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German constructions with complex prepositional groups introduced by bis

Sabine De Knop


Starting from examples from the two German corpora DWDS and Cosmas II from the IDS-Mannheim the study describes the conceptual, semantic and syntactic variety of German constructions with the preposition bis followed by a second preposition. Such constructions best exemplify the syntax-semantic interface and the importance of postulating an autonomous level of constructions as a unit of its own in the various levels of grammatical organization. As with most alternations, the syntactic variation leads to a further morpho-syntactic framing and reflects diversity in construal.

A partir d’exemples tirés de deux corpus de l’allemand (DWDS et Cosmas II de L’IDS-Mannheim), cette étude décrit la variété conceptuelle, sémantique et syntaxique des constructions de l’allemand contenant la préposition bis suivie d’une seconde préposition. Ces constructions sont une parfaite illustration de l’interface syntaxe-sémantique et de l’importance de postuler un niveau autonome de constructions en tant qu’unités à part entière dans les divers niveaux d’organisation de la grammaire. Comme avec la plupart des alternances, la variation syntaxique mène à un cadrage morphosyntaxique supplémentaire et reflète la diversité dans la conceptualisation.

Ausgehend von einer Beispielsammlung aus den deutschen Korpora der DWDS und der IDS Mannheim beschreibt der Beitrag die konzeptuelle, syntaktische und semantische Variation, die Konstruktionen mit der deutschen Präposition bis und einer zweiten Präposition kennzeichnet. Solche Konstruktionen veranschaulichen sehr gut die Schnittstelle zwischen Semantik und Syntax und die Notwendigkeit, gröβere sprachliche Einheiten - sogenannte Konstruktionen - als grundlegende autonome Einheiten in der grammatischen Organisation anzunehmen. Wie mit den meisten alternierenden Konstruktionen führt die syntaktische Variation weiter zu einem morphosyntaktischen Rahmen und spiegelt eine Diversität in der Konzeptualisierung wider.

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1. Introduction

1Constructions with prepositional groups introduced by the German preposition bis are characterized by a great diversity as can be seen from the few examples hereunder:


Der Weg bis an die Grenze ist gleich gefunden

’The way to the border will soon be found’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)


Er arbeitete (spät) bis in die Nacht

’He worked (late) into the night’

(Cosmas II: I00/DEZ.75273)


Ich werde dich lieben bis in den Tod

*‘I will love you into death (= until I die)’

(DWDS Kernkorpus);


Der Prinz war bis an die Zähne bewaffnet

’The prince was armed to the teeth’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)


Die Wut steht ihm bis über den Kopf

*'Anger stands till over his head (= was overwhelming him)'

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

2The diversity concerns more particularly the selection of the second preposition [PREP2] which appears after bis, e.g., an (‘at’), in (‘in’), über (‘over’), hinter (‘behind’), unter (‘under’), … Interestingly, many studies about German prepositions (Carstensen (2000), Cuyckens & Radden (2002), Grießhaber (2009), Lutzeier (1995), Rauh (1991), and Zelinsky-Wibbelt (1993)) disregard the preposition bis. If it is quoted at all then in terms of a ‘particular status’: Klein (1991: 88) claims that examples with the preposition bis are very complicated and that they often require meaning reinterpretations. For Lehman & Stolz bis and je have particular case governing properties (1992: 15). What these properties are is not explained at all. In the Duden grammar book a ‘problematic use’ is attributed to bis (Eisenberg et al. 2009: 614). Further explanations are restricted to the claim that bis is often used with a second preposition which determines the morpho-syntactic case of the following noun. In the same line, for Wunderlich (1984: 76) the preposition bis is ’’the prototypical preposition which requires a prepositional phrase as argument and which therefore does not determine the case’’. In their paper about ’’Lokale und Direktionale’’ (1991) Wunderlich & Herweg classify the preposition bis among those prepositions which ’’encode the beginning (source) or the end (goal) of motion relative to the/in relation with the proximity of an object’’ (1991: 761).

3These punctual, superficial descriptions are unsatisfactory:

  • 1 See the definition of 'construction' in Section 3.


Most studies speak of a problematic or special status of bis without any further description.


Several levels of linguistic description are mixed up. Most studies which quote the preposition bis simply deal with the selection of the correct case after bis.


Most claims about bis as described here above are based on a few scarse examples which are not representative for the whole variety of uses with bis. No systematic description is offered.


As we will see in the following description often a larger context, i.e. the whole construction,1 in which bis is used has to be taken into account. This is not done either in the studies quoted here above.

  • 2 The term 'subconstruction' will be used to designate parts of constructions, among others the ones (...)

4The present study aims at making up for these deficits. Starting from examples collected in the two German corpora DWDS Kernkorpus (Digitales Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache) and Cosmas II (IDS Mannheim) the study will first describe the syntactic variation of subconstructions2 with [bis + PREP2] (Section 2). It will then show that this variation reflects a semantic and conceptual variation (Section 3) and that it leads to a morpho-syntactic framing with a specific case-marking typical for the German language (Section 4). All the above examples are used with an accusative case for the expression of dynamicity, i.e. of a path of motion to a goal. What justifies the use of this case? Finally, Section 5 will describe some particular examples of constructions with [bis + PREP2] characterized by a conflation of a dynamic (at the level of the prepositional subconstruction) and a static event (at the level of the verbal phrase).

