Sunday, July 31, 2011

Prepositional verbs revisited

This post is a fairly detailed, and for me at least quite technical, discussion / exploration aimed mainly at teachers and possibly grammar freaks, and is a continuation of an earlier discussion / rant I had at When is a phrasal verb not a phrasal verb?.
If you were looking for some exercises with prepositional verbs, you could try my earlier posts, Lesson on prepositional verbs and Random stories - Prepositional verbs
In a lesson post on prepositional verbs, I stressed that their definition seemed to be somewhat elastic. Having learnt from Language Leader Advanced, Market Leader Advanced and other sources, however, that prepositional verbs appeared to be more or less the same as good old fashioned Type 3 phrasal verbs, I accordingly based my lesson on that idea in good faith.
I have now discovered a rather different story in The Teacher's Grammar of English, written by Ron Cowan and published in 2008 by Cambridge, who call it – 'a comprehensive resource text designed to help ESL/EFL teachers understand and teach American English grammar'.
What's more, his idea seems to have some support from other writers. I confess to now being thoroughly confused and I might well have to eat humble pie.

What do I mean by Type 3 phrasal verbs?

Just to clarify 'where I'm coming from', I teach EFL, that is I teach in a foreign country, and use British-published course books. The term ESL is not used much in the UK, but from what I've seen from ESL websites (for example, the two seem pretty similar in approach.
In the good old days of TEFL, life was easy. There were things called phrasal verbs divided into four types:
  • Type 1 - Intransitive
  • Type 2 - Transitive seperable
  • Type 3 - Transitive inseperable
  • Type 4 - Transitive with two or more particles
I go into these in more detail in my other post.
We were quite happy to call the little words after the verbs particles, not worrying too much whether they were adverbs or prepositions. Such terms as multi-word verbs, multi-part verbs, prepositional verbs and phrasal-prepositional verbs were largely unknown to us.
What's more the learner's dictionaries we and our students use (still) seem to be equally oblivious to these terms. Let's take an example of each in the following online dictionaries:
  • Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary
  • Cambridge Online Advanced Learner's Dictionary
  • Macmillan Dictionary
  • Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
These are all British for the simple reason that I teach British English using British-published resource, and these are the dictionaries our students mainly use. And as some of the more newly-published British books are starting to use terms like prepositional verbs, etc., I wanted to see how these dictionaries treat these verbs.
  • Type 1 - break down - listed by all four as a phrasal verb
  • Type 2 - put off - listed by all four as a phrasal verb
  • Type 3 - depend on - listed as a phrasal verb (not as a prepositional verb)
  • Type 4 - come up with - listed as a phrasal verb (not as a phrasal-prepositional verb)
My point is that all four types are listed as phrasal verbs; there is nothing about multi-word verbs, multi-part verbs, prepositional verbs or phrasal-prepositional verbs.
And the same goes for collections of phrasal verbs in print, for example English Phrasal Verbs in Use. And on the Internet, for example the excellent lists at Using English or Phrasal Verb Demon (links below).
At most they will tell us if they are transitive or intransitive, separable or non-separable and give us a couple of examples in context. Which, in my opinion, is all we really need.

Cowan's system

He starts by recognising 'three main categories of multiword verbs – phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs and phrasal-prepositional verbs' – well that seems nice and simple.
But he then goes on to list five types of phrasal verb:
  1. Transitive seperable
  2. Transitive inseperable
  3. Transitive permanently separated
  4. Intransitive - pure
  5. Intransitive - ergative
And this is in addition to 'prepositional verbs' and 'phrasal-prepositional' verbs. So the simplicity seems to have been lost somewhat. In fact I think this is the most complex explanation of phrasal verbs (et al) I've ever come across, or as he would say, run across.
How does this compare to our classic TEFL model?
The two intransitive categories are equivalent to our Type 1, so that's OK if we ignore the subdivision into pure and ergative (more about that later). Transitive seperable is equivalent to our Type 2, so that's OK, and 'phrasal-prepositional' verbs are equivalent to our Type 4.
The 'transitive permanently separated' category is interesting, as our classic TEFL system doesn't really address these separately, and we'll have a look at that later.

Comparison with the classic TEFL model

Other writers and websites that differentiate between phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs and phrasal-prepositional verbs agree with Cowan to this extent at least, so we can safely compare:
 Classic TEFLCowan and others
break downType 1 phrasal verbs
- Intransitive
Phrasal verbs
- Intransitive
put on sth / put sth onType 2 phrasal verbs
- Transitive seperable
Phrasal verbs
- Transitive seperable
come up with sthType 4 phrasal verbs
- Two or more particles
Phrasal-prepositional verbs

The problem comes when we look at our classic Type 3 – transitive inseperable

Cowan specifically differentiates between two types of what he calls multiword verbs: inseperable transitive phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs:
Inseparable transitive phrasal verbs. – Unfortunately I can only find one example in the Google extract of his book.
  • He ran across a picture of his father in a photo album
So I've added some more which I think match his criteria
  • She takes after her mother.
  • We'll go through the books this afternoon.
  • He's getting over her now.
Prepositional verbs – These examples are all from his book.
  • He applied for the job
  • She decided on the blue car.***
  • Alice depends on her mother.***
  • He stared at the target
The two marked *** are listed in Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary as phrasal verbs. The other two look to me pretty like normal verbs with dependent prepositions.

