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Phrasal verbs -- rules for separable and inseparable?
Location: Taipei, Taiwan
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Are there any rules to follow to categorize separable and inseparable phrasal verbs?

Thank you!

This message has been edited. Last edited by: Rachel, Moderator,
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The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language* defines phrasal verb as:

"An English verb complex consisting of a verb and one or more following particles and acting as a complete syntactic and semantic unit, as look up in She looked up the word in the dictionary or She looked the word up in the dictionary."

A more accurate term for the verb-particle combinations we are speaking about might be "multi-word verb," as defined in Quirk**. It includes phrasal verbs, (turn down) prepositional verbs (come across), and phrasal-prepositional verbs(run away with), as well as some idiomatic verb constructions with adjectives (put straight) or another verb (make do with). In texts, "phrasal verb" often describes not only true phrasal verbs, but these other types as well.

Many texts group all kinds of verb-particle combinations together as "phrasal verbs," and mark each item as "separable" or "inseparable." It may be asking too much of a learner to differentiate which combinations are separable or not according to certain rules, but advanced learners and teachers often want to know. The Grammar Book*** addresses this topic on pp. 429-431, and includes these observations:

"¢ A phrasal verb is separable if you can put the object noun between the verb and the particle:

Peter looked up the new word or Peter looked the new word up

"¢ A phrasal verb is inseparable if it is a verb + preposition, like "look at." Can you front the preposition:

Peter looked at something.
At what did Peter look?

Awkward, though possible. This is a verb + preposition combination.

The authors of The Grammar Book also present these observations:

"...there is one syntactic characteristic peculiar to transitive phrasal verbs: sometimes the particle can be separated from the verb by the direct object and sometimes it cannot. Separation is obligatory when the direct object is a pronoun...Mark THREW AWAY the ball...MARK THREW IT AWAY (*NOT* MARK THREW AWAY IT).....(Others: look up, take up, leave out, pass out, bring back, turn down, etc.)

The largest, most productive category of phrasal verbs are these transitive separable ones.

However, we also posit a smaller category of inseparable phrasal verbs, where the particle cannot be separated from its verb. Some linguists would argue that the inseparability is due to the fact that what we are calling a particle is really a preposition, and thus would naturally precede its object. Because the two words appear to have a syntactic affinity...and together have a meaning beyond what each word contributes individually, we feel that it makes good pedagogic sense to have a category of inseparable phrasal verbs."

....Another formal difference between a verb + preposition and a phrasal verb is that a particle may receive stress, whereas a preposition usually doesn't:

He looked UP the word (phrasal verb)
He looked up the ROAD (verb + preposition)...."
I CAME ACROSS an interesting article last night. I CAME ACROSS IT last night. (*NOT* I cam an interesting article across last night / I CAME IT ACROSS last night.

(Others: run into, get over, go over, look into, go for.)

The passage in The Grammar Book and Quirk, sections 16.2-16.17, present a lot of interesting information about the separability of phrasal verbs.

*The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition 2003 by Houghton Mifflin Company. 2003
** A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik. Longman. 1985
***The Grammar Book, Second Edition, by Marianne Celce=Murcia and Diane Larsen-Freeman. Heinle & Heinle. 1999
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A relevant question about phrasal verbs was asked last year on the Grammar Exchange Newsgroup. Actually, it included 6 questions, which are numbered and addressed here. It was posted by Gisele:

"To answer your questions very briefly:

1- the particle might either be a preposition or an adverb


2- in the case of separable phrasal verbs, the particle is always (usually?) an adverb (take off your shoes, take your shoes off, take them off)

It depends on your definition of "adverb." Quirk includes "off" in the list of "prepositional adverbs." "Prepositional adverbs" also include "about," "in," and "on," among other words which are also prepositions when used alone. So, yes, these separable phrasal verbs contain adverbs (prepositional adverbs):

Take your shoes off.
The new government brought this about!
Please hand your papers in now.
Turn the computer on.

3- in inseparable phrasal verbs, the particle is always / usually a preposition (run into a friend, run into him)

Yes, if "phrasal verb" is used to mean "multi-word verb." "Run into" can be called a prepositional verb. Some other examples are call on, care for, come across, cope with, go into,and look at.

4- in intransitive phrasal verbs, the particle is always / usually an adverb (stand up, calm down)

Yes. Include, however, words such as "in," "over," "across," and "through" – all also prepositions – as used in come over, come across, come through

5- when there are two particles, the first one is an adverb, the second is a preposition (get away with something, get away with it)

It's possible to define the phrase this way, yes.

6- for a verb + particle combination to be truthfully called a "phrasal verb", it must be idiomatic; in other words, when the meaning can be easily deduced by analyzing the verb and the particle separately, the combination is not really a phrasal verb. For example, "drink in". In the sentence, "They were drinking in the kitchen", there´s no phrasal verb; whereas in the sentence "They were drinking in the breathtaking view", "drink in" is a separable phrasal verb - "They were drinking it in"

Yes. This is an excellent example."


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