2. Syntactic variation of bis-constructions

2.1 Bis without [PREP2]

5Before we start with a syntactic description of constructions with [bis + PREP2] it is important to realize that bis can sometimes be used without a second preposition in a temporal or spatial use, e.g.,


Wir bleiben bis morgen/kommenden Montag

‘We stay until tomorrow/until next Monday’

(temporal use)


Der Zug fährt bis Paris/Frankreich

‘The train goes/travels till Paris/France’

(spatial use)

6The lack of [PREP2] depends on the type of word that builds the nucleus of the prepositional group. If it is a temporal noun denoting months, days, or a spatial noun denoting towns and countries then often no article accompanies this noun as can be seen in (6) or (7). Consequently, no [PREP2] will be used. Compared with these examples a country name like die Schweiz 'Switzerland', which is always used with the feminine definite article will then require a second preposition after bis, e.g.,


Wir fahren bis in die Schweiz

'We go/travel till Switzerland'

7If the nucleus of the prepositional group is an adjective, an adverb or a connective, no [PREP2] is used either, e.g., bis später, bis dann, bis bald, bis jetzt, bis irgendwann, … But let us turn to the more complex examples which are central to this paper, the complex prepositional groups with [bis + PREP2].

2.2 Bis with [PREP2]

2.2.1 Subconstructions with bis: argument or adjunct?

8The subconstruction with ‘bis’ may fit into different parts of sentences; it can depend on:

(i) a noun phrase:


Der Weg bis an die Grenze ist gleich gefunden

’The way to the border will soon be found’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)


Eine Explosion bis in die Mitte der Stadt

‘An explosion to the middle of the town’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

(ii) an adjective:


Er ist verliebt/rot bis über die Ohren

*‘He is in love/red up to over the ears’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

  • 3 I thank one of the anonymous reviewers who drew my attention to this point.

Alternatively the prepositional group introduced by bis can appear in front of the adjective it determines:3


Sie stand in einem kaum bis ans Knie reichenden Batisthöschen vor ihm

‘She stood in front of him in a batiste slip that almost reached her knee’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

(iii) a verb phrase:


Wir fahren bis in die Schweiz

'We go/travel till Switzerland'


Ich bringe dich bis zur Tür

‘I bring you up to the door’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

(iv) the whole predicator:


Das Geld sickert bis in die untersten Schichten der Bevölkerung

‘The money seeps up into the inferior coats of the population’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)


Wir waren ohne Speisewagen bis hinter Zürich

‘We were without restaurant car up to Zürich’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

  • 4 Alternatively, the same verb bringen could be used with an indirect object and a direct object, e.g (...)

9In order to make a distinction between the categories (iii) and (iv) it seems necessary to have a closer look at the notion of ‘argument’ and the difference between arguments and adjuncts. Radden & Dirven (2007: 271) see “the notion of argument as the linguistic counterpart to the conceptual notion of participant: it refers to the obligatory constituents a predicate normally takes in a sentence.” Predicates can be classified according to their valency, i.e. according to the number and type of arguments that they require or govern. In the above example (12) the verb bringe requires a subject, a direct object (which makes this verb transitive) and a locational complement.4 In this particular case it is the prepositional group bis an die Tür which expresses the location, it cannot be omitted because of the argument structure of the predicate. On the contrary, in example (14) the prepositional group bis Zürich is an adjunct as it does not belong to the obligatory constituents governed by waren. In his description of caused motion phenomena Kay (2005) goes one step further and makes a tripartite distinction between ‘argument’, ‘added argument’ and ‘adjunct’. In caused motion constructions, e.g., ‘They laughed him off the stage’ the prepositional group off the stage is an added argument; it is not required by the minimal verb but “behaves both semantically and syntactically like [an] argument[s]” (Kay 2005: 87). He concludes that “prepositional adjuncts are distinguished from prepositional arguments semantically as follows: an adjunct modifies the predication arising from the main predicator while an added argument, as the name indicates, simply augments the list of arguments of the predicator” (2005: 88). Although the examples under discussion in this paper are not an exemplification of ‘caused motion constructions’ it seems that in many cases with the prepositional group introduced by bis we have ‘added arguments’ as well, e.g., in example (13): bis in die untersten Schichten der Bevölkerung does not belong to the valency of sickern but in this particular context it is a necessary argument, an added argument.

10The borderline between the three concepts is not clear-cut. In order to make a distinction between them we will need some tests.

11(a) Deletion test:

Is it possible to delete a particular constituent in the sentence without changing the whole meaning of the sentence or even without getting non-sense? If so, the deleted constituents are adjuncts and not arguments. In the above example (12) it is not possible to delete the prepositional complement bis an die Tür: *’Ich bringe dich’.

