Please help me in choosing the right preposition in this sentence:

The returned values seem a bit confusing on/in its semantics,

Here I'm talking about returned values of a computer programming function, after reading its expected behaviour.

Which one should I use and what is the difference about using in or on?

  • Unrelated to your particular question, but the given sentence should also begin The returned values seem.... Jun 18, 2012 at 19:18
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    You gave this question the tag 'early-modern-english'? Who were you planning on talking to like that?
    – Mitch
    Jun 18, 2012 at 19:28
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    You could use a more natural sounding adverb, semantically. "The return values might be confusing, semantically"
    – user19589
    Jun 19, 2012 at 14:18

3 Answers 3


Not all uses of prepositions can be predicted by meaning. There are very few prepositions in English and they have a lot of uses, so mostly preposition uses are arbitrary and governed by particular predicates (look at, listen to, speak on, tired of, etc).

That said, however, there is a very common spatial-dimension sense for many prepositions, including in, on, and at. As Fillmore describes it in his Deixis Lectures:

The preposition at is said to ascribe no particular dimensionality to the referent of its associated noun; the preposition on is said to ascribe to the referent of its head noun the property of being a line or a surface; and the preposition in is said to ascribe to the referent of its head noun the notion of a bounded two-dimensional or three-dimensional space.

Consider phrases like at the intersection, on the line, on the page, on the wall, in the city, in the kitchen.


  • at the corner, which means near or in contact with the intersection of two straight lines, or streets
  • on the corner, which locates something as being in contact with part of the surface of some angular two-dimensional figure or three-dimensional object
  • in the corner, in which the noun corner is used to indicate a portion of three-dimensional space -- in particular, a part of the interior of, say, a room.
  • Thanks all for your replies but can you help me in the sentence above mentioned ?
    – utxeee
    Jun 18, 2012 at 20:53
  • What you mean by semantics is up to you; it's gonna be a metaphor anyway, but you get to pick the one you mean. That depends on whether you mean to imply that semantics in this context is a layer (or some other 2-D meme), in which case on is correct (and implies other layers); or whether you conceive of semantics as content (or some other 3-D meme), in which case in is correct because it refers to the container of the content. Jun 18, 2012 at 21:20
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    @utxeee: I think you're getting a lot of help on the "sentence above mentioned." Short answer: "in" seems to be a better fit than "on." Long answer: We can't know for sure, because, collectively, we are having trouble understanding the meaning of the sentence (much like the returned values, it has confusing semantics).
    – J.R.
    Jun 18, 2012 at 22:07
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    In the context of the returned values of a function, it might be simpler merely to say they were unexpected, and then specify the parameters more precisely. If you have a precise specification available for what "semantics" means in this context, use it. It will most likely refer either to a document (a 2-D metaphor) or its contents (3-D). Jun 18, 2012 at 22:25

Without context, I'm not sure what the sentence means, but it would have to be in their semantics (their because values is plural).

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    I'm not sure values have semantics. Perhaps OP means the semantics of the function, in which case the whole sentence needs to be recast. Jun 18, 2012 at 20:57

Can you restructure your sentence?

The semantics of the return values are confusing


The return values have confusing semantics

  • Thanks all for your replies but can you help me in the sentence above mentioned ?
    – utxeee
    Jun 18, 2012 at 20:53

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