Topic 17 – Location is space: place, direction and distance

Topic 17 – Location is space: place, direction and distance

In this topic I am going to deal with the expression of place, direction and distance, and I will present five different sections. First, I will deal with prepositions and the different preposition types, as prepositions are the most commonly used element to express these notions. In my second section I will present some overlapping between the different preposition types. In my third section I will look at the expression of position. My fourth section will be devoted to the expression of motion, and finally, in my last section, I will look at the expression of distance

Expressions of place and direction are mainly adverbials and postmodifiers. They answer the question Where?, so that all the following could be answers could be answers to the question Where did you leave the bike?:

  • I left it over there. Adverb
  • In the park. Prepositional phrase
  • Two miles away. Noun phrase + away, back, etc
  • Where I found it. Adverbial clause

On occasions, place expressions can also act as subjects or complements of a sentence: Over there is where I put the books.

Let’s begin by looking at prepositions. Apart from general adverbs like HERE, THERE and EVERYWHERE, by far the most important words for indicating place are prepositions. Prepositions are closed class items which connect two units in a sentence, specifying a relationship between them (place, time, cause…). The construction following the preposition is known as the prepositional complement. This is usually a noun phrase, but it can also be certain kind of clauses.

Beckham will take Victoria to a spatial trip

Beckham will take Victoria to wherever she wants

The combination of a preposition with its complement is known as prepositional phrase. Prepositional phrases have three functions:

  • They can be a postmodifier in the noun phrase (I saw Victoria in a Cavalli dress)
  • They can be an adverbial (In Cáceres, it is difficult to meet famous people)
  • They can complement a verb or an adjective (She lay in bed / I’m sorry for him)

Occasionally, a preposition may have an adjective or an adverb as its complement (at last, in brief, until now…). Moreover, a preposition may have a whole prepositional phrase as a complement. We then find two prepositions being used next to each other (Victoria was loved everywhere except in Spain).

Most of the common prepositions consist of only one word: they are the simple prepositions (about, across, onto, since…). Complex prepositions consist of more than one word (ahead of, instead of, due to, by means of, on behalf of…).

The choice of preposition is often governed by the way we see an object, that is, whether we see it as a point in space, as a line, as a surface, as an area or as a volume.

We may distinguish three types of prepositions, although some prepositions, such as ACROSS, belong to more than one of these types.

  • AT-TYPE PREPOSITIONS: they are applied when we refer to a small area such as a square, a street, a room… meaning “at this point” rather than “inside”. The place is seen as a point, that is, a place which is identified quite generally, without being thought of in terms of length, width or height.


He went to the door / He stayed at home

He came (away) from the house / We stayed away from England

  • IN-TYPE PREPOSITIONS: this type of prepositions indicate position (He was in the office) and movement (He came in the office). The place is seen as an area (usually an area of ground or territory enclosed by boundaries).


I have a house in the city / They flew out of the country

They crowded into the streets / He stayed out of the district

He walked through the park

The place can be seen as volume, that is, is thought of in terms of length, width and height (or depth).


He ran into the house / The food is in the cupboard

He climbed out of the water / He was out of the room

The wind blew through the trees

Inside and outside are sometimes used instead of IN(to) and OUT (of)

He stayed inside the building

Within is slightly more formal than IN, and often indicates a location bounded by limits or by a given distance

Many people died within the castle / He lives within a stone’s throw of the office

  • ON-TYPE PREPOSITIONS: this type of prepositions is used both for position and movement (He was sitting on his chair / the cat jumped onto the roof). The place is seen as a line, that is, in terms of length, but not breadth or height (depth)


The ball rolled on to the goal line

Memphis is a town on the Mississippi / We turned off the main road

Zanzibar is off the coast of Africa / They drove across the frontier

We walked along the river bank

The place can also be seen as a surface, that is, thought of in terms of length and width, but not height or depth.


He fell onto the floor / there is a label on the bottle

That’s a place off the map / He took a walk across the fields

He looked through the window

The surface is often the top of some object (on=on top of) He was lying on the bed. ON is also used for public transport (on the bus), and can also mean “attached to” (an apple on a tree; the ring on her finger).

After dealing with the main preposition types, I am going to move to my second section, in which I will look at the overlap between types of preposition. We can often use different prepositions with the same noun. But in such cases, the meaning will be slightly different:

My car is at the cottage (POINT: the cottage as a general location)

They are putting a new roof on the cottage (SURFACE)

There are only two beds in the cottage (VOLUME)

Let’s begin by looking at the overlap between AT-TYPE and IN-TYPE prepositions. For towns and villages, either AT or IN is used, depending on point of view. At Cáceres means we are seeing Cáceres simply as a place in the map; In Cáceres means we have a “close up” view of the place as a town covering an area, and containing streets, houses, etc. A very large town or city is usually treated as an area: In Madrid. At Madrid would be used only in a context of worldwide travel:

The plain stopped at Madrid in its way to Toronto

Parts of cities also require IN: In Manhattan, in Candem Town… For continents, countries, states and other large areas we use in. However, directional words TO and FROM are preferred to INTO, even for larger territories, except where those territories border one another.

He sailed from Europe to America

He crossed the Rhine into Germany

For buildings or groups of buildings we can use either AT or IN, but it is better to use AT when we are thinking of the building as an institution rather than simply as a place.