12(b) Conversion of the sentence into a ‘and is doing so’-structure:

Starting from both examples (i) ‘My son is in the bathroom’ as opposed to (ii) ‘My son is singing in the bathroom’, Radden & Dirven (2007: 277) propose another test in order to distinguish between an argument (e.g., ‘in the bathroom’ in example (i)) and an adjunct (e.g., ‘in the bathroom’ in example (ii): ‘’An adjunct, but not a complement, may be separated from the predicate by using the «and is doing so»-construction: My son is singing and he is doing so in the bathroom. This test allows us to distinguish participants of a situation, i.e. complements of a sentence, from non-participant roles or settings, i.e. adjuncts’’ (Radden & Dirven 2007: 277). Again in example (12) it is not possible to convert the sentence into a structure of the type: ‘Ich bringe dich und ich tue dies bis zur Tür’. So, ‘bis zur Tür’ is a necessary argument of the verb bringe.

13(c) Fronting:

In his description of the difference between added path arguments and setting adjuncts Kay (2005: 92) observes that “added arguments […] are sometimes more resistant to fronting than setting adjuncts”. Compare example (8) with example (14) when fronting the prepositional group:

  • 5 The addition of the word da ‘there’ is needed for the fronting process in German as the order of th (...)


*Bis in die Schweiz, da5 fahren wir



Bis in die Schweiz, da waren wir ohne Speisewagen


14In example (8), fronting is not possible so that we can expect the prepositional group to be an argument. In example (14) on the other hand the same complement is an adjunct as fronting is possible.

15In spite of these tests a clear delimitation between arguments, added arguments and adjuncts is not always easy. More important for the description of the examples under discussion is the distinction between the prepositional groups that are arguments to the verb they are used with like in category (iii), and the prepositional groups that determine the whole predication (category iv). To put it with Kay (2005: 87): “Semantically, arguments complete the meaning of a predicator while adjuncts add something to a completed predication.”

2.2.2 Variation in [PREP2]

16Unlike other languages German is characterized by a great diversity at the level of [PREP2]. Compare for instance the rather awkward translations of the examples (3), (5) and (10) into English. An attempt to translate the above examples into a language which is typologically completely different (in Talmy’s sense (2000)), e.g. a Romance language like French, would lead to similar – perhaps even greater – difficulties (compare also Hottenroth (2002)). In De Knop & Dirven (2008) it was shown that German privileges the expression of manner, which is again illustrated in the subconstructions with [bis + PREP2] and more particularly in the second preposition.

17The selection of [PREP2] is dependent on the noun in the prepositional group whose lexical frame presupposes a built-in scale determining the choice of [PREP2]. There are many possibilities: bis an die Grenze (‘up to the border’), bis in die Nacht (‘till in the night’), bis in den Tod (*‘till in the death’), bis über den Kopf (‘up to over the head’), bis unter das Dach (‘up to under the roof’), bis hinter den Horizont (‘up to behind the horizon’), bis zum Gartentor (‘up to the garden gate’), … Sometimes different prepositions are possible in the same construction and with the same noun, as illustrated by the following pair found in the two corpora:



Der Prinz war bis an die Zähne bewaffnet

’The prince was armed to the teeth’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)


Bis auf die Zähne bewaffnet stand Polizei in Alarmbereitschaft

*‘The police was standing by, armed up to on the teeth’

(Cosmas II: P98/DEZ.49020)

18There can even be more than two alternatives as becomes obvious with the following examples:



Hanspeter wurde rot bis über die Ohren

*‘Hanspeter became red up to over the ears’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)


Rot wurde sie bis hinter die Ohren

*‘Red she became up to behind the ears’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)


Kuno Kohn war rot bis an die Ohren

‘Kuno Kohn was red up to the ears’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

19Bis evokes the notion of limit exemplified in the so-called ‘collocates’ (Stefanowitsch & Gries 2003), e.g., Grenze (‘border’), Rand (‘side’), Horizont (‘horizon’), Tür/Tor (‘door/gate’), but also in body-parts like Ohren ('ears') or Zähne ('teeth'), … But bis is polysemous in itself and in its combination with a second preposition it builds a polysemous subconstruction which can be associated with a set of related senses (compare Taylor (1993)). To put it with Goldberg (1995: 33): “the same form is paired with different but related senses”. The central sense of this polysemous subconstruction [bis + PREP2] is the sense of limit. It is [PREP2] which allows for a further meaning differentiation or disambiguation. Let us look at these possible senses in detail in the next section.

3. Semantic and conceptual variation of [bis + PREP2]

20The syntactic variation described in Section 2 reflects a diversity in construal. The subconstruction with [bis + PREP2] can stand for the expression of various meanings.

3.1 Spatial senses: spatial path vs. spatial endpoint

  • 6 For Talmy (2000) a motion event has 5 components: the figure, which is the person or thing moving, (...)

