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Prepositional and phrasal verbs in English

How to use verbs with prepositions in English, and how to distinguish between them

Topics : Phrasal verbs Prepositional verbs Phrasal-prepositional verbs

Students of English frequently have difficulty understanding how to use verb+preposition combinations in English. And this is not surprising.
   Though the general rules are actually quite simple (like most rules of language), it is sometimes difficult to see the relation between a verb and the preposition that follows it. 

Two principal but very different situations (or deep structures) exist, and unfortunately they (i.e. their surface structures) can appear to be identical.

Compare the following pairs:
With nouns as objects With pronoun objects (Passive - if possible  )
The car ran over the hedgehog The car ran it  over The hedgehog was run over by the car.
The soldiers ran over the field The soldiers ran over it. Impossible.
The editor quickly looked through  the new book He quickly looked looked it through It was quickly looked through by the editor.
We looked through the window at the garden. We looked through it into at the garden. Impossible
I got off all the dirty marks. I got them all off All the dirty marks were got off by me. (Improbable, but possible)
I got off the bus at Bristol. I got off it at Bristol Impossible

The examples on the yellow lines use phrasal verbs (also called particle verbs) . The preposition is an integral part of the verb, defining its meaning:  these verbs are in effect two-word verbs.

The examples on the green lines use prepositional verbs.   The preposition affects the meaning of the verb, but is not part of the verb; it belongs to the adverb phrase following the verb.

Confused ?  These differences are by no means always easy to understand, particularly in the examples above which show that some verbs can even be either phrasal or prepositional, depending on the circumstances! However, with the vast majority of verbs, there is no choice. The verb is either a phrasal verb or a prepositional verb. Here are some guidelines to help you understand the differences between the two groups, and their usage..

1. Phrasal verbs or Particle verbs

►  Phrasal verbs can be either transitive or intransitive
►  Phrasal verbs" or "particle verbs" are composed of a verb + a particle (preposition or adverb). Sometimes, there may be two particles. 
►  These elements together have a single meaning, and frequently are synonymous with a single word verb, as in the table below.
► They are usually formed using a transitive* root verb + a particle. This is the most common type  of  phrasal verb or particle verb. 
Examples:  break up  /  shut out  /  put off  /  fill up  /  give up  /  set up  /  etc.
► Others are formed from an intransitive root verb + a particle:
Examples:  go out  /  come across  /  sleep off  /  lie down  /  stand out  etc.

Many English root verbs can combine with particles to create an idiomatic phrasal verb: but the most common ones are:  break,  make,  take,  set,  put,  get.

Transitive phrasal verbs are usually separable, meaning that the direct object can - or with pronouns, must - come between the verb and the particle. 

Example to remember:  The policeman wrote my name down in his book. 
   or : The policeman wrote down my name in his book.

However adverbs do not usually come between the verb and the particle - though there are exceptions.

More transitive phrasal verb  examples

With noun objects  With pronoun objects (Passive )
The referee broke up (=stopped)  the fight  immediately.
or:  The referee broke the fight up immediately.
He broke it up immediately. The fight was immediately broken up by the referee.
The old lady made out (=wrote) the cheque very slowly.
or:  The old lady made the cheque out very slowly.
She made it out very slowly The cheque was made out by the old lady very slowly.
He took up (=started) golf when he retired.
or:  He took  golf up when he retired.
He took it up when he retired improbable
The robbers set off (=started) the alarm  as they entered the bank.
or:  The robbers set  the alarm off as they entered the bank.
They set it off as they entered the bank The alarm was set off as the robbers entered the bank.
The men managed to put out (=extinguish) the fire by themselves.
or:  The men managed to put the fire out by themselves
They managed to put it out by themselves. The fire was put out by the men, by themselves.
The soldiers got up (=erected) their tents in two minutes.
or:  The soldiers got their tents up in two minutes.
They got them up in two minutes. The tents were got up in two minutes.
I put down    (= attribute) your success to hard work
or:  I put your success down to hard work.
I put it down to hard work. His success was put down to hard work.

 Intransitive phrasal verbs:

Since intransitive verbs have no direct object, and cannot be put into the passive, their usage is simple: they are by definition inseparable.
However adverbs can occasionally come between the verb and the particle if the adverb serves to describe the action.
► In intransitive phrasal verbs, the particle is either narrows the sense of the verb (as in sit down), or else creates an idiomatic meaning which is different from that of the root verb (as in shut up). Here are a few examples of intransitive phrasal verbs:
Flight BA04 to New York will take off at 12.33.
Several students showed up late
Bird flu first broke out in China in 1996
Tomorrow morning, we all have to get up at 5.30.
Once the Queen had taken her place, the guests all sat quietly down.
The alarm went off just as the bank was shutting.

2. Prepositional verbs

  1. Prepositional verbs are transitive: they require an object. This object is generally stated, but sometimes just implied or inferred. The direct object MUST come after the particle, not before it.
  2. Most prepositional verbs consist of an intransitive root verb + a particle (see 4 below).
  3. Some prepositional verbs are formed using a transitive verb and a particle.
  4. Often, the particle transforms an intransitive verb into a transitive verb:
       Examples :  look / look at / look for  - wait / wait for  -  come / come through.
  5. The particle is not really part of the verb, but an essential link between the verb and its stated or implied object.
  6. These verbs are usually inseparable, meaning that the verb and particle generally stand together.

However short adverbs or adverb phrases can come between the verb and the particle in transitive statements, particularly when the object is a noun.
If in doubt, do not place the adverb between the verb and the particle.

Example to remember:  The fireman came down the ladder very carefully.
   but not:  The fireman came the ladder down very carefully

More examples
With noun objects With pronoun objects Passive 
The climbers went up (=ascended) the mountain very slowly.
or The climbers went very slowly up (=ascended) the mountain.
They went up it very slowly  Improbable
They came through (=passed) their exam very well. They came through it very well Improbable
We're depending on your support, totally. We're totally depending on it. Your support is being depended on. (possible but unlikely)
The students were looking intently at (= studying) the notice board.
or The students were looking at  the notice board intently.
They were looking intently at it , or
They were looking at it intently.

3. Phrasal-prepositional verbs.

English has a good number of  verbs that appear to be formed on the structure verb+particle+particle.
In most cases, these are prepositional verbs in which the root verb is actually a phrasal verb.
Like simple prepositional verbs, phrasal prepositional verbs are transitive.
So in reality, the structure of these verbs is actually  {phrasal-verb} + particle.
Once this is understood, usage should not be hard to follow. They behave in the same way as ordinary prepositional verbs.

Using nouns Using pronoun objects (Passive )
Everyone looked forward to the event. Everyone looked forward to it. It was looked forward to by everyone.
The prisoners broke out of their cells. They broke out of them. The cells were broken out of.
The airline did away with tickets The airline did away with them Tickets were done away with.
The builders got on with the work They got on with it. The work was got on with by the builders.

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Cette page en français: ►
Les verbes à préposition et à particule


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