Stamps are sold at the post office / I left my purse in/at the post office

The Prince did a master at Georgetown / Letizia is now staying in/at Georgetown

AT is used instead of TO when the following noun indicate a target.

Casillas threw the ball at Ronaldo (he tried to hit him)

Casillas threw the ball to Raul (for him to catch)

Let’s see now the overlap between the ON-TYPE and the IN-TYPE prepositions. There is a difference between surface and volume as in We sat on the grass (surface) and We sat in the grass (volume: the grass is long). The difference between surface and volume may also be seen in Dinio was marooned on a desert island (surface: the island is small) and Dinio is one of the most cheeky persons in Cuba (area: Cuba is a large island, a political unit with boundaries).

After seeing the main types of prepositions and the overlapping between them, I am going to move on to the third section of my topic, in which I will deal with position. Position is a relation between two objects, and can best be explained by a picture. Imagine a car standing on a bridge:

OVER and UNDER tend to indicate a direct vertical relationship, or nearness: Meca had a bad cut over his right eye / The doctor was leaning over him.

On the other hand, ABOVE and BELOW may mean simple that one object is on a higher or lower level than the other. UNDERNEATH often means that one object is actually touching the other. In this respect it is the opposite of ON TOP OF:

Beckham throw the ball above the walls of the stadium

The thief evaded capture by hiding underneath a pile of rugs

BY and BESIDES mean “at the side of”, but can also be used more generally to indicate the nearness of an object to another.

Prince Harry choose a big chair by his girlfriend Chelsea

Prepositional adverbs are adverbs which behave as a preposition with the complement omitted. The following prepositional adverbs correspond to the prepositions of place I have just dealt with: overhead (over), underneath (under), in front (in front of), on top (on top of), above (above), below (below), behind (behind) and beneath (beneath).

Apple cake is delicious, with nuts on top and custards underneath

The Beckhams went to the restaurant with a lifeguard behind and another one in front.

Apart from the positions we have already seen, some other positions can be expressed. BETWEEN normally relates an object to two other objects, and AMONG to more than two. However, BETWEEN can relate to more than two objects if we have a definite set in mind.

Beckham stands between two lifeguards / Victoria stands among lifeguards

Victoria stands between her dog, her children and her lifeguard

AMID is formal, and means “in the midst of”, and like AMONG, it may apply to an indefinite number of objects. Unlike AMONG, it can also be followed by a mass noun: Amid the wreckage of the tsunami they found a child.

OPPOSITE means “facing”. Beckham’s house is opposite to Obregon’s

AROUND refers to surrounding position or motion. He stood on guard around the building. ABOUT and AROUND often have a vaguer meaning of “in the area of” or “in various positions in”.

The guests were standing around / about the rrom

After dealing with the notion of position, let’s move to my fourth section, dealing with the expression of motion from one place to another. Some of the prepositions presented in the first section may involve motion. For instance, IN(to), ON(to), OFF, ACROSS, etc.

He went into the house to see his idol / He ran across the bush to get the rabbit

Different aspects of motion can be pictured as follows:

Moreover, the prepositions seen in the previous section (behind, underneath, in front of, and so on) can also signify motion to the position concerned: The bush was a good hiding place, so I dashed behind it / He ran underneath the trees to protect himself from the rain. The same prepositions can be used to indicate passage, like THROUGH and ACROSS. They indicate motion towards, and then away from a place.

I crawled underneath the fence / I crawled across the room

Other prepositions can be used similarly:

He drove past / by the stadium // We passed over / across the bridge

We turned around the corner

AROUND and ROUND can also refer more generally to circular motion (The Earth moves around the Sun)

UP, DOWN, ALONG and ACROSS, OVER represent motion with reference to a direction.

I went silently along the corridor // Beckham ran across the lawn over the grass

He liked rolling down the hills and walking up the streets of his village

After seeing the main preposition types, the overlapping between them, and the expression of position and motion, I am going to move on to my fifth section, in which I will deal briefly with the expression of distance. Distance can be expressed by noun phrases of measure such as A FOOT, A FEW METRES, TEN MILES, A LONG WAY, etc. These phrases can modify a verb of motion. (he ran several kilometres). They can also precede and modify an adverbial of place (They live a long way away / The valley lay 2000 feet below them).

Before finishing I would like to remark, as a said at the beginning, that despite the fact that prepositions and prepositional phrases are the most common way of expressing place, direction and distance, there are other ways, such as adverbs (here, there…), the prepositional adverbs I mentioned in the previous sections and which correspond to prepositions (past, off…), noun phrases (two kilometres), and adverbial clauses of place, introduced by WHERE and WHEREVER (we’ll go wherever you want).

To sum up, in this topic I have dealt with the expression of place, direction and distance, and I have presented five different sections. First, I have dealt with prepositions and the different preposition types, as prepositions are the most commonly used element to express these notions. In my second section I have presented some overlapping between the different preposition types. In my third section I have looked at the expression of position. My fourth section has been devoted to the expression of motion, and finally, in my last section, I have looked at the expression of distance. As a final word I would like to say that prepositions in English are a very complex area, which results extremely difficult for foreign learners. Spanish speakers tend to translate prepositions literally. For this reason, it is important to show them the meanings expressed to prepositions and their most frequent mechanisms of use. Bu doing so, little by little they will become aware of the differences between the tow languages. Moreover, practice will be essential. By reading, writing, listening and speaking our learners will interiorize and assimilate the different uses of prepositions and will use them appropriately.