Three sub-categories

As I see it we have three overlapping sub-categories.
Some of the verbs that in TEFL we see traditionally as Type 3 phrasal verbs he sees as phrasal verbs, and some of them he sees as prepositional verbs.
To complicate matters, some of the verbs he sees as prepositional verbs, we traditionally see as phrasal verbs, whereas others we se simply as normal verbs taking a dependent preposition.
 Classic TEFLCowan
1. come across sthType 3 phrasal verbs
transitive inseparable
Phrasal verbs
transitive inseparable
2. decide on sth Prepositional verbs
3. believe in sthNormal verb with dependent preposition 
Cowan's four tests - how to tell the difference between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs:
  1. Particle movement - Only seperable verbs can take particle movement (see below)

  2. Adverb insertion - you can put an adverb between the verb and the preposition with prepositional verbs but not with phrasal verbs.
    • He stared intently at the target. - prepositional verb
    • Alice turned quickly out the light. - separable phrasal verb
    • He ran unexpectedly into his cousin. - non-seperable phrasal verb
    Is that last one really not possible?
  3. Relative clauses - you can put the preposition after or before the clause with prepositional verbs but not with phrasal verbs.
    • The person who he depends on ... / The person on whom he depends ...
    • The dress she tried on ... / The dress on which she tried ...

  4. Wh- clauses - you can put the preposition after or before the clause with prepositional verbs but not with phrasal verbs.
    • Who were you shouting at? / At whom were you shouting?
    • What are you looking up? / Up what are you looking?
Although the adverb insertion test is clear enough, both the relative clause and wh-clause examples of phrasal verbs he gives are of seperable verbs and very obviously invalid.
But this doesn't really help us distinguish between non-seperable transitive phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs, which is the main problem I have with his theory. Have a look at these examples:
  • I think that these pass the prepositional verb test:
  • The person who she is talking to / The person to whom she is talking
  • Which dress is she looking at? / At which dress is looking?
  • And that these don't:
  • The patient she was looking after / The patient after whom she was looking.
  • What are you getting at / At what are you getting?
  • But these? I'm not really sure:
  • The customer who she's dealing with / The customer with whom she is dealing
  • What affair are you looking into now? / Into what affair are you looking now?
The use of these structures with preposition at the beginning of the clause make most sentences sound so unnatural to me that I confess to having some difficulty in using these tests.
The stress test – From other sources I discover there's also a stress test (nothing to do with banks!). Look at those examples again.
Inseparable transitive phrasal verbs
  • He ran across a picture of his father in a photo album
  • She takes after her mother.
  • We'll go through the books this afternoon.
  • He's getting over her now.
Prepositional verbs
  • He applied for the job
  • She decided on the blue car.
  • Alice depends on her mother.
  • He stared at the target
In the first group, we stress the verb and the preposition at least equally, possibly more on the preposition. But in the second group we only stress the verb, the preposition is unstressed.
But this can be subjective. I've seen one example where a website suggests that with look after, as in:
  • I'm looking after my sister's children while she's at the shops.
we stress the verb but not the prepoposition, so proving that it's a prepositional verb. But for me that's nonsense. In this case we stress the preposition at least as equally as the verb if not more so.

Semantics test

If we look at some of those verbs again:
  • She takes after her mother.
  • He's getting over her now.
Prepositional verbs
  • He applied for the job
  • She decided on the blue car.
The theory here is that in the first set of verbs, the verb and the particle should be seen as a single semantic unit, with a meaning different from the sum of its parts.
In the second pair, the verb has its normal meaning and the preposition can be seen as belonging more to its object.
Put another way, her mother is the object of the 'verb' takes after, whereas the job is the prepositional object of for. At least I think that's how it works.

The separabilty / movability test

This says that if you can move the prepositional object from after the preposition to between the verb, it is a separable phrasal verb. And if not, it must be a prepositional verb.
  • She's picking up her daughter from school later.
  • She's picking her daughter up from school leter.
  • We're looking for a new house.
  • We're looking a new house for.
This is used to differentiate between transitive seperable verbs and other phrasal and/or prepositional verbs.
This isn't really an issue when discussing Cowan, because here the main question is whether a Type 3 verb is a transitive non-seperable phrasal verb or a prepositional verb, according to his system.
But for some others, for whom it seems all Type 3 verbs (and more) are prepositional verbs, this is the main test they use for differentiating between a phrasal verb and a prepositional verb.