21In its spatial senses the subconstruction with bis can either express a spatial path or a spatial endpoint. These are related aspects of a motion event in Talmy’s sense (2000).6 Let us look at some examples of both categories.

(a) Concrete spatial path


Der Weg bis an die Grenze ist gleich gefunden

’The way to the border will soon be found’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)


Sie drangen bis an die große Mauer vor

*‘They reached up to the great wall

(DWDS Kernkorpus)


… auf einen Weg …, der zwischen Hecken bis hinter das Haus führte…

*‘…on a path… which led between hedges up to behind the house…’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

(b) Spatial endpoint


Er begleitete ihn bis zur Gartentür

‘He accompanied him to the garden gate’

(Cosmas II: DIV/DSP.00001)


Die … Detektivin … verfolgte beide bis zu einem Hause in der Neanderstraße. - Sie benachrichtigte nun die Polizei, …

‘The … detective … tracked both up to a house in the Neanderstreet. - Then she informed the police, …'

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

22The distinction between a spatial path and a spatial endpoint is a subtle one, especially in cases of similar examples in the same construction but with different [PREPs2], as illustrated by the following examples:


Er begleitete ihn bis zur Gartentür

‘He accompanied him to the garden gate’

(Cosmas II: DIV/DSP.00001)


Sie begleitete die Mädchen bis an die Tür und blieb dort, bis der Zug wieder abfuhr, …

‘She accompanied the girls up to the door and stayed there until the train drove off, …’

(Cosmas II: RHZ03/FEB.03426)

23A look at the English translations of the examples (17) and (19) seems to suggest that the examples convey a different meaning. This assumption is sustained by the claim in Cognitive Linguistics (CL) and Construction Grammar (CG) that where there is alternation of constructions one has to postulate different constructions (Goldberg 1995 and 2002; Gries & Stefanowitsch 2004; Langacker 1991); in CL terms this means that there is a difference at the conceptual level, and further at the semantic level of the constructions: “If two constructions are syntactically distinct, they must be semantically or pragmatically distinct” (Goldberg 1995: 67). The conceptual and semantic difference in the examples (17) and (19) is conveyed by [PREP2], i.e. the selection of the second preposition reflects diversity in construal. The prepositions an or zu convey different conceptualizations: the use of zu (‘to’), e.g. in (17), highlights the endpoint (of an implied path or trajectory); with an (‘up to’) in (19) it is the path/trajectory towards the gate that is focused upon. The difference between the endpoint and the path towards a goal as realized by the prepositional group introduced by bis is subtle and it is not clear whether the alternative constructions are indeed perceived as a conceptually and semantically motivated alternation by German speakers or whether the perception of the alternation is perhaps dependent on the level of education of different speakers groups. The study in De Knop (forthc. c.) deals with the sociolinguistic question of how strongly the conceptual and semantic difference is entrenched in different groups. It also examines whether language-external factors like education level have an influence on the selection of an or zu. For further details see De Knop (forthc. c.).

3.2 Temporal senses: time vs. time and intensity

24Apart from the spatial meaning the subconstruction with [bis + PREP2] can also be used in a temporal sense, i.e. to express time:


Er arbeitete (spät) bis in die Nacht

’He worked (late) into the night’

(Cosmas II: I00/DEZ.75273)


In Wien tanzt man gewöhnlich bis zu Ostern, also bis in den April hinein

‘In Vienna one dances usually up to Easter, i.e. till in April’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

25In the following example it is not simply a temporal meaning which is being conveyed but additionally intensity:


Ich werde dich lieben bis in den Tod

*‘I will love you into death (= until I die)’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

26Example (3) is an exemplification of ’constructions’ in Goldberg’s sense (1995 and 2006): “Any linguistic pattern is recognized as a construction as long as some aspect of its form or function is not strictly predictable from its component parts or from other constructions recognized to exist” (Goldberg 2006: 5). One of the main strengths of Goldberg’s version of Construction Grammar (1995 and 2006) is that it shifts our attention away from compositional to non-compositional linguistic expressions (see also Dirven & Ruiz de Mendoza Ibanez 2010: 25). This principle seems to be very relevant in prepositional groups which express not only time but also intensity. Example (3) is non-compositional because one cannot say ‘Ich werde dich lieben bis den Tod’, nor ‘Ich werde dich lieben in den Tod’. So[bis + PREP2] together with the following noun develops the non-compositional meaning of measuring an intensity in this figurative sense.

3.3 Metaphorical extensions: expression of degree

27Metaphorical extensions also exemplify the non-compositional character of the subconstructions:

  • 7 About half of the examples with bis unter die Haarspitzen in both corpora colligate with the verb m (...)


Der Prinz war bis an die Zähne bewaffnet

’The prince was armed to the teeth’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)


Die Älteren sind eifrig und motiviert7 bis unter die Haarspitzen

*‘The older people are assiduous and motivated up to under the end of the hair’

(Cosmas II: M02/FEB.10642)

28Most examples of metaphorical extension express a degree or a measure; in these cases the nominal group introduced by [bis + PREP2] is an answer to a question of the kind "how much/how strongly/how intensively":


Mädchen quälen sich bis aufs Blut ( wie stark/how strongly?)

