Friday, May 20, 2011

When is a phrasal verb not a phrasal verb?

When it's a 'prepositional verb', apparently.

Or - how they moved the goalposts when I wasn't looking.

This post started off life as a small peeve in another post, but has now grown into a full-scale rant about how the writers of English course book sometimes like to change the terminology we are all used to. If you landed here expecting to find some exercises on phrasal verbs, or even prepositional verbs, I'm afraid this is not the right place, but you can find a lesson on prepositional verbs with lots of exercises here.
This is probably more addressed to my fellow teachers than students, and it gets a bit detailed in parts. But if you are interested in grammatical niceties or how English is taught, why not stay along for the ride. I've annotated any difficult word or phrases to help you stay aboard. (Probably a mixed metaphor)

Firstly I would like to say that I have the greatest respect for the writers of course books for learners of English. And I have worked with most of those published in Britain over the last fifteen years or so. The grammar they teach is deeply embedded in the everyday speech of ordinary educated speakers, and mercifully lacking in pedantry and prescriptivism. I have even said elsewhere that I think that native speakers might get a better idea of their own language by looking at TEFL materials, rather than some of the so-called grammar sites aimed specifically at them.
But there is one area in particular that annoys me, and that is the way teminology sometimes get changed, for what can look like reasons of fashion. For years we had been happily teaching phrasal verbs when, maybe four years ago, multiword verbs (or multi-word or multi word, take your pick) raised their ugly heads. Now there may be very good linguistic reasons for calling phrasal verbs multiword verbs, but what was wrong with the old term? in my opinion this is just confusing, for both teachers and students.
The latest buzzword seems to be prepositional verbs, and to be honest, the more I read about them, the less I can decide precisely what they are. But first let's go back to some basics.

1. What is a phrasal verb?

Here are some dictionary definitions of phrasal verb. I've chosen the four main British online dictionaries aimed at learners, and one American, just to round them out. The underlining is mine.
  • a verb combined with an adverb or a preposition, or sometimes both, to give a new meaning, for example go in for, win over and see to (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary)
  • a phrase which consists of a verb in combination with a preposition or adverb or both, the meaning of which is different from the meaning of its separate parts - 'look after', 'work out' and 'make up for' are all phrasal verbs. (Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary)
  • a group of words that is used like a verb and consists of a verb with an adverb or preposition after it, for example 'set off' or 'look after'. (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English)
  • a combination of words that is used like a verb and consists of a verb and an adverb or preposition, for example give in or come up with (Macmillan Dictionary)
  • a group of words that functions as a verb and is made up of a verb and a preposition, an adverb, or both “Take off” and “look down on” are phrasal verbs. (Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary)
That sounds pretty unanimous to me. A phrasal verb consists of a verb plus an adverb or preposition, or both. The underlined examples all have a preposition. (I deliberately haven't underlined the three parters, as that's a separate issue.)
2. Phrasal verbs have traditionally been divided into four types:
  • Type 1 - those that don't take an object
    • What on earth is going on.
    • Our car broke down during the holiday.
    Without an object the particles can't be prepositions, so they must be adverbs.
  • Type 2 - those that take an object and can be separated by that object
    • We're picking up the kids / picking the kids up after school.
    • Could you turn on the television / turn the television on, please?
    • I'll put on some music / put some music on, shall I?
    It's generally accepted that these are adverb particles.
  • Type 3 - those that take an object, but that can't be separated by the object
    • 'Here's looking at you, kid!'
    • We're looking after Sheila's kids for the afternoon.
    • She's looking for a new job.
    These particles are prepositions and always take an object.
  • Type 4 - those that have two particles. The particles can't be separated by the object.
    • We get on with the neighbours like a house on fire.
    • It looks like we've run out of coffee.
    • Do you think they will get away with it?
    The first particle is an adverb and always stays with the verb, whereas the second particle is a preposition and cannot be separated from its object. We can however, sometimes separate the two particles with modifiers.
    • I get on really well with my in-laws.
    • I'm not putting up any more with your behaviour.
The type numbers I've used here aren't necessarily universal, but I'll use them as a frame of reference. This categorisation comes from English File Upper-intermediate (OUP 2001), although it could equally as well come from a lot of other course books. The explanations and examples are mine.

