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Show full table of contents Absolute prepositions

Unlike the deictic and the inherent interpretations, the absolute interpretation requires no information about the reference object and/or an external anchoring point; minimal information about the natural environment (such as what the position of the earth or magnetic north is) suffices to properly interpret these prepositions. The absolute prepositions can be divided into two groups, which differ in that the former refers to a (change of) location, whereas the latter is directional.

[+]  I.  Absolute prepositions that denote a (change of) location

The group of absolute prepositions that denote a (change of) location is given in Table 15. These prepositions denote vectors with a magnitude greater than 0; there is no physical contact between the reference object and the located object. Some examples of PPs headed by these prepositions are given in (185).

Table 15: Absolute locational prepositions
preposition deictic inherent absolute null vector locational directional
boven + +
om + + ?
onder + + ?
rond + + ?
tussen + + ?

Example 185
a. De lamp hangt boven de kast.
  the lamp  hangs  above  the cupboard
b. De bal ligt onder de kast.
  the ball  lies  under  the cupboard
c. De lamp staat tussen twee vazen.
  the lamp  stands  between  two vases
d. De ketting zit om zijn enkel.
  the chain  sits  around  his ankle
e. De kaarsen staan rond de kerststal.
  the candles  stand  around  the crib

Before we discuss the absolute meaning of the prepositions in Table 15 more extensively, we want to discuss a number of special uses of them. First, the idiomatic expressions with boven in (186) seem to have a directional flavor.

Example 186
a. Dat gaat mij boven de pet.
  that  goes  me  above the cap
  'That is over my head /I donʼt understand that.'
b. Hij groeit mij boven het hoofd.
  he  grows  me  above the head
  'Heʼs outgrowing me/Heʼs leaving me standing.'

The same thing seems to hold for the idiomatic constructions in (187a), in which the adposition boven is preceded by the preposition te. The examples in (187b&c) show that similar idiomatic constructions are possible with the non-directional inherent prepositions binnen'inside' and buiten'outside', which will be discussed in Section

Example 187
a. Dit gaat mijn verstand te boven.
  this  goes  my understanding  te above
  'This goes beyond my power of reasoning.'
b. Dat schoot me net te binnen.
  that  rushed  me  just  te inside
  'This just came to me/I just remembered this.'
c. Dit gaat alle perken te buiten.
  this  goes  all boundaries  te outside
  'This oversteps all bounds.'

The preposition onder seems to denote the null vector in the idiomatic construction zitten + [PP onder ....] in (188a), which expresses that the bird is covered with oil. That we are dealing with an idiom is clear from the fact that the preposition onder has no paradigm; it cannot be replaced by any other spatial prepositions. Other constructions in which physical contact seems to be implied are given in the (b)-examples in (188): the (c)-examples show that in these examples onder functions as the antonym of the inherent preposition op, not of boven. This shows that onder can be used both as an absolute and as an inherent preposition. This subsection only discusses the former use.

Example 188
a. De vogel zit onder de olie.
  the bird  sits  under the oil
  Idiomatic: 'The bird has oil all over it.'
b. Jan ligt onder de dekens.
  Jan lies  under the blankets
  'Jan is lying under the blankets.'
b'. Jan ligt onder me.
  Jan lies  under me
  'Jan is lying under me.'
c. Jan ligt op/?boven de dekens.
  Jan lies on/above the blankets
  'Jan is lying on the blankets.'
c'. Jan ligt op/*boven me.
  Jan lies on/above me
  'Jan is lying on top of me.'

The examples in (189), finally, show that, like the deictic prepositions achter'behind' and voor'in front of', the absolute prepositions boven and onder can be combined with the inherent prepositions op'on' and in'in'. The resulting sequence must be interpreted inherently and denotes the null vector.

Example 189
a. bovenop 'on top of'
a'. bovenin 'at the top of'
b. onderop 'on the bottom of'
b'. onderin 'at the bottom of'

      Let us now turn to the more normal, absolute interpretations of the prepositions boven'above', om'around', onder'beneath', rond'around' and tussen'between' in Table 15. PPs headed by these prepositions can normally be interpreted without taking recourse to the dimensional properties of the reference object (which we therefore represent as a point in Figure 13 below) and/or some external anchoring point. For the interpretation of PPs headed by boven and onder, however, we do need some information about the natural environment; as is shown in Figure 13A, we have to know where the earth surface is situated. Figure 13B&C shows that minimal information like this is not even needed for the prepositions om'around', rond'around' and tussen'between'.