Time to get real!

Fascinating as these tests and discussion of little differences may be to linguists and grammarians, do we really expect our students to spend time and effort on them?
If, as a reasonably well educated native speaker with a rather anorakish interest in learning about grammar, I have problems with these tests, how are foreign students likely to feel? Are we seriously expected to teach all this to our students?

Wider definitions of prepositional verbs

One site taking a wider view than Cowan seems to be, which for me at any rate, also has much clearer explanations.
These verbs are all examples of what the writer there calls prepositional verbs. I've tried to apply Cowan's tests to see how he would categorise them by adding adverbs where they seem possible:
Prepositional (Flesl)Cowan?Classic TEFL
look after sthphrasalType 3
run into sthphrasalType 3
call on sbphrasalType 3
call (strongly) for sthprepositionalType 3
think (deeply) about sthprepositionalType 3
listen (intently) to sthprepositionaldependent preposition
approve (strongly) of sthprepositionaldependent preposition
invest (heavily) in sthprepositionaldependent preposition
look (carefully) at sthprepositionaldependent preposition
get rid of sth?idiom
take care of sth/sb?idiom
lose touch with sb?idiom

Some definitions and examples of prepositional verbs from other sources

It seems to me that most of these are closer to the model than to Cowan's model.
Verbs marked *** appear in Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary as phrasal verbs, most of which, as far as I can see, would fail Cowan's test for prepositional verbs.
Market Leader Advanced
  • It isn't easy persuading online shoppers to part with *** their cash
About. com – An idiomatic expression that combines a verb and a preposition to make a new verb with a distinct meaning.
  • believe in
  • care for ***
  • deal with ***
  • refer to
  • write about
  • believe in
  • look after ***
  • talk about
  • wait for
BBC Learning English
  • drive through (the traffic lights)
  • climb over (the fence)
  • look after (my cat) ***
  • sail through (your exams) ***
Random House Unabridged Dictionary, quoted at – a combination of verb and preposition, often with idiomatic meaning, differing from other phrasal verbs in that an object must always follow the preposition
  • The children take after *** their mother.
English VISL – a verb fused with a following preposition
  • Alfred's wife always stood by *** Jack.
The only other dictionary definitions I can find online refer back to these two, both of which sound like Type 3 phrasal verbs (that's inseperable transitive phrasal verbs) to me. Exactly what Cowan says prepositional verbs are not!

So who is right? What exactly are prepositional verbs?

I'm still not much the wiser. It's beginning to look as though they might be neither Type 3 phrasal verbs or simply verbs with dependent prepositions, but a separate category which embraces some of each. On the other hand, they might not!

Putting it all together - 3 models

But I think I'm beginning to see a picture where there are three models:
  1. The classic TEFL model - All multiword verbs are called phrasal verbs and are divided into four categories. Type 3 includes all transitive non-separable verbs. But those verbs where both verb and preposition keep their normal meaning are not included.
  2. Prepositional - most common definition - seems to include all all transitive non-separable verbs, including many without any particular added meaning not seen as part of classic Type 3.
  3. Cowan etc - makes a distiction between transitive non-separable phrasal verbs (even when their particle is a preposition) and prepositional verbs. The term prepositional verb includes verbs where both verb and preposition keep their normal meaning.
Note - These are my own interpretations, and to be honest I find this whole process of Cowan's somewhat (and needlessly) complicated, so I've probably made some mistakes.
Classic TEFLFlesl, etcCowan etc
look after sb/sthType 3 PhrasalPrepositionalPhrasal
sail through sth
take after sb
depend on sb/sthPrepositional
send for sb/sth
count on sb / sth
refer to sb/sth
talk about sb/sth
write about sb/sth

Things to remember about TEFL teachers

  • They are generally pretty well motivated and enthusiastic teachers.
  • They have had all of 4-5 weeks formal training, in which they have had to cover all aspects of TEFL, of which grammar is only one part.
  • They are not generally grammar nerds, seeing grammar simply as a tool to help people learn English faster.
  • Most of them are not going to be particularly interested in complex or theoretical approaches to grammar.
  • They want something they can easily understand, so they can pass it on to their students.

Things to remember about TEFL students

  • They are generally pretty well motivated and enthusiastic learners.
  • They have limited time they can give to studying English
  • They are not generally grammar nerds, seeing grammar simply as a tool to help them learn English faster.
  • Most of them are not going to be particularly interested in complex or theoretical approaches to grammar.
  • They want something they can easily understand.

