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Apr 29 / Steve Runge

Getting ‘By,’ Part 2

In the last post we looked at how prepositions offer a specific representation of an action or state of affairs that might well have been described from some alternative perspective. Each different preposition would view things from a different vantage point, even if only slightly different. We looked at the way by represents the relationship of two objects as though they remain equidistant from one another. This static proximity could be due to both being immobile, to a static distance maintained along a linear object while another moves parallel to it, or by simply zeroing in a specific moment of the action where the two are proximate.

  1. The pen is by the book (static state).
  2. She walked by the river for an hour (static distance with action)
  3. She walked by the lamppost (zeroing in on specific moment of proximity).

A quick look at the Concise Oxford English Dictionary entry for by reveals that you don’t find the literal spatial usage until you come to the fourth sense:

1 through the agency or means of (indicating how something happens).
2 indicating a quantity or amount, or the size of a margin (identifying a parameter, expressing multiplication, especially in dimensions).
3 indicating the end of a time period.
4 near to; beside (past and beyond).
5 during.

Assuming that these entries are ordered according to frequency of usage, we see that three metaphorical usages outrank what linguists would consider to be the core, spatial meaning of the preposition. Frequency is sometimes  a good indicator of what is the most basic meaning, but here we see that the metaphorical uses (i.e., you can’t draw a picture of the object) that have developed have become entrenched enough to seemingly obscure the core spatial meaning. Now let’s see if we can trace these other senses back to the core meaning. I’m going to skip 5 because I can’t think of any examples, but it seems akin to the “walking by the river” example of parallel activity. If you have good examples, please post them in a comment.

3. Indicating the end of a time period

This usage is a natural extension of the spatial one that we looked at in the last post. First you have the shift from maintaining equidistant proximity (‘sat by the lake,’ ‘walked by the lakeside’) to the snapshot of a motion at the point there is equidistance (‘walked by the lamppost’). Next, we shift from motion in space to motion in time, metaphorically expressing time as if it really moved. Just as walking is essentially a unidirectional movement along some line, time is often represented as unidirectional motion too. We use timelines to create chronologies of events, with  the past and the future treated as directions.

Now it is just a hop, skip, and a jump from here to by representing the end of a time period. Instead of looking ahead and seeing the lamppost that you will walk by, you ‘look’ into the future to some reference point (e.g., noon).

  1. I will complete my essay by noon.
  2. I will complete my essay at noon.
  3. I will complete my essay before noon.
  4. I will complete my essay around noon.

Each of these prepositions metaphorically represents the temporal reference point noon as though it is a geographical point, and the passage of time as though it is motion. Each one relies on the same metaphor, with before (example 3) stopping just short of the target and around (example 4) not providing a specific target.

2 indicating a quantity or amount, or the size of a margin

This one represents yet another metaphorical step away from the core metaphor of equidistant proximity, but in a different direction from the last usage. The spatial distance of the equidistance metaphorically represents a basis of comparison between two entities. Instead of just distance or length, the margin can be virtually anything that can be quantified.

  1. The home team outscored the visitors by 48 points.
  2. She beat her best time by three minutes.
  3. They extended their vacation by two days.
  4. I learned to count by 10s today!

As you can see, the same core metaphor is at work under the surface, the difference is simply a shift from a literal distance to something else that is quantifiable.

1. through the agency or means of

Now for the last one, which is actually listed first based on its pervasive usage. It still relies upon equidistant proximity, but the metaphorical focus is upon some consequence or implication brought about by it. By virtue of the proximity, the object of by is represented as the agent or means by which something comes about.

  1. They saved money by not eating at restaurants as much.
  2. She completed the race despite her injury by willpower.
  3. By avoiding fatty foods he was able to lose about ten pounds.
  4. The team was awarded the trophy by the judge.

Although none of these examples rely on literal distance, the proximity of the two entities is presented as bringing about some specific effect or outcome that would not have happened otherwise. Actions/activity are common means (not eating, avoiding fatty foods), whereas entities are more likely to be agents.

At Tyndale House this summer a number of us will be looking more closely at Greek prepositions and how best to represent their range of usage. The traditional strategy has been to understand the senses as unrelated to one another. An alternative approach utilizing Prototype Theory is to identify the core or prototypical meaning of something, and then to explain the other uses as metaphorical extensions that relate to the core metaphor in some way. As languages change and usages drop out, it can become difficult to identify these “family resemblances,” but that should not keep us from trying. I am really looking forward to what will be learned from this conference, and very excited that Cambridge University Press has expressed “keen interest” in publishing the proceedings volume.

In my next post I will finally return to the verses in Ephesians that spurred this short blog series.


  1. Rachel Aubrey / Apr 29 2017

    ‘during’ use of ‘by’: My grandmother may sip tea by day, but she fights crime by night.

  2. Steve Runge / Apr 29 2017

    Ach, right, great example. I drew a complete blank on that one, many thanks!

  3. Eeli Kaikkonen / Apr 30 2017

    Have you taken this analysis of ‘by’ from somewhere or is it ad hoc?

  4. Tony Papadakis / May 16 2017

    By gum, it seems that by reading this I learned that there is more to be had by this little word “by” than I was previously taught by my teachers, or that I had acquired by listening to others; perhaps, I was getting by with some shabby English skills! 🙂

  5. Gregory Chambers / May 17 2017

    Another “during” example: His anger increased by the second. (during the time interval).

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