*’Girls torment themselves up to blood’

(Cosmas II: RHZ01/OKT.01469)


… obwohl wir Arbeit bis über die Ohren haben ( wieviel/how much?)

*‘… although we have work till over the ears’

(Cosmas II: V00/NOV.58487)


Er ist konservativ bis in die Knochen ( wie stark/how strongly?)

*’He is conservative up to in the bones’

(Cosmas II: NUN92/MAI.00292)

29With these examples and the large amount of similar examples in both corpora it becomes obvious that in this context the metaphorical idea of degree is often expressed by body-parts: bis über die Knie (‘knee’), bis in die Fingerspitzen (‘fingertips’), bis an die Nase (‘nose’), bis über die Ohren (‘ears’), bis an die Zähne (‘teeth’), bis über den Hals (‘throat’/’neck’), … The relevant body-parts are prominent and are viewed as a sort of limit or border by the speaker.

30Metaphorical expressions with bis are non-compositional in the sense that the constituents of the subconstruction are rather fixed (compare also Svensson 2008) and that often [PREP2] cannot be replaced by another preposition. This is particularly clear with example (22) or (24). The metaphorical meaning depends on the whole subconstruction. A further argument for the non-compositional character of the metaphorical subconstruction is the fixed use of the definite article with the expression of body-parts instead of the possessive adjective. For Heinz (2003: 110) the use of either the definite article or the possessive adjective in so-called ‘somatic collocations’ (2003: 110), or corporeal relations allows to focus on different perspectives: with the possessive adjective the focus lies on the non-alienable, possessive relation between the body-part and the body. The definite article is rather used to express a more generic meaning, permanent properties, or when the relation between the body and the body-part is not prominent. In the metaphorical examples under discussion it is not this possession relationship which is focussed upon, but much more the metaphorical idea of degree or measure which this body-part can convey when used in the subconstruction with [bis + PREP2].

3.4 Bis auf: exclusion vs. completion

31 The following two categories of possible senses with the subconstruction introduced by bis illustrate at their best the polysemous character of the subconstruction. In both cases bis is followed by one and the same preposition auf (‘on’), the same subconstruction expresses different, even opposite senses: either exclusion/restriction or completion/total inclusion. Here are some examples for both categories:

32(a) Exclusion/restriction

In this category the subconstruction with [bis + auf] conveys the sense of ‘all but …’ or ‘all except…’:


Bis auf einen haben alle Bewährungsstrafen erhalten

‘Except for one all got a suspended sentence’

(Cosmas II:RHZ00/JAN.07520)


…so dass alle bis auf zwei lachten, statt zu singen

‘…so that all except two laughed, instead of singing‘

(Cosmas II: K00/JAN.04437)


Er war nackt bis auf einen langen breiten Lendenschurz und die Mokassins

‘He was naked except for a long wide loincloth and the mocassins’

(Cosmas II: GR1/TL1.04547)

33After [bis + auf] a numeral is being used, e.g., ein (‘one’) in examples (25) or (27), zwei (‘two’) in example (26).

34(b) Completion/total inclusion

Interestingly, the same preposition auf can be used after bis to express exactly the opposite meaning, i.e. completion or total inclusion, e.g.,


… ist der Saal bis auf den letzten Platz gefüllt

‘… the room is full up to the last seat’

(Cosmas II: A00/JAN.03295)


Wir haben den Fleck bis auf die letzte Spur entfernt

*‘We have deleted the spot up to the last trace’

(Cosmas II: A00/JAN.00484)


Bis auf die Grundmauern brannte Freitag Abend ein Wochenendhaus in Stanz nieder

‘Last Friday in Stanz a week-end house burnt down up to the ground-walls‘

(Cosmas IIO00/JAN.03247)

35The question which arises here is how it is possible to distinguish both categories (a) and (b) as the same preposition auf is used after bis, but to express opposite senses. The role of the collocates is important for the disambiguation process. In the examples of category (a) we can often find collocates which designate a larger group or a total amount, e.g., alle ('all') in example (25) or (26). For Radden & Dirven (2007: 121) collocates like ‘all’ are full-set quantifiers. In the examples under discussion the full set is being restricted by smaller subsets expressed by the subconstruction with [bis + auf + numeral]. Example (27) is somewhat particular in that it does not contain a quantifier expression in the traditional sense. But nackt (‘naked’) can be considered to be a helpful collocate for the metonymical expression of a full set: if one is naked it presupposes that "all" clothes have been taken off.

36The examples of category (b) do not express a quantification but the meaning of a total inclusion or completion.The semantically relevant collocates for the recognition of this sense are, e.g., letzt ('last') in example (28) or (29) and nieder ('down') and Grundmauern ('fundaments') in (30).

