one
argument, which in most cases is an NP, but can also be a finite or
inite clause, an adverb or even a PP. Full prepositional phrases may
function as :
- adjuncts (weakly bound by a predicative governor), like
The book lies on the table
where on can be substituted by a semantically close
preposition, because the predicate demands a locative complement and
not a specific preposition.
- or modifiers (like for, in :
John works for his father
where the prepositional phrase is not particularly predicted by the
verb, and the semantics
it conveys (benefactive) may apply to other verbs as well:
John (dances /bakes a cake / fixes the TV set) for his
Let us now examine a simple semantic classification for prepositions.
Note first that prepositions are highly polysemous; they are also
subject to many metaphorical extensions, for example spatial
preopositions have for most of them a metaphorical extension to
abstract entities, viewed as locations (e.g. against a wall
against some principles). We can however tentatively
propose the following general classification, where some items may
overlapp on different ontological domains (e.g. time and space):
- temporal prepositions:
- expressing anteriority (before, until),
- expressing duration (durant, pendant, while),
- expressing posteriority (after, despuès, as soon as).
- spatial prepositions:
- expressing source (from, à partir de, depuis, since),
- expressing position, either absolute (en, chez) or relative
(under, in, infront of),
- goal, reached, (à),
- direction, not necessarily reached (via, toward, to, vers, hasta).
- prepositions expressing cause (because of, lors de, par, suite à),
- prepositions expressing consequences (in order to, de façon à),
- prepositions expressing goals or purpose (for, with the intention of, afin de),
- prepositions expressing conditions (à condition de),
- prepositions expressing means or manner:
- manner (en selon),
- accompaniement (with),
- instrumental means (avec, by means of par).
Prepositions across languages
The use of prepositions can, in general, be specified quite
unambiguously. For example, for an event occuring after a certain
date, the prepositions after, nach(dem), na(dat) après,
despuès will be respectively used for English, German, Dutch,
French and Spanish, if the action takes place before the date, then we
respectively have before, (be)vor, voor(dat), avant, antes.
Prepositions do not have often direct correspondences across
languages. For example if S is an event, we have the following
preposition lexicalizations depending on the duration and the type of
¿From a different perspective around translates in German as gegen, um, at translates as um, zu, bei, an, in and by, until translate as bis.
- simple point: at, bei, bij, à (English, German, Dutch, French),
- S has a duration, and happened once in the past: when/as,
als, toen, lors de; als becomes wie in case of present tense in
- otherwise: when/as, wenn, als/wanneer, lors de.
Similarly, verbs may select very different types of prepositions in
two different languages:
dream about someone,
soñar con alguien. (Spanish: to dream with someone)
Whereas about and de have about equivalent meanings, con is completely different. There are many divergences of this type
which make machine translation quite difficult.
In the context of a multilingual system, the need for assigning some
sort of semantics to modifying prepositional phrases may be
illustrated by these two facts
Italian per incorporates both the meanings of Spanish para and por:
without any kind of semantic information it is not possible to decide
which translation must be
chosen, as may be seen in the following examples. The first set
corresponds to benefactive per and the second to causative
1. Ha scritto una lettera per la sua fidanzata
Ha escrito una carta para su novia
(He) has written a letter for her girlfriend
2. Ha scritto una lettera per paura
Ha escrito una carta por miedo
(He) has written a letter out of fear.
Prepositions and Semantic Relations for Modifiers
The work reported here has mainly been developed within Eurotra, 3.9.1.
Semantic Relations for Modifiers : MODSR An experiment on
Semantic Relations for Modifiers was carried out in the context of the
Eurotra project by some language groups during 1989 and was afterwards
adopted as legislation by the rest of the groups.
>From the examples above, it seems clear that a mere lexical
typification of the preposition (like benefactive or causative) is not sufficient to perform the disambiguation, due to
the polysemous nature of most prepositions. A calculation of the
semantic value ( or relation ) of the whole prepositional phrase
is needed. Thus, the semantic relation (or modsr value) of a PP
of the form: P + NP has to be calculated on the basis of the lexical
value of the preposition P combined with the lexical semantic value of
the NP. Thus, for instance, the preposition with may have
several semantic values, depending on the NP that follows it:
PP[ with + NP (sem=hum)] => PP[modsr=accompaniment]
PP[ with + NP (sem=non-hum)] => PP[modsr=instrument]
It appears that some set of lexical semantic features (LSF) for nouns
is needed, but since the process of calculation is internal to each
language module, each of them is free to use its own set, which may
have different degrees of granularity. On the other hand, the set of
modsr labels belongs to the Eurotra Interface Structure (IS) and thus
is shared by all languages. Here follows the list of modsr values
that was agreed upon. They are divided into two big groups :
This distinction is justified because, from a semantic point of view,
the relation between the modifier and the head is of a different type
in both cases, as sustained by [Pol87]. Also
, from a syntactic point of view, the choice of the preposition for
modifiers of nominal heads is much more restricted, especially in the
Romance languages where the most frequent is of (e in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan, and di in
Italian). We could say that nonpredicative (or nominal)
prepositional modifiers behave like adjectives while predicative
modifiers behave like adverbs. Predicative nouns are a bit special
because they combine a verbal and a nominal nature.
