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Apr 22 / Steve Runge

Getting ‘By’

This summer I will be heading to Tyndale House, Cambridge for another Greek linguistics and biblical studies conference, with this one focusing on prepositions instead of the verb. Since the time Will Ross and I decided to convene this conference, I have been thinking a lot more about these pesky little particles, especially about how they are translated in most English bibles. Most anyone who has taken Greek has encountered some variation of the spatial diagram below that offers a basic way of differentiating them from one another. It spatially represents the meaning of each one as a way of distinguishing it from the others. This works really well for the literal, spatial usages.

The presence of an arrow head on the line implies that the preposition is used to indicate motion, whereas the others are static or stationary representations. Everything seems very straightforward and simple right? Well, it gets a lot more complicated in a hurry once you move outside this literal usage.

A quick survey of the NT epistles and teaching sections of the gospels reveals that a good many (majority?) of the usages involve non-spatial, metaphorical senses. In other words, the writer is using one of the prepositions above with something you can’t draw a picture of (e.g., love, faith, sin). When we encounter these usages that don’t fit the spatial prototype, we typically grab a lexicon to learn what our options are. This reveals a wide array options that seem to bear no relation to the core, spatial meaning. What prompted this post was the use of by to represent three separate Greek prepositions in the course of only four verses! Do these Greek prepositions really overlap that much, or is it a mismatch with English usage, or are we missing the metaphor intended by the writer?

I am not deriding the translators here,  But in order to address this matter, it seemed prudent to begin by taking a closer look at English by. It offers a great opportunity to illustrate how the core meaning of a preposition can be metaphorically extended to related-but-different meanings by changing various parameters.

Metaphorical Representation

Prepositions offer a metaphorical representation of the relationship between two or more entities. Based on the fact that real life situations may be viewed from multiple vantage points or at various stages of a process or activity, writers and speakers face numerous choices about which vantage point or point in time from which to capture their verbal image. In other words, prepositions offer a representation of reality from a specific perspective rather than an objective picture without any other alternatives. This suggests that there is much to be learned from slowing down a bit and thinking more about the writer’s representational choice. Choosing one vantage point implies that potentially many others was not selected. With this as a little background, let’s now take a look at the representational implications of by.

Spatial Meaning of ‘By’

By is one of the static prepositions akin to Greek παρά, meaning that it represents proximity beside or near some other entity as though it is unchanging/static as in, “The pencil is by the book.” The pencil is not moving toward or away from the book, and it is in a specific physical relation to it.

This is not to say that motion cannot be involved, but simply that the proximity of the entity being described is represented as remaining static with respect to the object of the preposition by. Consider the following two examples.

  1. She walked by the river.
  2. She walked by the lamppost.

Both of these sentences are representing a static relationship between two objects, but differences in the nature of the preposition’s object bring about different representations. In example 1 the picture represented is two objects maintaining a static distance from each other based on the woman walking on a path parallel to the river. Theoretically it represents her as not getting any closer or further away, though in reality we know that rivers meander and that paths are not perfectly parallel to other objects. It is a metaphorical representation selected based on the writer’s interest in a certain image or vantage point.

What about example 2? A lamppost is a point whereas a river is more like a line. How can someone walk parallel to a point? Representation, my dear Watson, representation. If we think objectively about what is involved with walking by a single geographical point like a lamppost, we know that this implies several stages: being at a distance from it, approaching it, being alongside it, moving away from it, and then being at a distance from it again (but ostensibly in a different location). Below are five examples of other stages of this journey that the writer might have singled out using different prepositions.

  1. She walked toward the lamppost (but never reached it).
  2. She walked up to the lamppost (but didn’t touch it).
  3. She walked into the lamppost (while texting).
  4. She walked away from the lamppost.
  5. She walked from the lamppost (to some other point).

The writer could have chosen any one of these vantage points, but selected that slice of the action alongside the lamppost as the most suitable representation for her purpose. Such a representation would be appropriate for describing waypoints along a journey, like dots along a line, where the waypoints provide a verbal description of the path.

She walked by the lamppost on her way to the park to meet some friends, then all of them went to a restaurant for lunch.

Alternatively, something may have happened at the lamppost, so the representation was selected to place her in proximity with it when the other event occurred.

She walked by the lamppost just as a worker was setting up a ladder and preparing to change the light bulb.

Finally, it might be selected to indicate that she only passed near it instead of actually touching or entering it.

She walked by the lamppost that she had run into while she was walking and texting the previous day.

He walked by the candy store, resisting the urge to go in and purchase things that would have ruined his successful diet.

This provides a simple (perhaps overly so) introduction to the way prepositions represent the relation of two entities, and the selection of a specific option instead of other alternatives. In the next post we will explore how changing certain parameters can adapt the literal spatial meaning of something into a “metaphorical extension” to specify other kinds of relations, thus avoiding the need to coin a brand new word or expression. These metaphorical extensions all have their starting point in the core spatial meaning, but end up looking different based on the absence of one or more factors present in the core meaning.


  1. Randall McRoberts / Apr 24 2017

    Another usage:

    When people tell me they “went by my house the other day”, I always answer with, “Thanks.”

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