37Both categories (a) and (b) clearly illustrate the importance of the collocates in the interpretation and disambiguation process and consequently the necessity to do a ‘collostructional analysis’ (Stefanowitsch & Gries 2003) of the examples.

4. Conceptual variation and morpho-syntactic case-marking

38The conceptual variation and the meaning differences described in Section 3 are supported by the German morpho-syntactic case-marking system. In example (17) ‘Er begleitete ihn bis zur Gartentür’ it is the dative case which is used after the preposition zu, whereas in (19) ‘Sie begleitete die Mädchen bis an die Tür’ the accusative case appears after the preposition an.

  • 8 Alternatively, the selection of either the accusative or the dative can be dependent on the valency (...)

39In German there are two groups of prepositions: on the one hand, the ones which require a specific fixed case, i.e., the accusative, the dative or the genitive case (e.g., the preposition zu which is always used with the dative); on the other hand, the so-called ‘two-way prepositions’ (Smith 1995) which require either the accusative or the dative case, depending on the underlying conceptualization and the meaning a speaker wants to convey.8 Let us look at the following example pair:



Er geht auf die Straße [Accusative case]

‘He goes onto the street’


Er geht auf der Straße [Dative case]

‘He goes up and down in the street’

40(31a) and (31b) are sentences with the same two-way preposition auf, but their meaning is different, as the translations into English show. This meaning difference is reflected in the different morpho-syntactic cases which are the result of different conceptualizations: the dative case is usually selected for the expression of static events/a location/an endpoint (see Leys 1989 and 1995; Draye 1996). In example (31a) it is the accusative which is used after the preposition. This case expresses a dynamic event, implying a stretch/ path/trajectory towards a goal and a motion along this path.

41Most [PREPs2] in the subconstruction with bis are two-way prepositions and it is generally the accusative which is used for the expression of a motion towards a goal, i.e., for dynamicity:


Der Weg bis an die Grenze ist gleich gefunden


Er arbeitete (spät) bis in die Nacht


Ich werde dich lieben bis in den Tod


Der Prinz war bis an die Zähne bewaffnet


Die Wut steht ihm bis über den Kopf


Eine Explosion bis in die Mitte der Stadt


Er ist verliebt/rot bis über die Ohren

42It is the preposition bis which is decisive for the selection of the case as it is this preposition which conveys the meaning of a motion towards a goal. Consequently, the claim in the Duden grammar book which says that the selection of the case in the prepositional group depends on [PREP2] must be rejected (see §2 of this paper).

43There is one exception to this generalization: when the preposition vor is used in its temporal meaning then it is the dative case which is selected. It then expresses a time point in retrospect:


Es bestand bis vor zehn Jahren kein Zweifel, dass…

‘There existed until about 10 years ago no doubt, that…’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

44To conclude, the meaning difference between example (17) and (19) does not only depend on the selection of a specific preposition (an or zu) but also on the specific case used with the preposition in the combination with bis.

5. Conflation of static and dynamic events in constructions with [bis + PREP2]

  • 9 This brings further evidence to support the claim that the case selection in the subconstruction de (...)

45The previous sections (see especially Section 3) highlighted the necessity for the interpretation process to take into account the whole construction in which the prepositional group introduced by [bis + PREP2] appears. E.g., the role of the collocates was shown to be decisive for the differentiation between instantiations of exclusion/restriction vs. inclusion/completion (see §35). In this section the role of the constructional context is further discussed. Section 4 described the use of the accusative case for the marking of a dynamic event with the expression of a motion towards a goal along a path/stretch/trajectory. Interestingly, a subconstruction introduced by [bis + PREP2] followed by a noun in the accusative case for the expression of a dynamic event can appear in a construction with a verb that expresses a state, a location or immobility.9 Here are some examples:

46(i) with the location verb stehen, ’to stand’ in:


Die Wut steht ihm bis über den Kopf

*'Anger stands till over his head' (= was overwhelming him)

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

47 (ii) or even with the state verb sein, ‘to be’ in:


Er ist konservativ bis in die Knochen

*‘He is conservative up to in the bones’

(Cosmas II: NUN92/MAI.00292)


Er ist verliebt/rot bis über die Ohren

*‘He is in love/red up to over the ears’

(DWDS Kernkorpus)

  • 10 I thank one of the anonymous reviewers who drew my attention to similar examples with modal verbs, (...)

48At first sight these examples are characterized by a semantic contradiction due to the conflation of the static verb meaning and the dynamic satellite subconstruction with [bis + PREP2] in the accusative.10

  • 11 A statistical evaluation with a pre- and posttest was done for the whole test, i.e. for all the sen (...)

