Well-Hidden Regularities: Abstract Uses of in and on Retain an Aspect of Their Spatial Meaning

Anja Jamrozik*, Dedre Gentner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Prepositions name spatial relationships (e.g., book on a table). But they are also used to convey abstract, non-spatial relationships (e.g., Adrian is on a roll)-raising the question of how the abstract uses relate to the concrete spatial uses. Despite considerable success in delineating these relationships, no general account exists for the two most frequently extended prepositions: in and on. We test the proposal that what is preserved in abstract uses of these prepositions is the relative degree of control between the located object (the figure) and the reference object (the ground). Across four experiments, we find a continuum of greater figure control for on (e.g., Jordan is on a roll) and greater ground control for in (e.g., Casey is in a depression). These findings bear on accounts of semantic structure and language change, as well as on second language instruction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1881-1911
Number of pages31
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number8
StatePublished - Nov 1 2015


  • Abstract language
  • Language understanding
  • Metaphor
  • Prepositions
  • Semantics
  • Spatial language

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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