Figure 13: Boven'above', onder'beneath', tussen'between' and om/rond'around'

Observe that the preposition tussen'between' is special in that it normally requires a plural complement; the location is computed on the basis of at least two reference objects. This property can also be found with the preposition halverwege in (190a), although this preposition can also refer to a certain position on the reference object; in (190b), the position of the located object is computed on the basis of the boundaries (in this case, the bottom and the top) of the reference object.

Example 190
a. Jan woont halverwege/tussen Groningen en Zuid-Laren.
  Jan lives  halfway/between  Groningen and Zuid-Laren
b. Jan staat halverwege/*tussen de ladder.
  Jan stands  halfway/between  the ladder

There are some exceptions to the general rule that the complement of tussen'between' is plural. In (191), for example, tussen takes the singular noun phrase de deur'the door' as its complement. However, what is actually claimed is that Janʼs finger got jammed between the door and the door-post.

Example 191
Jan kreeg zijn vinger tussen de deur.
  Jan got  his finger  between the door

      In many cases, the preposition om seems to refer to a region in only two dimensions, as in the left figure in Figure 13C, whereas rond seems to denote a region in three dimensions, as in the right figure. In other cases, however, the difference between the two is not clear, and both om and rond seem to be equally well applicable to the two situations in Figure 13C (and the same thing seems to hold for the complex preposition rondom). The two examples in (192), for example, seem to be nearly equivalent.

Example 192
a. De padvinders zitten om het vuur.
  the scouts  sit  around the fire
b. De padvinders zitten rond het vuur.
  the scouts  sit  around the fire

Still, it is not the case that om and rond are always interchangeable. In examples such as (193a), the preposition om is possible whereas the preposition rond gives rise to a severely degraded result, although it should be noted that Zwarts (2006), who proposes a number of semantic restrictions on the use of om and rond, assigns a mere question mark to the example with rond.

Example 193
Jan woont om/*rond de hoek.
  Jan lives  around the corner

      The examples in (185) have already shown that PPs headed by the prepositions in Table 15 can be used to indicate a location. The examples in (194) show that these PPs can also be used to indicate a change of location.

Example 194
a. Jan hangt de lamp boven de kast.
  Jan hangs  the lamp  above  the cupboard
b. Jan legt de bal onder de kast.
  Jan puts  the ball  under  the cupboard
c. Jan zet de lamp tussen twee vazen.
  Jan puts  the lamp  between  two vases
d. Jan wikkelt de ketting om zijn enkel.
  Jan winds  the chain  around  his ankle
e. Jan zet kaarsen rond de kerststal.
  Jan puts  candles  around  the crib

Although intuitions are again not very sharp, it seems that, with the exception of boven, the prepositions under discussion can also be used directionally. One indication for this is that they can at least marginally occur as the complement of a verb of traversing like rijden'to drive' in (195).

Example 195
a. Jan is ??onder/*boven de brug gereden.
  Jan is under/above  the bridge  driven
b. ?? Jan is tussen de bomen gereden.
  Jan is between  the trees  driven
c. Jan is om/?rond het meer gereden.
  Jan is around  the lake  driven

Note that the marginal examples become fully acceptable if rijden takes the auxiliary hebben in the perfect tense, but rijden is then just an activity verb and the PP functions as an adverbial phrase of place. In fact, the same thing holds for boven, as will be clear from the following example: Het zweefvliegtuig heeft/*is boven de hei gevlogen'The sailplane has flown over the heath land'.
      A clearer indication that these prepositions can be interpreted directionally is that most of them can head PPs with an extent reading. For examples (196a&b), it might be argued that the preposition is an abbreviation of the circumposition P ... door, but this is certainly not possible for om and rond in (196c).

