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Synonymous Antonyms in Prepositionland?

Seth Lindstromberg, UK

Seth Lindstromberg teaches at Hilderstone EFL College (Broadstairs, Kent, England) where he works mainly on language and methodology courses for non-native-speaking EFL and CLIL teachers and on EFL courses at all levels. E-mail:


The phenomenon
What got me thinking about it
Discussion of examples

The phenomenon

Up and down, to and from, off and on (as in on the table), in and out, and on and under are all antonymic (or 'contrary') pairs and yet in all these pairings each preposition may occasionally seem to be replaceable by its opposite with no immediately graspable change in meaning: For instance1:

1.1 VERB + up/down

  1. Slow up/down!
  2. He wandered off up/down the lane. (If the lane is flat, it seems that either preposition may be used.)

1.2 ADJECTIVE + to/from

  1. A is different from/to B.
    In England, different to now seem more common than different from. In North America different than seems to be the commonest form, but it may also be somewhat common in Britain, if the Collins Cobuild Concordance Sampler [CCCS] is anything to go by:
  2. ...immune from any complaintUK (BBC Radio 4; Geoffrey Wheatcroft.
    Although to is perhaps still the 'English teacher's standard', the CCCS shows that (1) immune from and immune to are both relatively common in British sources and (2) immune from is less common than immune to in American sources.)
  3. In fact it's been quite the opposite from male DJs. CCCS, from a British source; but apparently opposite to more common in the UK since on 8.4.07 I got 932,000 'exact wording' google hits in UK-only pages for opposite to vs. only 38,400 for opposite from.

1.3 VERB +on/off

  1. Live on/off your profits/royalties/ill-gotten gains.
  2. A light went off in my head. 2003; said by a US country and western singer, Billy Skaggs, as I recall. We normally say that a light goes 'on' when we mean that we have come to a sudden realization, and that was this speaker's basic meaning. But of course bombs, which can produce light, go 'off'.

1.4 VERB +in/out

  1. Fill in/out this form. The former tends to be British, the latter North American.
  2. If you forget me from here on out/in...Ca. 1950, USA; both prepositions occur in the Johnny Mercer song 'I'm way Ahead of the Game'.
  3. I take a lot of satisfaction in the fact that...US John MacEncroe being interviewed by Ruby Wax, BBC1, 11.08.03. Out seems possible too; cf., get satisfaction/ pleasure/enjoyment out of something.

1.5 on/under+NOUN PHRASE
On/Under what authority do you demand this? Google shows that both possibilities are common.

1.6 with/against+NOUN PHRASE
to fight with/against someone. Google shows the latter to be much more common; but the former is not rare.

What got me thinking about it

Gerry Abbott, in a short article in MET (aka, Modern English Teacher; 2003), speculates about the interchangeability of up and down in cases such as the ones just below where some kind of responsibility or decision is said to be 'up' or 'down' to someone.

  • a responsibility/decision (or similar) is up/down to someone, e.g.: Split [= a soccer team] seemed pretty confident they would be able to get here, but they didn't know exactly how. It's up to them to arrive here in two weeks' time. If they don't, it's down to UEFA to decide what to do." UK (Guardian, 19.9.1991; quoted in Abbot, 2003:15.)
  • From now on, it's down to the Chancellor to decide... (Abbott, p. 16)
  • isn't down to the teacher in the school to decide. (Abbot, p. 16.)

Additionally, he also discusses examples in which be down to is used when speaking of states of affairs that are attributable to someone or something as in, The rise in crime is down to the fact that parents don't discipline their children. This latter usage is not terribly relevant to the problem that interests me since down and up are not at all switchable when be down to has the meaning 'be attributable to'. But I will stick with this usage just long enough to say that Abbott considers it to be 'retrospective'—by which he means that the thinking (of whoever is making the statement) proceeds RESULT → CAUSE—whereas he opines that the usage that interests me (be down to = 'be up to' as in the decision is up to you) is 'prospective' in that (though these are not Abbott's words) thinking proceeds PROBLEM → HOPED FOR LAST-DITCH DECISION, FEAT, SOLUTION.

