Basic similarities between English and French prepositions

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Basic similarities between English and French prepositions

English and French prepositions share certain morpho-syntactic features, and they establish a relation between two words. The functions of prepositions in both languages are very similar as they stand before a noun or pronoun, and express position, direction, etc. (Worth-Stylianou, 1994). English and French translation equivalents are to some extent similar in meaning while they are nonidentical in form (e.g. by (par), with (avec), between (entre), before (avant), after (après), towards (vers)).
The change of construction, mainly the choice of the preposition causes a change in meaning. This is evident in both English and French, for example:
a. monter sur un cheval (get on a horse)
b. monter à cheval (ride a horse)
c. monter un cheval (ride a horse)
Sentence (a) refers to someone being placed on the back of a horse while sentence (b) shows that the person is more in control. The first refers to the placement while the second to the act. This is as far as meaning is concerned, but as regards the structure, there are few differences (see sentence (c)).
Although they refer to the same reference object, prepositions are non-interchangeable. For instance, the spatial particles of orientation (like to/for, over/above, in front of/before) can be used interchangeably only in certain situations, so they seem to act as near synonyms or “variants”, while appearing to be quite distinct in other contexts.
The three main preposition categories in both languages are spatial prepositions, prepositions of time and prepositions of movement. Others also involve cause, goal, manner, matter, possession, relation, separation, opposition, distribution, etc. In French, as in English, a preposition can express different relations and can have different thematic roles. For example, the preposition en can denote place (e.g. Il part en Espagne.), manner (e.g. Il marche en boitant.), means (e.g. Il part en train.), matter (e.g. un pull en coton), concomitant actions (e.g. Il travaille en chantant.), and duration (e.g. Il finit en une semaine.).
“La structure en interposition” is a common trait between English and French, e.g. oeil pour oeil (an eye for an eye), mot à mot (word for word). “Quel que soit le mode d’intégration dans la phrase, la structure en interposition est, du point de vue syntagmatique, un seul constituant […]” (Melis, 2003: 22).
In French too, in addition to simple prepositions (e.g. en, malgré, outre, parmi), there is quite a large number of compounds that play the role of a preposition where the head word can be a noun as in sur le côté de, an adjective proche de, or a gerund se rapportant à.
Most compound prepositions end with de or à, remembering that, unlike invariable English prepositions, they contract with the definite articles le and les as follows:
There are different compounds that contain prepositions like compound adverbs (e.g. tout à fait), compound nouns (e.g. sac à dos), compound verbs (e.g. avoir besoin de, être en train de), and compounded conjunctions (e.g. pour que).
The object of a preposition can be:
 a noun: La poule est arrivée avant l’œuf !
 an adverb: Vous devez me répondre avant demain.
 an adjective: J’ai trouvé quelque chose d’intéressant !
 a noun phrase containing a clause: On a honte de ce qu’il va dire !
Like English prepositions, French prepositions are lexical items with multi-functions. This is to say, they can occur as adverbs, participles or subordinates:
 participles: Present and past participles act as prepositions while the original participial function continues to exist as in:
conjunction will have both a subject and a verb following it, forming a subordinate clause:
French prepositions, too, are polysemous, thus have multisenses. A simple and straightforward example is the preposition sur which occurs in three contexts: contact, surface and support (Vandeloise, 2000):
Le point est sur la ligne. (contact)
La mouche est sur le plafond. (surface)
Le drapeau est sur un mât. (support)
Cannesson and Saint-Dizier (2002) developed a Lexical Conceptual Structure (LCS)-based formal description of the semantics of 170 French prepositions. Based on their corpus, they propose an organization of preposition senses into families “where basic usages as well as metaphorical ones are identified and contrasted”. They state: “Although prepositions have some idiosyncratic usages (probably much less in French than in English), most senses are relatively generic and can be characterized using relatively consensual and high-level ontology labels”. They take the preposition par as an example stating that six senses can be quite easily identified and characterized as follows:
 proportion or distribution: Il gagne 1500 euros par mois. (He earns 1500 euros per month.)
 causality: Par mauvais temps, je ne sors pas. (In bad weather I don’t go out)
 origin: Je le sais par des amis. (I know it from friends.)
 via: Je passe par ce chemin. (I go via this path.)
 tool or means: Je voyage par le train (I travel by train.)
 approximation of a value: Nous marchons par 3500m d’altitude. (We hike at an altitude of 3500m.).
In sum, the English and the French systems are not regulated by completely independent and unrelated principles. The correspondence between the basic spatial prepositions in both languages appears in the strong, but not absolute, parallelism that is often established between the French prepositions à, sur and dans and the English prepositions at, on and in. In this respect, comparing French to English prepositions, but not the reverse, does not suffice because “English prepositions are viewed through a prism that might bias their analysis. A comparison going from English to French could lead to different conclusions” (Vandeloise, 2008: 19).