Example 196
a. De weg loopt onder de brug ?(door).
  the road  goes  under  the bridge   door
b. De weg loopt tussen de bomen ?(door).
  the road  goes  between  the trees    door
c. De weg loopt om/rond het meer (*door).
  the road  goes  around  the lake    door

      The more or lesss formal preposition te'in/at' probably also belongs to the group of absolute prepositions. A PP headed by te seems to be preferably interpreted as denoting a location, as in (197a), but the examples in (197b&c) show that such PPs may sometimes also refer to a change of location. Given the formal nature of te, it is not surprising that there are several fixed expressions involving a change of location; an example is given in (197d). Note that the examples in (187) above suggest that PPs headed by te are sometimes even directional in nature.

Example 197
a. Jan woont te Amsterdam.
  Jan lives  in Amsterdam
b. Jan raakte te water.
change of location
  Jan got  in water
  'Jan got into the water.'
c. Jan vestigt zich te Amsterdam.
(change of) location
  Jan settles  refl  in Amsterdam
d. We hebben hem gisteren ter aarde besteld.
  we  have  him  yesterday  into.the earth  delivered
  'We buried him yesterday.'

      To conclude this discussion of the absolute locational prepositions, we want to note that boven and onder together with the deictic prepositions discussed in give an exhaustive, but not necessarily complementary, division of space. If we take the crossing point of the three axes in the Cartesian-style coordinate system in Figure 14 to represent the position of the reference object, six regions can be distinguished. The regions denoted by voor'in front of' and achter'behind', boven'above' and onder'above' and links van'to the left of' and rechts van'to the right of' do not overlap; they are true antonyms. The other ones, on the other hand, may overlap, which is also clear from the fact that combinations such as rechts boven'right above', links achter'left behind' and ? voor onder'in front under' can be found. Observe that naast'next to' can be used if the left/right distinction is not relevant; similar prepositions do not exist for voor/achter or boven/onder. Adpositions of the sort given in Figure 14, including the preposition tussen'in between', are referred to as projective prepositions in Zwart (1997).

Figure 14: The division of space

As was shown in Figure 13B&C above, in addition to the regions denoted by these six “basic” prepositions, other regions can be denoted by prepositions like tussen'between' and om/rondom'around'. Further, it should be noted that there are also other ways to divide space, for example, by means of the absolute phrasal prepositions ten noorden/oosten/zuiden/westen van'to the north/east/south/west of'.

[+]  II.  Absolute prepositions that denote a direction

The absolute directional prepositions in Table 16 do not normally refer to a (change of) location, but denote a direction (a movement along a path). Given the fact that the located object is not situated in a fixed location but on a path (an ordered sequence of vectors), they do not involve the null vector by definition.

Table 16: Absolute directional prepositions
preposition deictic inherent absolute null vector locational directional
naar + +
tot (en met) + +
van + +
vanaf + +
vanuit + +
over (I) + +
via + +
voorbij + +

That the PPs headed by the prepositions in Table 16 do not readily refer to a location is clear from the fact that they cannot head the complements of locational verbs like liggen'to lie' or verbs of change of location like leggen'to put'. In (198), this is illustrated for the prepositions naar'to', van'from' and via'via'.

Example 198
a. * Het boek ligt naar de boekenkast.
  the book  lies  to  the bookshelves
a'. * Jan legt het boek naar de boekenkast.
  Jan puts  the lamp  to  the bookshelves
b. * Het boek ligt van de boekenkast.
  the book  lies  from  the bookshelves
b'. ? Jan legt het boek van de boekenkast.
  Jan puts  the book  from  the bookshelves
c. * Het boek ligt voorbij de boekenkast.
  the book  lies  past  the bookshelves
c'. * Jan legt het boek voorbij de boekenkast.
  Jan puts  the book  past  the bookshelves

The fact that example (198b') is relatively good is perhaps due to the fact that van can sometimes be used as an abbreviation of the circumposition van ... af. Note further that the preposition voorbij can be used to indicate a location if the located object is a building or a geographical entity (city, village mountain, etc.); the speaker then has a path in mind stretching from his current position towards the located object; the located object is then situated with respect to the reference object on this path. An example is given in (199a). Another counterexample to the claim that the prepositions in Table 16 are not locational is the possessive dative construction in (199b), which is normally interpreted metaphorically. That we are dealing with a more or lesss fixed expression is clear from the fact that it does not alternate with the construction in (199b'), in which the possessive relation is expressed by a possessive pronoun; see the discussion in V3.3.1.4.