My analysis
I am a great admirer of Abbott's pieces on language and always find them instructive and thought-provoking. Here, I think one could look a little deeper and wider.
         I agree that the first usage of be down to (= 'be attributable to') is, in a sense, retrospective in a way that the other is not. But it seems to me that Abbott stops short of more interesting insights as one is almost bound to do if, when thinking about prepositions, one leaves out of consideration both standpoint (or 'deixis') and metaphor. I will start with standpoint but quickly bring in metaphor as well.

There is a good deal of evidence that we find it extremely easy to perform certain kinds of mental shift from one standpoint to another. For instance, people who ask, "Shall you come to me or shall I come to you?" first use come with respect to their own standpoint and then with respect to their interlocutor's. (Anyone not taking their interlocutor's point of view would be far more likely to finish by saying "…or shall I go to you?")
         Now, with respect to up and down, (Lindner 1981) has pointed out that things tend saliently to approach our main organs of perception (eyes, ears, nose, hands) from various directions, including these two:
         From above: ⌣ ↓
         From below: ⌣ ↑
In the literature of cognitive linguistics3 one can find discussions of a goodly number of expressions all of which, taken together, suggest that we metaphorically and conventionally conceive of some things—especially obligations and responsibilities—as coming down to us (or to anyone) from on high, that is, from God or from some 'higher' temporal authority or figure of respect:

Word came down that we should break camp at dawn, The order came down the chain of command, lay down the law, a custom handed down from parent to child; be under orders to...
Contrarily, there are expressions which seem underlain by the idea that some things come to our attention by moving up into view rather than down:
Look who's turned up, raise an objection/question, bring up an interesting point, a problem cropped up, the upshot of that was, send someone up, hold someone up to ridicule...

Notice that none of the expressions in the second group connote an exalted origin; and this is what we would expect if the underlying image were of something which rises to our attention from below eye level. Instead, the last set of expressions may stem from a way of thinking that has much in common with our conventional association of nearness to the earth with normality both in the positive senses of 'realism' and 'practicality'—viz., down-to earth, both feet on the ground, well-grounded, get down to business—and in the negative senses of 'lesser significance' and 'inferiority'—viz., underling, beneath contempt, scrape the bottom of the barrel, go down in value, lower forms of life, lowly existence, lower than low.
         Further, the expressions in the first set are different from those in the second in that saying that something is 'down to' someone is altogether more dramatic than saying something 'up to' them. And this may be why so many of Abbott's examples of be down to come from sportscasters, a species who take a back seat to no one in over-dramatization.
Here are some other of Abbott's examples:

  1. Reeve lofted a catch to mid-on. Now it was down to Fairbrother...
  2. It was down to Greene and Alda to save the guy.
  3. It's gonna be down to the players, and if we win.

What be down to seems to do convey the nuance that team mates and supporters are all watching with bated breath to see whether hopes are dashed to the ground, or not. True, no clear higher authority or higher order of existence is explicitly referred to; nevertheless, the connotation is that the situation is fateful. Additionally, there is the fact that once some things are 'down'—that is, once they have 'hit the ground'—they can go no further. This is a clear reason why saying that something is 'down to' someone is like saying that person is the last resort. In any case, substituting to into the three examples just above yields meanings that are decidedly more mundane.

Let's see how well, or if, this explanation can be applied to other cases of apparent switchability.

Discussion of examples

  • re different to/from & immune to/from

In English one may ask, for instance, "How far is it to the nearest hotel?". In Spanish the functionally equivalent question translates as "How far is it from X?" This is an example of how a potential movement between point A and point B can, as it were, be measured either from A to B or from B to A. German too offers at least one relevant type of different-from-English choice of reference point. For instance, Der...Raum...war... durch einen Vorraum nach aussen abgetrennt [' by an antechamber to the outside separated', or, in standard English, 'the room was separated from the outside by an antechamber'] (Endres, no date). How could this kind of inter-language difference come about?

In a number of expressions, from signifies an abstract separation in a way which in centuries past was almost certainly felt to be vividly metaphorical. For instance, in expressions of the keep/stop/prevent X from sort (e.g., keep something from falling), an event (e.g., that something falls) is spoken of as being 'kept from'. Kept from what? Kept from happening, kept from becoming reality. Or, to use another expression of the same metaphor - staved off (think of a someone using a staff, or pole, to kept something like a boat from approaching).

