Syntagmatic Patterns for Prepositions

The Pattern Dictionary of English Prepositions (PDEP) is modeled on the Pattern Dictionary of English Verbs (PDEV). PDEV is based on Corpus Pattern Analysis (CPA), a procedure in corpus linguistics that associates word meaning with word use by means of analysis of phraseological patterns and collocations. The focus of the analysis is on the prototypical syntagmatic patterns with which words in use are associated. In identifying such patterns, the goal is to delineate the relationship between two or more linguistic units to make well-formed structures. In the case of prepositions, this means examining words governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause.

The characterization of preposition behavior starts with the general syntagmatic pattern [[Governor]] preposition [[Complement]]. Each element of this pattern must be specified. We consider each component:

  • [[Complement]]: Syntactically, the complement is a noun phrase, a nominal wh-clause, or a nominal –ing clause. Considered by itself, the complement has a meaning, i.e., some ontological category. For example, Boston is a city. This category may frequently help in disambiguating the preposition. However, more generally, some additional meaning is given to the complement. For example, Boston may be a destination or a point of reference. The precise meaning will come from the preposition and the governor.
  • preposition: The preposition associated with the complement provides a first step in allowing us to determine what additional meaning should be added to the complement. In general, a given complement can appear after a large number of prepositions. For the example of Boston, we can imagine sentences using the following prepositions, across, against, around, beyond, from, in, into, of, over, through, to, and within. Other prepositions, such as between, by reason of, during, and until, are unlikely to have Boston as a complement. The specific preposition will impart some information on how we want to interpret the complement.
  • [[Governor]]: The final piece of meaning associated with the complement is provided by the governor, or the point of attachment, of the prepositional phrase. For the example of Boston, the verb played with against Boston will invoke a sports context, while resided with in Boston will invoke a locational sense.

In CPA, no attempt is made to identify the meaning of a preposition directly, as a word in isolation. Instead, meanings are associated with prototypical sentence contexts. Concordance lines are grouped into semantically motivated syntagmatic patterns. Associating a “meaning” with each pattern is a secondary step, carried out in close coordination with the assignment of concordance lines to patterns. In CPA, this meaning is expressed as a set of basic implicatures. As a first approximation, the implicature is a definition that might be found in a dictionary. In PDEP, the initial implicature (or definition) was taken from a dictionary and has been used as a first approximation for grouping concordance lines. However, since prepositions in general have not received as close attention as nouns and verbs, these definitions need to be viewed with a great deal of care.

In general, a preposition does not have meaning by itself. Instead, the meaning is conveyed by the totality of the pattern, and is distributed across the three components. For some prepositions, the bulk of the meaning is conveyed by the complement; with others, the bulk of the meaning is conveyed by the governor. There is a sliding scale of the contribution of each component; an interesting question is whether the relative contributions can be quantified in some way. Specification of a pattern will thus involve circumscribing the components in as much detail as is appropriate. For example, for about (1(1)), “on the subject of; concerning”, the complement may be specified as [[Anything]]; the governor emphasizes abstractions, communication, and mental features (feeling and idea).

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