Example 199
a. Goirle ligt even voorbij Tilburg.
  Goirle lies  just  past  Tilburg
b. Het water staat hem tot de lippen.
  the water  stands  him  to the lips
  'Heʼs in great difficulties.'
b'. * Het water staat tot zijn lippen.
  the water  stands  to his lips

      Whereas the prepositions in Table 16 normally do not occur as the complement of verbs of (change of) location, they do typically occur as the complement of verbs of traversing like rijden'to drive', fietsen'cycling', and lopen'to walk'.

Example 200
a. Jan reed naar Groningen.
  Jan  drove  to Groningen
a'. Jan is naar Groningen gereden.
  Jan  has  to Groningen  driven
b. Jan fietst van Utrecht ?(naar Groningen).
  Jan  cycles  from Utrecht to Groningen
b'. Jan is van Utrecht ?(naar Groningen) gefietst.
  Jan  has  from Utrecht to Groningen  cycled
c. Jan reed voorbij Groningen.
  Jan  drove  past Groningen
c'. (?) Jan is voorbij Groningen gereden.
  Jan  has  past Groningen  driven

The examples in (201) show that these prepositions also occur with unaccusative verbs like vertrekken'to leave', komen'to come', and gaan'to go'. This need not surprise us, given that the verbs of traversing in (200) also behave like unaccusatives: for example, they must take the auxiliary zijn'to be' in the perfect tense.

Example 201
a. Jan vertrok/ging naar Groningen.
  Jan left/went  to Groningen
b. Jan vertrekt/komt van Utrecht.
  Jan leaves/comes  from Utrecht
c. Jan kwam voorbij Groningen
  Jan came  past Groningen

Note that if the verbs in (200) take the auxiliary hebben, they no longer behave like verbs of traversing but like normal activity verbs; the concomitant result, shown in (202), is that PPs headed by the prepositions in Table 16 become degraded. Note that (202b) is acceptable if the phrase van Groningen tot Tilburg is interpreted restrictively in the sense that it is implied that Jan did something else (e.g., driving) during the remainder of the covered path; this adverbial reading is not relevant here.

Example 202
a. Jan heeft (*naar Groningen) gereden.
  Jan  has     to Groningen  driven
b. Jan heeft (#van Utrecht naar Groningen) gefietst.
  Jan  has     from Utrecht to Groningen  cycled
c. Jan heeft (*voorbij Groningen) gereden.
  Jan  has      past Groningen  driven

      The directional prepositions can be divided into three groups. The first group takes the reference object as the endpoint of the implied path. The second group, on the other hand, takes the reference object as the starting point of the path. The prepositions of the third group, finally, denote a path that includes the reference object. This can be represented by means of the two features ±from and ±to.

Example 203
a. -from-to: locational adpositions
b. -from+to: naar'to'; tot'until'; in de richting van'in the direction of'
c. +from-to: van'from'; vanuit'from out of'; vanaf'from'
d. +from+to: via'via'; over'over'; voorbij'past'

The feature constellation in (203a) denotes the set of prepositions that are non-directional, that is, the locational adpositions. The three others divide the directional adpositions into three subclasses depending on whether the adpositions take a reference object denoting the endpoint of a path, a reference object denoting the starting point of a path, or a reference object denoting both the end and the starting point of some subpart of the path. These three subclasses will be discussed below.

[+]  A.  The reference object as the endpoint of (the relevant subpart of) the path

The complement of the preposition naar'to' refers to the endpoint of a complete path, with the implication that it will be reached. The complement of the preposition tot (en met)'until' denotes an arbitrary point on an implied path, with the implication that this point is the endpoint of a subpart of the complete path. In other words, whereas example (204a) suggests that both Jan and Peter are going to Groningen (see Figure 15A), example (204b) suggests that at least one of the two participants will continue his travel beyond Groningen (in Figure 15B the dotted arrow indicates the remainder of the path that either Jan or Peter is covering). The difference between tot and tot en met is that in the latter case the relevant subpart of the path includes the position referred to by the reference object, whereas in the first case it can be excluded. Note that the (reduced version of the) phrasal preposition in de richting van just indicates the direction of the path, without implying that the reference object is ever reached (see Figure 15C).