In expressions of the form X is different from Y there seems again to be reference to a metaphorical separation (or distance) between Y and X. We see clearer evidence of the underlying metaphor, A DIFFERENCE IS A PHYSICAL SEPARATION, in expressions such as I can't see the difference [between X and Y], Your answer was really close to [i.e., similar to] what I wanted, Close but no cigar, Near enough, Her answer was far from correct.

So why then would someone say different to (rather than from) and immune from (rather than to)?

For the same reason, I contend, that in English we say How far to...? while the Spanish say How far from...? And much the same is probably true of the occurrence of opposite from (1.2c above)

But why does no one (apparently) say similar from (rather than to)? The reason is, I guess, that the notion of similarity is felt to be the opposite of separation. Immunity, on the other hand, can plausibly thought of as the preservation of metaphorical separation between health and sickness.

  • re live on/off X

The switchability of on and off in Live on/off your ill-gotten gains has, I think, a different explanation. On the one hand, live on seems to be one of a great many expressions in which the grammatical object of on represents a basis or foundation of some kind—e.g., survive on, rely on, depend on, count on, capitalize on, be founded on the principle that..., base an assumption on (cf. also such expressions as a basis for survival, the basis of a belief). On the other hand, the grammatical object of off in live off represents a 'source' rather than a base. We see this use of off to indicate original position in The mirror fell off the wall (i.e., the original position of the mirror is on the wall). So, if soldiers live off the land, the land is where what they need to live comes from, and if bad guys live off ill-gotten gains, these gains are the (metaphorical) source of what they need to survive (since they can't, for instance, eat money or jewels but have to exchange them for food, etc.).
         But, as it happens, on and off are switch able in this way in very few contexts; and, when they are switch able, as in the example I've given, they differ in nuance (I contend) owing to the fact that their objects have different roles (i.e., 'basis' for on and 'source' for off).

  • re a light went off/on

It is well-known that one of the highly abstract, metaphor-derived senses of on is something like 'happening' or (to use another metaphor) 'on-going' (e.g., the light's on). It's antonym in this sense is off (= 'not current'/'not happening' as in the light's off).3 But the singer I quoted definitely did not mean that a (metaphorical) light ceased to shine. Most probably he meant the light went off in the sense that a flash bulb (or, more emphatically, a bomb) does. This latter sense may be related that seen in I'm off! [i.e., off the spot I'm on], set off on a journey = 'begin a journey', set off a reaction='cause it to begin'.) But whatever Johnny Mercer meant by a light went off in my head, off did not (I contend) mean anything at all exactly synonymous to any sense of on. Rather, he was putting two distinct metaphors into play.

  • re slow up/down

Here too we have synonymy which disappears when scrutinized. Up has the metaphorical sense 'briskly'/'completely'3 which we might encounter in, probably, thousands of verb + up combinations (e.g., chop up the onion, which differs from chop the onion in that the latter could mean just 'chop it in half' which the former could never mean). So far as I can see, down is never used as the opposite of up in this sense. Rather, down, in slow down, is an expression of the possibly even more common metaphor whereby upness/downness signifies moreness/lessness either in intensity (cool down, the temperature dropped/rose, a low/high temperature...), quality (down-/up-grade, low/high quality...) or quantity (prices went down/up, low/high prices...). In this sense, down is the opposite, not a synonym, of up. In fact, it is not that easy to think of verbs such as slow which combine with up and down with apparent synonymy. Slow up and slow down seem synonymous by accident, as follows. Slow up means something like 'slow completely & quickly' whereas slow down means that speed should be less. I think there are conceivable situations which show that these expressions are not completely interchangeable. For instance, if you are travelling at 100mph slowing down could mean reducing your speed to 95mph whereas such a small reduction in speed would hardly qualify as slowing up.

  • re on/under the authority of

The two kinds of expression on and under are subtly different in meaning in ways that stem from the core literal meanings of the two prepositions.
         If you say you do something on the authority of someone or something (e.g., on the authority of a court ruling), you construe the word of the authority as the basis or foundation of your (intended) action. (The CCCS includes, as one of its examples, on my own authority.)
         But to say that you operate under an authority is to portray the authority as something which is higher than you and from which, ultimately, you get your directions. The CCCS, for instance, suggests that likely modifiers in the frame under...authority are ones such as colonial, government, joint, local, national and UN.