3. But the writers of Language Leader Advanced seem to think differently.

I've been using a newish course book recently - Language Leader Advanced (LLA from now on) - which I quite like, especially their rather progressive attitude to the passive. But out of the blue comes a section on 'prepositional verbs'. Now, as far as I am aware, this is not a term bandied around very much in TEFL circles, and as the book is for advanced students, I thought maybe this was some exotic type of verb I hadn't come across before.
But no, it's just what I call Type 3 phrasal verbs (well, maybe - see below). Not that you'd have known that from the course book; phrasal verbs don't even get a mention. What's more, I'm pretty sure that two out of the nine examples they give are not actually prepositional verbs, so I'm not totally convinced they really understand the concept themselves.
The examples of prepositional verbs they give are:
  • come across, come up, deal with, get on, get over
  • look at, look into, look like, look after, look around.
We'll come back to what I think are the errors later, because I've now discovered why they don't mention phrasal verbs. It's because they don't consider prepositional verbs to be phrasal verbs. In the reference section for Unit 11 it says:
  • Phrasal verbs consist of verb + adverb particle. They can be transitive or intransitive.
Nothing about prepositions at all. Nor about three-word verbs. This is made clearer in the Teacher's Book (which I confess, I hadn't looked at earlier):
If they [the students] mention phrasal verbs, tell them that unlike prepositional verbs, phrasal verbs are followed by an adverb ...
So according to LLA, the examples of prepositional verbs above aren't phrasal verbs at all.
Which is strange, as Longman's Dictionary of Contemporary English, published by the same company as the Language Leader course books, lists all these verbs as phrasal verbs, with the exception of look like. Which is not really surprising, as nobody lists look like as a phrasal verb. (Does that mean that any verb followed by a preposition is a prepositional verb? We'll come back to that one too.)
And even stranger, this system of separating prepositional verbs from phrasal verbs (God knows what happened to three-part verbs) isn't reflected in the other levels of the same series. Language Leader Intermediate has three sections on phrasal verbs. They include get to (somewhere, eg London), take over (something, eg a company) and buy into (something, eg an idea). All of which, according to the book's big brother, would be prepositional verbs and not phrasal verbs at all.

4. And they're not the only ones.

The English Club website divides what most of us call phrasal verbs into three different types of verb:
  • Phrasal verbs (Types 1 and 2 in my categorisation)
  • Prepositional verbs (Type 3 in my categorisation)
  • Phrasal-prepositional verbs (Type 4 in my categorisation)
and lump them all under the oh-so-trendy multi-word-verbs.

5. Market Leader Advanced

Pearson Longman also publish the well-known Market Leader series. Market Leader Advanced (2006) has a very similar four part system to the one I outlined above, even having the same type numbers. They do admittedly prefer the overall name "multiword verbs", but give "phrasal verbs" as an alternative - for all four types, and divide them into:
  1. Intransitive multiword verbs
  2. Transitive multiword verbs
  3. Prepositional verbs
  4. Three-part (phrasal-prepositional) verbs
OK, I admit I hadn't spotted their system of nomenclature before, but they basically fall into the familiar four type pattern.

6. Dazed and confused (Part 1).

Let's look once again at those examples of prepositional verbs given in Language Leader Advanced (in Unit 8) :
  • come across, come up, deal with, get on, get over
  • look at, look into, look like, look after, look around.
Try adding an object, for example something, somebody or somewhere after each verb. With eight of them it works fine, but with get on and come up? OK, you can get on a train, and perhaps come up the hill, but that would simply be a normal verb followed by a preposition. And in any case that's not the meanings they give.
They have an exercise where you have to replace the verbs in bold by choosing a 'prepositional verb' from the selection above (more or less). Two of the sentences go like this:
  • How are you progressing at work.
  • An opportunity has arisen for a Twitter correspondent at Sky News Board.
and the answers given in the Teacher Book are:
  • How are you getting on at work.
  • An opportunity has come up for a Twitter correspondent at Sky News Board.
Now correct me if I'm wrong here (as Eddie Izzard might say), but where are those pesky 'objects of the preposition'. Nowhere to be seen, because both of these so-called 'prepositional verbs' are themselves followed by prepositions (at and for).
To make it even clearer, we could could use both of these 'prepositional verbs', with exactly the same meaning, like this:
  • How's work? How are you getting on?
  • Sorry I'm late, something came up.
No object = no preposition = no prepositional verb
The particles on and up are adverbs, so as far as I can see these are not prepositional verbs at all, but Type 1 intransitive phrasal verbs. But then perhaps I'm missing something.