Example 204
a. Jan rijdt met Peter mee naar Groningen.
  Jan drives  with Peter  with  to Groningen
  'Peter takes Jan with him to Groningen.'
b. Jan rijdt met Peter mee tot Groningen.
  Jan  drives  with Peter  with  until Groningen
  'Peter will drive Jan until Groningen.'
c. Jan rijdt (in de) richting (van) Groningen.
  Jan drives  into the  direction  of  Groningen

Figure 15: Naar'to', tot'until' and (in de) richting (van)'in the direction of'

PPs headed by the prepositions naar'to' and in de richting van'towards' are special in that they also allow an orientation reading. This is illustrated in (205). The two examples differ in that only in (205a) is the reference object actually pointed at.

Example 205
a. Jan wijst naar de kerk.
  Jan points  to the church
b. Jan wijst in de richting van de kerk.
  Jan points  in the direction of the church

Note that the PPs can be used as attributive modifiers with a similar distinction: according to (206a) the road will lead up to the church, whereas this need not be the case in (206b). Note that PPs headed by tot cannot be used as attributive modifiers; we return to this in our discussion of example (211).

Example 206
a. de weg naar de kerk
  the road  to the church
b. de weg in de richting van de kerk
  de road  in the direction of the church
[+]  B.  The reference object as the starting point of (the relevant subpart of) the path

The prepositions van, vanaf, and vanuit express the starting point of (a subpart of) the implied path; in Figure 16 we indicate this by drawing several arrows from the reference object.

Figure 16: Van/vanaf'from', vanuit'from out of'

Van is the most neutral of these three prepositions; it just expresses that there is a path originating from the reference object without necessarily implying that the reference object is included in the path; vanuit, on the other hand, expresses that (a region within) the reference object is included; vanaf indicates that the path may have started at some other place but that only the part from the reference object onward is considered relevant; in this respect this preposition is similar to tot (en met).

Example 207
a. dat Jan morgen van Utrecht ?(naar Groningen) rijdt.
  that  Jan tomorrow  from Utrecht    to Groningen  drives
  'that Jan will drive from Utrecht to Groningen tomorrow.'
b. dat Jan morgen vanuit Utrecht (naar Groningen) vertrekt.
  that  Jan tomorrow  from.out.of  Utrecht   to Groningen  departs
  'that Jan will head for Groningen from Utrecht tomorrow.'
c. dat Jan morgen vanaf Utrecht met de trein (naar Groningen) gaat.
  that  Jan  tomorrow  from Utrecht  with the train   to Groningen  goes
  'From Utrecht (on) Jan will go to Groningen by train tomorrow.'

The prepositions van, vanaf, and vanuit leave the endpoint of the path, and therefore also the direction of the path, unspecified; in order to specify the direction we have to add a PP that refers to the endpoint of (the relevant part of) the path. Comparison of the examples in (207) and (208) shows that the two PPs are strictly ordered: PPs denoting the starting point must precede PPs denoting the endpoint of the path.

Example 208
a. * dat Jan morgen naar Groningen van Utrecht rijdt.
b. * dat Jan morgen naar Groningen vanuit Utrecht vertrekt.
c. * dat Jan morgen naar Groningen vanaf Utrecht met de trein gaat.

The examples in (209) show that this holds not only for their relative position in the middle field of the clause, but also for their relative orderings under topicalization (although contrastive focus on the topicalized part may improve the order in the primed examples, especially in generic contexts).

Example 209
a. Van Utrecht rijdt Jan morgen naar Groningen.
a'. * Naar Groningen rijdt Jan morgen van Utrecht.
b. Vanuit Utrecht vertrekt Jan morgen naar Groningen.
b'. * Naar Groningen vertrekt Jan morgen vanuit Utrecht.
c. Vanaf Utrecht gaat Jan morgen met de trein naar Groningen.
c'. * Naar Groningen gaat Jan morgen vanaf Utrecht met de trein.