49The contradiction becomes obvious when one asks foreign learners of German to select the right case in such sentences. They will almost automatically select the wrong case, i.e. the dative, in such examples. A test with French-speaking learners of German attested of such difficulties. The 15 participants were intermediate university students (level B2-C1 on the proficiency scale of the Common European Framework of Reference) who majored in German language and literature and were in their second year of their bachelor degree. They had to fill in the article in the correct morpho-syntactic case in twelve German sentences with mixed expressions of motion events. Six out of the twelve sentences contained subconstructions with bis. The article was given between brackets so as to make sure that the answer would not be falsified because the students did not know the right gender (see appendix). The sentences with a bis-subconstruction were problematic, e.g., (a) Er hat die Fahrt bis in d… kleinste(n) Detail geplant, 'He has planned the journey up to t… smallest detail', or (b) Er ist verliebt bis über d… Ohren, *'He is in love till up to over t… ears'. For sentence (a) only 27 % of the participants selected the accusative, for sentence (b) 40 % used the correct accusative case. For all six sentences we get the following general result of 54% of incorrect answers.11 So, for about half of French speakers such constructions are not perceived as expressing any dynamic motion towards a goal.

50What kind of explanation can be offered to foreign language learners of German for these problematic examples? Serra-Borneto (1997: 192) discusses similar examples, e.g., “Das Wasser reicht ihm bis über die Schenkel (‘The water is above his thighs’)” and justifies the use of the accusative in that example by saying that “you can imagine the eyes of the speaker following a trajectory from the ground up to the thighs and beyond them” (1997: 192). What Serra-Borneto describes is a kind of 'mental scanning' that has been called 'subjective motion' by Langacker (1987: 171) or 'fictive motion' by Matlock (2004a and 2004b). The examples under discussion in this section are such instantiations. In his linguistic description of a similar example, "Er ist über seine besten Jahre hinweg, 'He is over his best years’, (= He has left behind the best years of his life)”, Serra-Borneto (1997: 192) goes one step further, claiming that “[t]he situation (and the verb) is static but dynamism is subjectively added to the configuration. This happens at the level of the satellite” (1997: 192). This justifies the use of the accusative case in the prepositional group. This type of examples shifts our attention away from the verb as the nucleus of the sentence to larger constructions. It further highlights the need to redefine the prominent role of satellites. In such cases Talmy (2000: 278) suggests the term 'framing satellite': "A framing satellite determines most or all of the complement structure of its clause as well as the semantic character of the arguments represented in these complements." (2000: 278).

51In the examples under discussion the dynamic meaning is conveyed by such a framing satellite introduced by the preposition bis. Consequently, teachers of German will have to draw foreign learners’ attention to the fact that the decision-making about the right morpho-syntactic case in such prepositional groups introduced by bis is much more dependent on the satellite and on what this satellite conveys than on the verb in the construction. This can be explained with the concept of fictive motion or mental scanning (For more details about concrete teaching strategies, see De Knop & Dirven (2008)).

6. Conclusion

52Constructions with [bis + PREP2] are characterized by a great variation at different levels. This variation is typical of the German language and the way Germans conceptualize reality. Subconstructions with [bis + PREP2] not only convey different possible senses – as described in Section 3 – but additionally often express a manner which is a privileged dimension in German (see also De Knop & Dirven (2008)) – as opposed to other languages, e.g., Romance languages (see Slobin (1996), Talmy (2000), Perrez & De Knop (in preparation) or De Knop & Perrez (in preparation)), as testified by the problematic translations of the examples under discussion into English or French.

53The manner dimension becomes even more prominent in more complex constructions with additional adverbs of direction or location, e.g., hinaus ‘out of it’, hinüber ‘over it’, hinunter ‘down it’, hinan ‘at it’, …:


…Handelsplatz für Textilien mit Beziehungen bis über Europa hinaus

*'… trading place for … with connections up to over Europe and farther’

(Cosmas II: A00/APRI.26755)


… bringt das Wetter Schnee bis an den See hinunter

'… the weather brings snow down to the lake'

(Cosmas II: A00/MAR.16690)


Ein herrlicher Wanderweg bis auf den Berg hinauf

*'A wonderful hiking path up to on the mountain'


54Here again there are many possibilities: the directional or locational adverb can (i) replicate [PREP2], e.g., in example (35), or (ii) contain a different preposition, adding some new information to the construction, e.g., in (34), or (iii) it can express a finalization of an incomplete motion path (expressed by the prepositional subconstruction) as in example (33). A detailed survey of these different uses can be found in De Knop (forthc. b).

55The present study exemplified the need to postulate an autonomous level of constructions in the various levels of grammatical organization. According to the principle of non-compositionality as advocated by Goldberg (1995 and 2006) it is important to consider the whole construction and not simply the single preposition bis separated from the other units in the prepositional group. In this study the principle of non-compositionality is illustrated by the following aspects:


In the prepositional groups expressing not only time but also intensity the meaning of intensity results from the non-compositional combination of [bis + PREP2] with a following noun (Section 3).


The same pertains to metaphorical extensions expressed by the prepositional subconstruction (see Section 3).


According to CL and CG meaning and form build a continuum. The different senses expressed by the subconstruction introduced by bis are sustained by the collocates used in the construction. This pertains particularly to examples where [PREP2] is the polysemous preposition auf and where the subconstruction can convey two opposite senses (see Section 3).