TEFL students and phrasal verbs

In my opinion, the biggest problem students have with phrasal verbs is not structure, but meaning. What they need is:
  • A clear understanding of a phrasal verb's meaning.
  • Only what grammatical explanation is absolutely necessary.
  • Lots and lots of examples of phrasal verbs in context.
  • Lots and lots of practice using them in context.

A couple of graphs

These graphs show the use of certain words in a cross-section of books from Google Books. The first shows how the expression multiword verbs is relatively recent, only really increasing in popularity since about 1996.
The second picture shows, however, that the use of multiword verbs (red) is still tiny compared with the use of phrasal verbs (blue). It also shows the slow rise in popularity of the concept of prepositional verbs (green) since the 1960s. But note that even that is less than the rise in the use of phrasal verbs. And just in case you're interested, phrasal-prepositional verbs don't even register.


Of the three models, I find the classic TEFL system of 4 types, without too much detailed analysis, much the simplest to teach to students. The Cowan system especially, with all its tests etc, seems to me unnecessarily complicated.
What's more, this fits neatly with what they will find in their dictionaries and in online lists. And the graphs show that this is still overwhelmingly how people describe them.
Although it goes against the grain, I accept that a slow move to calling them all multiword verbs might not be such a bad idea, as there now seem to be two or three different ideas as to what constitutes a phrasal verb, and what doesn't.
I think part of the problem lies with course books which import elements of one system and try to stick them onto the classic system without much thought or explanation. If we are going to change, the whole caboodle needs to be changed, as these elements come from a different way of looking at these verbs.
But looking at those graphs, it seems to me that the new ideas are still very much in their infancy, and I don't see the point of foisting theories which are still in development on poor unsuspecting students.
It's been an interesting trip, but until I'm forced to change, I'm going back to good old-fashioned 4 type phrasal verbs (or perhaps multiword verbs) and leaving prepositional, prepositional-phrasal verbs etc to the grammarians and linguists. At least that way I know where I stand.

Some afterthoughts

1. What does Cowan mean by pure and ergative intransitive verbs?

He gives these examples
  • Pure intransitive
  • The plane took off and climbed to cruising altitude.
  • She sat down very slowly.
  • Ergative intransitive
  • Bit by bit the intensity of the storm tapered off.
  • All of a sudden several problems cropped up.
  • He says that you some can also be (paired) intransitive and transitive
  • The sun came out, and the water dried up. (intransitive)
  • The hot sun dried up the water on the pavement. (transitive)
This is rather strange, as an ergative verb is usually described as being a verb that can be transitive or intransitive, and whose subject when intransitive corresponds to its direct object when transitive.
This certainly explains the last pair, where water is first subject and then direct object. But according to OALD you could say exactly the same about taper off. Something can taper off (Type 1 intransitive) or you can taper something off (Type 2 separable transitive).
But the same could not be said of crop up, which is only defined as Type 1 intransitive. You can't crop up something! As I understand it, all ergative verbs can by definition be intransitive and transitive. So I'm not quite sure what his point is here.
The only thing I can see here is that in the first pair the action was done deliberately (admittedly not by the plane, but at least by the pilot). In the second pair the impetus comes from elsewhere. But I didn't think that's what ergative verbs were all about.

2. Permanently separated transitive phrasal verbs

Cowan says that these are phrasal verbs which must be separated by the direct object, and lists these as a separate type of transitive phrasal verb, and gives as an example:
  • The coach's attitude is getting the team down.
  • The coach's attitude is getting down the team.
He might have a point here, as they are not addressed separately in the classic model. The problem is that this equally applies to intransitive verbs and verbs with two particles:
  • Type 1 - intransitive (21)
  • ask somebody around
  • have (got) something on (eg a meeting)
  • Type 3 - transitive non-seperable (15)
  • remind somebody of something
  • talk somebody through something
  • Type 4 - verbs with two particles (6)
  • help somebody on/off with something
  • talk somebody out of doing something
But as they are fairly few and far between and don't follow a single pattern, it's probably just as easy to point them out as they come along. The numbers in brackets refer to roughly how many I've been able to find in English Phrasal Verbs in Use. In fact this seems to apply rather more to intransitive phrasal verbs than transitive ones.

3. 'Other multi-word verbs'? lists four categories of multiword verbs – phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, phrasal-prepositional verbs, and a category which he calls 'other multi-word verbs', listing these examples:
  • cut short
  • plead guilty
  • let go
  • lie low
  • break even
  • make do
  • get going
But in The Free Dictionary for example, these are all listed as idioms, as I would have expected. Their meaning is limited, whereas phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, whatever you want to call them, can be used with a variety of words.
In addition, they don't involve adverb and preposition particles, but adjectives or verb forms. To lump them in with phrasal verbs etc seems to be just adding extra complication. Better leave them as idioms.

Links - related posts

Links - phrasal verb lists

Links - prepositional verbs etc - definitions and eplanations

Links - ergative verbs

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