      In the examples discussed above, the located object actually traverses the path denoted by the spatial PPs. This need not be the case, as is clear from the primeless examples in (210), which involve extent readings of the directional PPs. The same extent readings are found in the primed examples where the PPs function as modifiers of a noun phrase.

Example 210
a. De weg loopt van Utrecht ??(naar Groningen).
  the road  walks  from Utrecht      to Groningen
  'The road goes from Utrecht to Groningen.'
a'. de weg van Utrecht ??(naar Groningen)
  de road  from Utrecht      to Groningen
b. De weg loopt vanuit Utrecht (naar Groningen).
  the road  walks  from.out.of  Utrecht   to Groningen
  'The road goes from out of Utrecht to Groningen.'
b'. de weg vanuit Utrecht (naar Groningen)
  the road  from.out.of  Utrecht   to Groningen

Example (211a) shows that PPs headed by the directional preposition vanaf cannot readily be used as modifiers of the noun phrase. In Subsection A, we noted the same thing for the preposition tot; this is illustrated again in (211b). This strongly suggests that PPs that refer to a subpart of some larger implied path cannot be used as modifiers within the noun phrase, although it must immediately be noted that noun phrases modified by tot-PPs are common if the reference object is abstract, as in (211b').

Example 211
a. *? de weg vanaf Utrecht (naar Groningen)
  the road  from Utrecht  to Groningen
b. *? de weg tot Groningen
  the road  until Groningen
b'. de weg tot inzicht/de waarheid/God
  the road  to understanding/the truth/God
[+]  C.  The reference object is some arbitrary point on the path

Reference objects of the prepositions over, via and voorbij do not act as the starting or the endpoint of the path, but denote just some arbitrary point on the path. In a sense, these prepositions situate the path with respect to the reference object. This could be described by dividing the relevant path in two subparts, the reference object being the endpoint of the first and the starting part of the second subpart. This is shown in Figure 17 for the examples in (212).

Example 212
a. dat het vliegtuig over de Alpen vliegt.
  that  the airplane  over  the Alps  flies
b. dat Jan (van Amsterdam) via/over Utrecht (naar Groningen) rijdt.
  that  Jan from Amsterdam  via/over Utrecht   to Groningen  drives
  'that Jan drives from Amsterdam to Groningen via Utrecht.'
b'. *? dat Jan van Amsterdam naar Groningen via/over Utrecht rijdt.
b''. *? dat Jan via/over Utrecht van Amsterdam naar Groningen rijdt.
c. dat Jan voorbij die boom liep.
  that  Jan past that tree  walked
  'that Jan walked passed that tree.'

Figure 17: Over'over', via'via', voorbij'past'

For completeness' sake note that example (212b) contains three PPs: a van-PP referring to the starting point of the path followed by the via/over-PP, which refers to some intermediate point, and a naar-PP, which refers to the endpoint. The examples in (213) show that, with a non-contrastive intonation pattern, these PPs must be given in this order; the orders in the primed examples are then severely marked at best; cf. the discussion of (208).

Example 213
a. dat Jan van Amsterdam via/over Utrecht naar Groningen rijdt.
b. *? dat Jan van Amsterdam naar Groningen via/over Utrecht rijdt.
c. *? dat Jan via/over Utrecht van Amsterdam naar Groningen rijdt.

The examples in (214) show that the located object need not actually traverse the path denoted by the spatial PPs, but that these PPs may also receive an extent reading.

Example 214
a. De weg loopt via/over Utrecht naar Groningen.
  the road  walks via/over Utrecht  to Groningen
  'that the road goes via Utrecht to Groningen.'
b. de weg via Utrecht naar Groningen
  the road  via Utrecht  to Groningen
  • Zwarts, Joost1997Vectors as relative positions: a compositional semantics of modified PPsJournal of Semantics1457-86
  • Zwarts, Joost2006<i>Om</i> and <i>rond</i>: een semantische vergelijkingNederlandse Taalkunde11101-123
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  • 3.3.2. Accusative/PP alternations
    [95%] Dutch > Syntax > Verbs and Verb Phrases > 3 Projection of verb phrases II:Verb frame alternations > 3.3. Alternations of noun phrases and PPs
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