56All these points illustrate the syntactic and semantic interface advocated by Cognitive linguists and Construction grammarians. This study has important implications not only for the classification and description of such examples but also for the teaching methodology for foreign learners of German, and more specifically for such foreign learners who do not have a case-marking system in their own mother tongue.

57Let us finish this paper with a renewed look at the claims made in other grammar books about the preposition bis as quoted in the first section of this paper. We are now in a better position to put these claims into a different light:


The detailed description of the syntax and semantic variation of bis has shown that this preposition is characterized by a richness of possible uses. Therefore it is not clear why bis is often discarded in studies about prepositions.


The claim that bis has a particular status must be rejected as it is often used to express manner, a privileged dimension of the German language. Bis is even predestined to be used in the subconstructions under discussion as it can be combined with various other prepositions.


The further claim that bis does not determine the morpho-syntactic case but that it needs a second preposition which is decisive for the case-marking is not true. It was shown in Section 4 that the selection of the accusative is very much dependent on bis and not on [PREP2].


Finally, the study has shown that bis can convey a much wider variety of senses and that it cannot be reduced to the “prepositions which encode the beginning (source) or the end (goal) of motion relative to the/in relation with the proximity of an object” (Wunderlich & Herweg 1991: 761).

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a) Date :

b) Ma date de naissance (AA/MM/JJ) :

c) Ma langue maternelle :

d) Mes études :

e) Année d’études :

f) J’apprends l’allemand depuis ………….  années, à raison de …………… heures par semaine.

g) L’allemand est la 1e/2e/3e/4e langue étrangère que j’apprends.

h) Avant l’allemand, j’ai appris ……………………………………………………

(autres langues).

i) Je connais le néerlandais pas du tout/un peu/moyennement/très bien.

Ajouter l’article ou la terminaison (le genre du nom est entre parenthèses)

1.  Er hat die Fahrt bis in d……..…  kleinste(n) Detail (das) geplant.

2.  Peter hat sich in sein……. Mitarbeiterin (die) verliebt.

3.  Wir sind endlich über d…………. Berg (der).

4.  Die Wolkenkratzer (gratte-ciel) erheben sich bis in d…………. Himmel (der).

5.  Er hatte groβen Hunger und biss in d………. Apfel (der).

6.  Er klopfte laut an d………….. Tür (die).

7.  Das Gedicht haben die Kinder bis auf d………… letzte Strophe (die) auswendig gelernt.

8.  Die Lehrerin hat die Gruppe in 3 weiter…….. Untergruppen eingeteilt.

9.  Der Kleine lief neben sein………….. Vater (der).

10. Ihre Kinder besuchen sie beide über d…………… Feiertage(n) (die).

11. Die Elbe flieβt bis an d………….. Nordsee (die).

12. Er ist verliebt bis über d………….. Ohren.

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1 See the definition of 'construction' in Section 3.

2 The term 'subconstruction' will be used to designate parts of constructions, among others the ones introduced by [bis + PREP2].

3 I thank one of the anonymous reviewers who drew my attention to this point.

4 Alternatively, the same verb bringen could be used with an indirect object and a direct object, e.g., Ich bringe dir ein Geschenk, ‘I bring you a present’, in which case no locational complement is needed.

5 The addition of the word da ‘there’ is needed for the fronting process in German as the order of the constituents in German is rather free which means that to start the sentence with the prepositional complement is a natural and acceptable way of expressing things in German.

6 For Talmy (2000) a motion event has 5 components: the figure, which is the person or thing moving, the source, the path and the goal of the motion which build the ground of the motion event and the manner of motion.

7 About half of the examples with bis unter die Haarspitzen in both corpora colligate with the verb motiviert with which they build a fixed expression.

8 Alternatively, the selection of either the accusative or the dative can be dependent on the valency of the verb, compare e.g. ‘Er erinnert sich an ihre Worte‘ (accusative governed by the verb ‘sich erinnern’) vs. ‘Er zweifelt an ihren Worten’ (dative governed by ‘zweifelt’). This does not pertain to the examples under discussion.

9 This brings further evidence to support the claim that the case selection in the subconstruction depends on bis and not on [PREP2]: the verb of immobility, state, or locality would require a dative after [PREP2] which is not the case (see the examples in this section).

10 I thank one of the anonymous reviewers who drew my attention to similar examples with modal verbs, e.g., ‘Ich will bis ans Ende der Welt’. In my opinion, these are somewhat different in the sense that modal verbs are normally used with a main verb in the infinitive which can be omitted in obvious cases. So, in the example above it is the verb fahren which is implied and which conveys the idea of motion towards a goal.

11 A statistical evaluation with a pre- and posttest was done for the whole test, i.e. for all the sentences expressing a motion event, also for those without the preposition bis. For the results see De Knop (forthc. a).

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Référence électronique

Sabine De Knop, « German constructions with complex prepositional groups introduced by bis », CogniTextes [En ligne], Volume 5 | 2010, mis en ligne le 29 mars 2011, Consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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Sabine De Knop

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