Phrasal and Prepositional Verbs in English

Look up the street.

English has two different types of verbs that give ESL/EFL students a hard time: prepositional and phrasal verbs. They often look similar, but there are differences. Meaning and word order are the two key differences between phrasal and prepositional verbs in English. This makes one easier to learn than the other. Let’s take a look.

Prepositional Verbs

Prepositional verbs are simply verbs followed by a preposition: get to, arrive at, listen to, climb down. The preposition comes immediately after the verb, and the object noun or pronoun comes after the preposition.

  • We got to the party at 9pm.
  • When does your family arrive at the airport?
  • The squirrel climbed down the tree.

The meaning of prepositional verbs is just a combination of the meaning of the verb and the meaning of the preposition. So, climb down means CLIMB (move on a usually vertical surface using hands and legs) and DOWN (in a descending direction). You can use other prepositions to alter the basic meaning of climb in similar ways.

  • The squirrel climbed down the tree.
  • The cat climbed up the tree.
  • We climbed across the fallen log to get to the other side of the creek.
  • The puppies climbed over their mother.
  • The spider climbed onto the ceiling.
Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs often look like prepositional verbs, but they’re not the same thing. A phrasal verb includes a main verb and a particle – these verbs are also called particle verbs – that functions like an adverb. The particle may be a preposition (in, out, over…) or an adverb (back, away…), and there are often more than one particle (up with, out on, away with...) The two key differences between phrasal/particle verbs and prepositional verbs are:

  1. Phrasal verbs can sometimes be separable, meaning that the object can come between the verb and particle or after the particle. (Careful, though. Not all phrasal verbs are separable.) Prepositional verbs are never separable.
  2. Phrasal verbs have meanings that are usually more abstract than the simple compositional meaning of prepositional verbs.
Comparing the Two: Look Up (prepositional)

An example will clarify. The verb look up can be either prepositional or phrasal. The prepositional variety of look up simply means to look toward a higher direction. The meaning is completely predictable as the composite of the meanings of look and up. If you stand near or on something and look up, you’re directing your vision to a higher place on it, up:

  • Look up the street and see if there are any cars coming.
  • I stood on the sidewalk and looked up the side of the Empire State Building.

Remember that prepositional verbs are never separable. So, with this literal look + up meaning, you cannot say:

  • *Look the street up and see if there are any cars coming.
  • *I stood on the sidewalk and looked the side of the Empire State Building up.
Comparing the Two: Look Up (phrasal)

Look up is also a phrasal verb, meaning to search for a definition or entry in a database or something similar. The “higher position” meaning of up is completely abstract, not literal.

  • When I read a book in another language I have to look up many words.
  • We looked up the address online.

Look up is a separable phrasal verb, so it’s perfectly fine to say:

  • When I read another language I have to look many words up.
  • We looked the address up online.

In fact, if you put the object between look and up, you’re forcing a phrasal verb interpretation.

  • Look up the street.
    Either prepositional (look toward a higher position on the street) or phrasal (search for the street on a map or online.)
  • Look the street up.
    Only phrasal (search for the street on a map or in a database.)

With separable phrasal verbs, remember that if the object is a noun, separating is optional. But if it’s a pronoun, you must separate the verb and the particle by putting the pronoun between the two.

  • Look the address up online.
  • Look up the address online.
  • Look it up online.
  • *Look up it online.
Do the Labels Help?

Unless you’re a linguist or a language teacher, knowing labels and understanding grammar in the abstract will probably be worthwhile only if it helps you learn. Our advice to English learners is not to worry too much about the labels if they don’t help you. But keep in mind that there are two types of verbs that look like verb + preposition/particle, and knowing the differences between phrasal and prepositional verbs in English can make learning them easier. The first type, prepositional, is very well behaved, with meanings that are pretty easy to figure out.

  • Prepositional verbs have regular word order: verb + preposition + object.
  • Prepositional verbs generally have predictable meanings: just add up the meanings of the two elements, verb and preposition

If you recognize a new verb as prepositional, you don’t have to do anything else to understand and use it. Phrasal verbs, on the other hand, give you a bit more work to do.

  • First, you need to understand what the combination means. It’s usually not a simple matter of adding up the meanings of the verb and particle; the meaning of the two is often abstract and idiomatic.
  • Second, you need to know whether the phrasal verb is separable or not. If your object is a noun, you can get away with never separating (look up the word), but if it’s a pronoun, you must separate it (look it up).
Learning Phrasal Verbs

So what’s the best strategy to learn and use phrasal verbs correctly? With anything in language that’s unpredictable, memorization and practice are key. There isn’t a rule that you can learn once and apply. But, there are tendencies, and if you can focus on those tendencies, it will make the job of guessing meaning and using these things much easier. The other thing you should always do while learning a language is break the giant project (learn phrasal verbs!) into small, manageable pieces (learn a small group of phrasal verbs). With those two points in mind, we suggest that you:

  • Focus on the really common verbs, like take, go, put, get, and so on. There are lots of phrasal verbs that include them, and you’ll hear them a lot, so they’re a good place to start.
  • Then focus on the particles, for example off, up, down, and so on. The original meaning of the particle in phrasal verbs is pretty abstract, but you can often still see a hint of it. Focusing on that will give you a chance to make phrasal verb meaning (slightly) predictable, and you’ll be able to pick out patterns that will help you.

Check out other blog posts about phrasal verbs. We’ll cover them in both of these ways.

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