  • re fight with/against someone

In some contexts these two prepositions may indeed be synonymous. This is because:

  1. with once did not have the meanings it commonly has today but actually could mean 'against' (cf. German wider).
  2. when with developed new meanings, certain expressions dating from the time when it had its original meaning survived, rather like fossils. Another such fossils is withstand (= 'stand against'). Google shows fight with to be less common than fight against. Perhaps it is disappearing (?)

  • re up/down the lane

For me, this is the one truly puzzling case of (apparently) genuine switchability. Is it the result of some innate feature of human visual perception whereby things such as roads (which appear narrower and narrower the farther away along them that we look) seem either to slowly rise or gradually decline? Certainly, people or things which move away from us along a road seem to shrink (which includes shrinking downward) and, conversely, seem to get bigger (which includes growing upward) as they approach. But this seems to suggest that we should always say go down the road and come up the road (provided, again, that it is as flat as a road can be on our globe). Satisfyingly, when I googled going up the road and going down the road (8.4.07) I got 16,700 and 242,000 exact wording hits, respectively. But when I googled coming up the road and coming down the road, I got 41,000 and 203,000 exact wording hits, respectively. What this and similar searches showed is, basically, that down collocates with road, street and lane more commonly than up does with no rhyme or reason that I have been able to figure out. (Probably, the explanation was published long ago in some paper I have not managed to find.)


Among the cases of switchable opposites, considered here, it seems to me that the only possible cases of true synonymy are fight with/against x and go up/down the lane. For all the other cases that I have noticed, the superficial synonymy is the result of communicatively similar meanings having been reached by different routes from different starting points. I suspect this means that form most native speakers they are not therefore synonymous at all. Let's look at one final example of what I mean:
         "Never give in, never, never, never." (Churchill. Oct. 29, 1941 at Harrow School)
         "I'd been having trouble with my laptop and it finally gave out at the weekend."
         (Found on the internet at
Here we have give in and give out, both apparently meaning 'quit'. Looked at more closely, a significant difference in meaning appears. Give in means 'quit' in the sense of 'quit resisting, quit trying', and I believe the word in has pretty much the same sense her that it does in cave in. That is, something external which is literally or metaphorically pressing inwards finally does press in. In give out, out has the sense that it does in run out (of steam, food...), be tired out (talked out, etc.). That is, something that was 'in' (e.g., in one's possession, in one's power, etc), vanishes or, metaphorically, leaves...goes out. It simply does not work to use give out in the Churchill quote and give in about a laptop. Most of the examples I discussed earlier are just slightly less obvious cases of this very sort of bogus synonymy.


1 If no source is given, the example was invented by me, but in all such cases I am positive I could find something similar in a corpus with little trouble. A superscript 'UK' or 'US' means that the quote so marked stems from either the United Kingdom or the USA. Of course, these antonyms are never remotely synonymous when they have their central literal meanings as in, for instance, the rocket went up and the rocket went down.

2 Lakoff and Johnson (1980/2003) is a good place to start.

3 Accounts of this and other prepositional metaphors (worked out by a number of cognitive linguists) are collected in Lindstromberg (1997).


Abbott, G. 2003. 'When down = up'. MET, vol. 12/1: 15-16.

Endres, H. M. No date. Translation of Flavius Josephus's De bello judaico (Der Jűdische Krieg). William Goldman Verlag, p. 423.

Garrod, S., C. Ferrier, and S. Campbell. 1999. 'In and on: investigation of the functional geometry of spatial prepositions'. Cognition, 72/12: 167-89.

Landau, B. and R. Jackendoff. 1993. 'What and Where in Spatial Language and Spatial Cognition'. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16: 217-65.

Levelt, W. H. (1996). 'Perspective taking and ellipsis in spatial descriptions. In P. Bloom, M. A. Peterson, L. Nadel and M. F. Garrett (eds), Bloom, P., Peterson M. A., Nadel L. and Garrett M. F. Language and Space. Cambridge, MA: MIT. Pp. 77-108.

Lindner, S. 1981. A Lexico-Semantic Analysis of Verb-Particle Constructions with UP and OUT. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California at San Diego. Available from the University of Indiana Linguistics Club.

Lindstromberg, Seth. 1997. English Prepositions Explained. John Benjamins.


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