- those that apply to PPs modifying predicative heads (verbs and
- those that apply to PPs modifying nonpredicative heads
- Modifiers of predicative heads:
- Place-position : 'The report is ON THE TABLE'.
It is further subdivided in positioninon
- Place-goal : 'The boy is looking TOWARDS THE BEACH'
- Place-origin : 'FROM THIS WINDOW, the views are magnificent'
- Place-path : 'He ran THROUGH THE FIELDS'
- Cause : 'He died BECAUSE OF THE COLD'
- Aim : 'He did it TO SAVE HIMSELF'
- Concern : 'She told me ABOUT HER FRIEND'
- Accompaniment : 'The soldiers came WITH THEIR GIRLFRIENDS'
- Instrument : 'They bombed Baghdad WITH MISSILES'
- Benefactive : 'He turned on the heater FOR LINDA'
- Substitute : 'He appeared on the news, speaking FOR THE STATE
- Manner : 'The government reacted WITH CAUTION'
- Function : 'I tell you this AS A FRIEND'
- Measure :'Fabrics are sold BY THE METRE'
- Comparison : 'Columbia was a young city COMPARED TO VENERABLE
- Time : 'He only sees her AT CHRISTMAS AND
- Modifiers of non-predicative heads :
- Quality-place : it may be further subdivided in :
- place = position: 'a brick IN THE WALL'
- place = goal : 'the train TO LONDON'
- place = origin :'oranges FROM SPAIN'
- place = path : 'a road THROUGH THE DESERT'
- Quality-whole : 'the other side OF THE SQUARE'
- Quality-stuff : 'loose-fitting garments OF LINEN'
- Quality-quality : it may be further subdivided in:
- quality = inherent : 'a car WITH FIVE DOORS'
- quality = state: 'a car WITH A BROKEN GLASS'
- Quality-concern : 'a report ON THE IMPLEMENTATION'
- Quality-aim : 'a room FOR RENT'
- Quality-specification : 'the island OF CUBA'
- Quality-function : 'Clinton, AS PRESIDENT OF THE US'
- Quality-measure : 'a project OF SEVERAL MILLIONS'
Relations with other areas of lexical semantics
The relations that prepositions have with other elements of lexical semantics are the following:
- Prepositions head prepositional phrases, as such they impose
selectional restrictions, e.g. a spatial proposition expects an NP of
type location. Prepositions can then be associated with a kind of
- Prepositions assign thematic roles to the NP they head, they can
therefore be associated with a thematic grid, similarly to verbs.
- We may also consider that they assign a thematic role to other
NPs involved in the relation described by the preposition.
- Prepositions play an important role in the definition of verb
syntactic alternations 2.6.2, e.g. the into/onto, on/with
and conative alternations [Lev93].
- Preposition play a crucial role for identifying the semantics of
modifiers, in particular they indicate means, manner, purpose, time,
location, accompaniement and amount 2.6.2.
Prepositions in LKB
Prepositions being a closed set of words are usaully described in
depth in most lexical knowledge bases. They can be grouped into
families as suggested above in 2.9.1. They usually share a
number of properties, but are not in general included into major
Prepositions in Applications
As already shown above, prepositions may be quite difficult to
translate in MT applications 4.1, and at that level, lexical
semantics is of much use to help disambiguate and select the right
prepositions 3.9, 3.10, 3.7 5.3.
Another important role of prepositions is to contribute to solving
ambiguities in PP-attachment. This is also a complex task, but the
semantics of prepositions can be used to decide whether the PP is a
verb complement (argument or modifier) or a noun complement.
Finally, prepositions convey a quite important semantic load, in spite
of their high polysemic nature. They are in particular important to
identify the semantics of modifiers. From that point of view, they
are of much use in information retrieval systems for the extraction on
information 4.3, 4.2 in modifiers (e.g. when
predicate-argument structures are used, possibly combined with
thematic roles identifying the roles of NPs or PPs).
Up: Linguistic aspects of lexical
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