7. Dazed and confused (Part 2).

The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary says that the function of a phrasal verb is:
to give a new meaning
and Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary says that:
the meaning of [a phrasal verb] is different from the meaning of its separate parts
Now once I'd got my head around the fact that in this brave new world, Type 3 phrasal verbs aren't actually phrasal verbs at all, but prepositional verbs, I assumed that the same principle would apply.
And sure enough in the LLA teacher notes for Unit 8 they say:
... with prepositional verbs, the preposition changes the meaning of the verb, which is not the case with verbs simply followed by prepositions
OK. I can run with that. That's just what I thought. But what about that look like in LLA Unit 8? Look at these two sentences:
  • You look happy today.
  • He's very like his father.
It is clear that look often means appear, and like means similar to. These are in the normal dictionary listings. So the verb phrase look like doesn't carry any extra information not already apparent from 'the meaning of its separate parts'. Which is presumably why it is not normally listed as a phrasal verb in dictionaries. Nor is it listed in the Look section in Phrasal Verbs in Use (Cambridge). But here it is among the prepositional verbs in LLA.
And then in the LLA Teacher Book Unit 11 we have this:
Write "Can you sit on the chair properly", and elicit ... the name of this verb type (prepositional verb)
Sorry, but how exactly does the preposition on "change the meaning" of the verb sit? I'm afraid you've lost me there.
So I repeat my earlier question: is a prepositional verb just any old verb with a preposition stuck onto it, whether it has a change of meaning or not?
Some people at least, seem to think so. A Turkish student asked the BBC Learning English website:
  • What are the differences between prepositional and phrasal verbs?
and Roger for the BBC replied. First he gave some examples:
  • I drove through the traffic lights when they were red.
  • He wasn’t tall enough and couldn’t climb over the fence.
and went on to say:
  • This combination of verb and preposition is usually referred to as a prepositional verb, although sometimes it is also known as a phrasal verb.
Well sorry, but I would never call drive through and climb over phrasal verbs, because there is no extra meaning. The meaning is clear from the words themselves. And since when was this type of verb usually referred to as a prepositional verb?
He then gives a couple more examples:
  • Could you look after my cat while I’m away?
  • She sailed through her exams and got top marks.
OK. Now I agree. These I would call phrasal verbs, because the meaning is not clear from 'the separate parts'. We have to know what these phrasal verbs mean to make sense of them.
Let's look at what some others think (again, my emphasis):
  • - [A prepositional verb is] An idiomatic expression that combines a verb and a preposition to make a new verb with a distinct meaning.
  • Wikipedia - Prepositional verbs are phrasal verbs that contain a preposition, and they give some examples (2 of which I wouldn't consider phrasal verbs):
    • On Fridays, we look after our grandchildren.
    • She helped the boy to an extra portion of potatoes.
    • We talked to the minister about the crisis.
  • English - A prepositional verb consists of a verb and a preposition.And they give as examples: call on, care for and insist on. The last one would normally be thought of as a verb + dependent preposition.
Well, it seems to me that confusion reigns here. For some people, prepositional verbs are a type of phrasal verb, for others not. For some people, extra meaning is necessary, for others not.
Put that another way, one fairly recently published Pearson Longman advanced course book says prepositional verbs are a type of phrasal verb, another fairly recently published Pearson Longman advanced course book says they aren't. In one unit of the LLA teacher's book it says that prepositional verbs have extra meaning, but in another they give an example which clearly doesn't.
There doesn't appear to be any consensus as to what a prepositional verb actually is. And until there is, I wish writers of course books would forget all this prepositional verb nonsense, and stick with what every man and his dog knows about: good old-fashioned phrasal verbs in all their full four-type glory. (Forlorn hope! It ain't going to happen.)

