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Oxford Living Dictionaries defines the preposition about in sense 2 and 3 that are quite similar; their similarity disabled me contradict between such senses.

Sense 2. [British] Used to indicate movement within a particular area.

  • ‘she looked about the room.’

Sense 3. [British] Used to express location in a particular place.

  • ‘rugs were strewn about the hall’.

Though saying ‘rugs were strewn about the hall’ is passive but has about the phrase similar to that of sense 2 that says ‘she looked about the room’, which is not passive. I imagine here that the distinction is the passivity of the sense 3, but I am not sure about that . . . and need some rhymes and the reasons behind saying '...about the room' and '...about the hall' in a similar way. So, I explicitly ask here that how to capture the meaning of such similar sentences as location or movement?

I wrote one sentence myself which I could not decide wether it's about location or movement?

  • She walked about the park.
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    @JasonBassford - well the AHD disagrees thefreedictionary.com/be+about
    – user 66974
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 7:15
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    @JasonBassford are you sure what you are talking about? What’s the difference if you mention the space?
    – user 66974
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 7:24
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    @user070221, the question is still about the difference between the two similar prepositional senses. In case of using about as an adverb, it's totally different than using it as preposition. Saying ‘men were floundering about’ is adverb, but saying "they gazed about the house" is a preposition. Meanwhile here the preposition about needs a noun followed by it, and as adverb, not.
    – Ahmed
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 7:27
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    @IqbalAhmedSiyal Yes. Based on this, your final sentence is an example of prepositional sense 2: movement. Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 7:28
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    @user070221 It's exactly what I said in my comment. Preposition: They X about Y. Adverb: They X about. The preposition is relative to something else; the adverb is simply the behaviour itself. Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 7:32

2 Answers 2

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In Oxford Dictionaries, preposition sense 2 of about provides these examples:

‘she looked about the room’
‘They strolled about the gardens, enjoying the beautiful day.’
'I should like to walk about my city again without being subjected to foul-mouthed racist abuse.’
‘He paused, looked about himself for a moment, and sighed.’
‘I paused, gazing about the room, watching carefully for any sign of movement.’
‘While some men can wander about a hardware store for an hour, I can kill 60 minutes or more in a kitchen supply place.’

In all of these examples, it's a person or persons performing a movement-related activity. Either they move or some part of them moves.

This is a movement sense.


This is in contrast to preposition sense 3 of about:

‘rugs were strewn about the hall’
‘he produced a knife from somewhere about his person’
‘Residents near the play area are being disturbed by noise, and beer cans have been left about the area.'

Here, what's being referenced are objects—and none of them are actually in motion. The objects are stationary.

This is a location sense.


In light of this, consider your final sentence:

They gazed about the house.

Here, there are people and some part of them (their eyes) are moving about the house. So, this is covered by preposition 2 and is a movement sense.

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  • This is a very personal interpretation of grammar.
    – user 66974
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 8:01
  • @user070221 It's what Oxford Dictionaries says in its definition of the word—which was the scope of the question. Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 8:03
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It refers to different usages of the term about, in the first case as a proposition, in the second case as an adverb:

About - preposition - (no order );

(mainly uk, us usually around)

positioned around a place, often without a clear purpose or order:

  • Their belongings were flung about the room.

About - adverb (all directions))

(mainly uk, us usually around)

in many different directions:

  • They heard someone moving about outside. I've been running about all morning trying to find you.

(Cambridge Dictionary)

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    The OP hasn't asked about the distinction of about as as a preposition as well as adverb. In fact, he asked the difference between the two similar prepositional senses, lying within the scope of preposition only.
    – user296301
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 6:52

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