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Basic differences between English and French prepositions

In this section, we list the major differences that distinguish English and French prepositions with respect to formation (repetition, zero preposition, infinitive/gerund, compound nouns, possession), multi-functions and semantic content.
In French, it is usually the preposition that determines the nature of the complement that follows it: “c’est bien la préposition qui sélectionne […]” (Melis, 2003: 18). French prepositions can be dissociated from words they are attached to and their place in a sentence is liable to change, but this is not the case with English phrasal verbs. “Le français diffère profondément de langues comme l’anglais dans lesquelles existe le phénomène des verbes à particules: stand up, look for, etc.” (ibid. 29). As for prepositional verbs or verb + satellite constructions, “languages like English have verbal compounds (verb-particle constructions) that integrate prepositions (compositionally or as collocations) while others, like Romance languages, rather have the preposition as PP head in prepositional phrases or possibly incorporate the preposition in the verb” (Saint-Dizier, 2005: 26).
In English structures, prepositions and determiners are not repeated. This is a more general characteristic of the possibility for omitting certain kinds of grammatical items after a coordinating conjunction. However, French is more likely to repeat simple prepositions especially in fixed expressions. By doing so, each element of the complement is emphasized as in:
Le Tour de France ne voyage pas sans ses partenaires et ses fournisseurs. The Tour de France cannot be launched without its partnerships and suppliers.

Table of contents :

I.1. What is a preposition?
I.1.1. Semantic aspects of English prepositions
I.1.2. Formation and position of English prepositions
I.1.3. Syntactic characteristics of English prepositions
I.2. Prepositions: lexical or functional in nature
II.1. The usefulness of a contrastive approach to languages: preposition use
II.1.1. Basic similarities between English and French prepositions
II.1.2. Basic differences between English and French prepositions
II.2. Are motion events conceptualised similarly in both English and French?
III.1. Language acquisition
III.1.1. Language learning and communication strategies
III.2. Acquiring prepositions
III.3. Spatial perception
III.4. Language specificity
III.5. Fossilization
III.6. English as a linguafranca: What about prepositions?
III.7. Basic difficulties impeding mastery of English prepositions
III.8. What type of preposition is most problematic to French learners of English?
IV.1. English manuals and textbooks
IV.2. Pedagogical approaches to teaching prepositions/particles
IV.2.1. Use of collocational and concordance data
IV.2.2. Cognitive linguistics
IV.2.3. Task-based language teaching
IV.2.4. Motion pictures and iconic gestures
V.1. Errors: their occurrence and significance
V.1.1. Error-annotated learner corpora
V.1.2. Error analysis: uses and applications
V.2. An overview of our learner corpus: Task description and data collection
V.3. Oral corpus
V.3.1. Basic features characterising the oral corpus
V.3.2. Error Typology: L2 productions and L1 productions
V.3.3. Error analysis
V.3.4. Motion verbs in the fridge task
V.3.5. Comparison: L1 and L2 productions (fridge task)
V.4. Written corpus
V.4.1. Basic features characterising the written corpus
V.4.2. Error Typology: Error codes: categories and subcategories
V.4.2.1. Adapting error coding to research needs
V.4.3. Human raters
V.4.4. The usefulness of error correction
V.4.5. Error analysis
V.4.6. Further explanation and deductions
V.5. Comparison: oral vs. written corpora
V.6. Questionnaire
V.6.1. Questionnaire results


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