8. Conclusion

I'll finish with a final quote from the LLA teacher's book:
It is important that students know the difference between the two [prepositional and phrasal verbs]
Really? What I would have thought is important is that students know whether a phrasal verb is transitive or intransitive, separable or non-separable. Exactly the sort of information they'll find in their learner's dictionary. The rest is just extra baggage.
But most important of all is that they know what it means. In my experience, where students have most problems with phrasal verbs is not with structure, but with meaning. That's where we should be concentrating our energy, not worrying about whether something is a prepositional verb or a phrasal verb, especially when no two course books, even those published by the same company, seem to agree.
The students I teach are mostly hard-working business people. They have English lessons at the crack of dawn before work, or in the evening when they are tired after their working day. When they see the word "grammar", their eyes glaze over. They want nice easy explanations from teachers who have a reasonable grasp of what they are talking about. We (and the course books) have been teaching phrasal verbs for years without distinguishing between adverb particles and prepositions, why does it suddenly become so important now?



  1. Just what I've been complaining about for years! Very well done! And here's my pet peeve: Not one single text points out the obvious exceptions to the so-called rule that a direct object pronoun cannot follow the particle in a phrasal verb. I've gone over it. And I just can't get over it.

  2. Thanks for that, it's much appreciated. Could you perhaps expand on your pet peeve, maybe with some examples. Are you talking only about Type 2 separable phrasal verbs, for example?

  3. I just found this through your post "Prepositional verbs revisited" and it's very informative! There is another discussion of phrasal verbs here that could definitely benefit from your expertise!

  4. Expertise! I wish! Phrasal verbs are pretty familiar territory after 10 years of TEFL, but with some of my stuff I'm on fairly thin ice.

    I did contribute a couple times to Stack Exchange at the beginning of this year, but this blog has sort of taken over now. With the blog I have time to think things out and nobody else to worry about.

    My comments on other blogs etc can sometimes be a bit too hasty, and not always properly thought through. I'm always wanting to get my idea in before somebody else does. (Some sharp-eyed student is going to see that and say - You can't use Present continuous with a stative verb - Well, you can occasionally! Remember, English is full of exceptions.)

  5. Well the blog is really great. The exercises must be awesome teaching tools. I've never really seen anything like that in a blog before, so thanks for sharing!

  6. I think I'm slowly becoming addicted to your grammar rants - already second comment today.

    I use "phrasal verbs" when teaching but when it comes to teacher training I resort to this rather obscure piece of jargon too - "multi-word verbs" (by the way, the Clockwise series published by OUP uses it too). So I stand guilty as charged. I use "multi-word verbs" or "multi-part verbs" mainly (a) because the term is more all encompassing; and (b) because of my fear that there might be a meticulous stickler in the audience (when I give teacher training workshops) who will start nitpicking.

    I think I adopted this term after Scott Thornbury's 'About Language' (CUP, 1997) where he draws the distinction between phrasal and prepositional and goes on to explain that "prepositional verbs are always transitive - they always have an object[...]Three-part verbs - verb+adverb+preposition - are also always transitive for the same reason". (p. 118) He also clarifies later on that this distinction is based on syntactic (adverb or particle) rather than semantic differences (idiomatic meaning or not). Thus, it is probably important for teachers to be aware of the difference but I must agree with you that our students have enough confusion foisted on them by Pedagogic grammar to have to be able to distinguish the two. On the other hand, semantic difference when a particle changes the meaning of a verb (as in "take off" or "put up with") or doesn't (as in "sit around", "drive off") merits more attention in class.

  7. Just seen this post and it's great. In Spanish they have the Real Academia de la Lengua Española - an organisation that basically says what is right and wrong in Spanish across all Spanish-speaking countries. English totally needs an organisation like that to avoid this kind of confusion!

  8. @Steph- Thanks for the comment, but I'm sorry, I can't agree with you there. To quote Bill Bryson, “English is a fluid and democratic language in which meanings shift and change in response to pressure of common usage rather than the dictates of committees”. And I'm eternally grateful that 18th century English thinkers rejected the idea put forward by Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift for an English Academy.

    If this blog is about anything, it is about a grammar based firmly on the descriptivist ideas of modern linguistics, that's to say a grammar based on the way people in fact speak, not on how certain people think we should speak. But to be fair to the Real Academia, they take a very gentle approach, even publishing a descriptive grammar of Spanish.

    You can read about the idea for an English Academy, and its reception here.