December 16, 2007

Preposition day at Language Log

Nobody informed me that this might be National Preposition Day, but since we've already had two posts about English prepositions, I thought I'd chime in with another one.

Mark Liberman's post about the use of "on" in the sentence, "Java is found everywhere--on mobile phones, desktop computers, Blu-ray Disc players, set top boxes. and even in your car," reminded me of an insurance contract dispute I once worked on. Mark found it odd for Java to be "on" a disc player. It sounds odd to me too. It seems better to say it's "in" a disc player. English prepositions can drive many people to distraction, non-native speakers in particular. For example, some people say "I'm sick to my stomach" while others say "I'm sick at my stomach." Still others, like me, say "I'm sick on my stomach." Okay, there are some dialect differences here but oddly enough, I've found that it's mostly non-native English speakers who choose what might be considered the most logical way to say this: "I'm sick in my stomach." But I digress.

The insurance case that Mark's post called to my memory took place in the early 1990s. The owner of a jewelry sales business  took out a policy to cover loss and theft. Soon after this, a salesman for this company parked and locked his car outside of a jewelry story and someone broke into the locked trunk and made off with a large and expensive amount of jewelry from it. The salesman looked out of the window of the store, saw the theft taking place, and ran out to try to stop the thief, but he got away. The owner of the company, the policyholder, thought his insurance policy would cover the loss. But wait. Like most policies of that type, this one contained an exclusion section containing ten items, the tenth of which said.

10. We do not cover property in or on a vehicle that is not attended. An attended vehicle has a person actually in or on the vehicle. This person must be you, your employee or a person whose  sole duty is to attend it.

The dispute was whether the car was "attended," whether the jewelry was in the salesman's custody, and whether he was "in or on" his car when the theft took place. The policyholder believed that the salesman was attending his car because he had locked the jewelry in the trunk and was "in or on" his vehicle at the time the theft occurred. To him, "in or on" meant that the salesman was in or around the immediate area and therefore was attending the car. The insurance company disagreed, claiming that the salesman was not attending his car, and that the jewelry was, therefore, not in his custody. At the center of the dispute was the meaning of the prepositional phrase, "in or on a vehicle," along with the meaning of the verb, "attended."

The prepositions, "in" and "on," are part of the locative complements associated with the roles of source, goal, and location (Huddleston and Pullum 2002, 258). The prepositions "from" and "to" mark the source of the goal and location, while the prepositions "in" and "on" are normally part of the location expression, as illustrated in exclusion 10 above. When considering the locative meaning of the prepositional phrase, it's necessary to analyze not only the meaning of the prepositions, but also the noun to which they refer, in this case the "vehicle." The selection of particular prepositions is in part dependent on the nouns referred to, as in the examples that Geoff Pullum gave today. We have no idea how this distribution originated, but it did, and that's that.

It would appear that the nouns specify the use of different prepostions. The prepositions "in" and "on" in exclusion 10 indicate a relationship between a person and a vehicle. If the subject is a person and the locus is a vehicle, "in" means a person contained in that vehicle and "on" means a person supported by that vehicle--on it. It's hard to imagine that the policy meant that the person should be "on" his car. On the other hand, "on" might cover a policyholder whose vehicle was a motorcycle, where being "in" it seems unlikely. The policy seems to point to the insurance company's intent to convey the fact that the relationship between the person and the vehicle is one that is a customary position for operating it, no matter what type of vehicle it might be.

If it is clear that the meaning of the otherwise non-specific word, "vehicle," is specified as either an automobile or truck (something that a person can be "in") or a motorcycle (something that a person can be "on"), the meanings of the prepositions "in" and "on" in exclusion 10 can become clear to native speakers of English. They refer to the types of vehicles and not to the general or immediate area (in front of the jewelry store). And "attend"means attending to the vehicle, not attending in the immediate area around it.

Posted by Roger Shuy at December 16, 2007 02:41 PM