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I am reading a book on grammar. Now I can't understand the difference between the verb+preposition and phrasal verbs. For example

He never thinks about(or of) other people.

and

put on your coat

Why this book call think about a verb+preposition and put on a phrasal verb. What's the difference between them?

Here are another examples about this subject

verb+preposition

  • ask (somebody) for
    A man stopped me and asked me for money.

  • belong to ...
    Does this book belong to you?

  • talk to somebody about something
    Did you talk to Paul about the problem?

phrasal verbs

  • Turn over
    Turn over and look at the next page

  • turn on
    It was dark, so I turned on the light.

  • bring back
    You can take my umbrella but please bring it back.

I don't know the difference clearly.

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I don't know if this is the formal difference, but in the examples you categorize as phrasal verbs, there is a (sometimes only slight) difference in meaning when compared to the verb on its own. E.g. turn on does not involve exactly the same action as turn. Compare this with e.g. talk to, which is the same action as talk but with an explicit indirect object. –  DavidR Apr 27 '13 at 14:22
    
This question has been addressed at english.stackexchange.com/questions/96822/… ; a full answer is probably a few decades away. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 27 '13 at 15:16
2  
Two problems here are that a) the term phrasal verb is used by differently by different authorities and b) a simple division into two categories does not adequately describe this complex topic (see the first two paragraphs of John Lawler's answer). –  StoneyB Apr 27 '13 at 15:56
    
Yeah, and I didn't even get to sentence (4), which is different yet. –  John Lawler Apr 27 '13 at 18:22
    
@DavidR: Talk to has both a transparent (chat with) and a semi-transparent (reprove) (cf give someone a good talking to) sense. It's the semi- (/quarter- / tenth- / nine-tenths-) transparent ones that make classification so difficult. 'Run up a hill' and 'run up a bill' are the easy ones. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 28 '13 at 8:56
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

There are several types of phrasal verb, and several types of verb + preposition. Not all of them are constituents, they serve different functions, they're all irregular as hell, and they're all governed by the matrix verb.

Every verb has its own assortment of special idioms, affordances, prohibitions, requirements, and irregularities. There is such immense variation in these details that such matters are considered part of the meaning of the verb; certainly they are strongly affected by the meanings. Square and cube that variation for phrasal verbs, since there are far more phrasal verbs in English than there are single-word verbs.

Some varieties can be examined in this freshman grammar homework problem. Examples of different types, from there:

Sentences (1) and (2) show two normal verb + prep constructions, from the same verb: look at, with transitivizing at; and look for, a transitive idiom meaning 'search'. Both of them require that the preposition precede the object (which may be thought of either as the object of the preposition, or as the direct object of the transitive verb + prep construction), even if that object is a pronoun. It makes no difference to most prepositions whether their object is a noun or a pronoun (ungrammatical sentences are marked with an asterisk *):

  • I looked for Einstein ~ *I looked Einstein for ~ I looked for him ~ *I looked him for.

Sentence (3), on the other hand, is a real transitive phrasal verb. There are two characteristics of phrasal verbs that help to distinguish them. Both tests have limitations, however. The most important one, and the easiest to administer, is the difference between the pattern of asterisks in the second and third columns, where pronoun objects force the difference.

There is a syntactic rule (called Particle Shift in the literature) that applies to transitive phrasal verbs only, and imposes a special requirement on pronoun objects. Thus, with a real phrasal verb like look up 'research (v)', the particle may appear either before or after a Noun object, but must appear after a Pronoun object.

  • I looked up Einstein ~ I looked Einstein up ~ *I looked up him ~ I looked him up.

Note, however, that this test is helpful only with transitive phrasal verbs. There are plenty of intransitive phrasal verbs, too, but there's no object to test with. Many transitive phrasal verbs can appear also intransitively, e.g take off, move away, often with a different sense (He took it off ~ The plane took off), or not (He moved it away ~ It moved away).

The second useful characteristic is that a phrasal verb stressed on the particle, at least as much as on the verb, and maybe more. A V + PP construction like look at, on the other hand, is stressed on the verb, not the preposition.

  • He looked up the word. ~ He looked at the word.

That's because prepositions are rarely stressed, except for emphasis (In the toilet, you idiot!); they're sposta slide by like articles and conjunctions to grease the way into the object, which is the informational part. They're not sposta distract, so they're unstressed, and therefore reduced, so we get common contractions like sposta and lookit

Unfortunately, stress is not represented in English writing, so that distinction is not helpful for readers.

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John, thanks for your helpful information. Now, I can understands the rules you said, but, for instance, over in the phrasal verbs like get over and think over, is still unclear for me to decide it a particle or a preposition. Is there a method to make this decision? Does it only rely on the memory? –  Timothy Li Apr 27 '13 at 18:21
2  
The real difference between the types is whether the constituents of the Verb phrase are divided this way [[V + P] N] (phrasal verb) or this way [V [P + N]] (verb + prep phrase). The tests I mentioned distinguish constituents, which is why they're useful. Constituency is the most important concept in syntax -- syntactic constructions and rules apply only to constituents, never to strings that are not constituents. –  John Lawler Apr 27 '13 at 18:27
    
I fully agree with your first comment here. However, to quote Wikipedia: [Constituency] tests are rough-and-ready tools that grammarians employ to reveal clues about syntactic structure. But ... these tests ...often deliver contradictory results. Some syntacticians even arrange the tests on a scale of reliability, with less-reliable tests treated as useful to confirm constituency though not sufficient on their own. Failing to pass a single test does not mean that the unit is not a constituent, and conversely, passing a single test does not mean necessarily that the unit is a constituent. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 27 '13 at 18:39
    
Yes. Constituency can change. That's where phrasal verbs come from in the first place, and there are more developing all the time, at different degrees of constituency. It's quite common to find that two different constituent structures nevertheless point to the same thing in certain cases, and that different people have different perceptions of the constituent structures. Haj Ross's paper Nouniness talks about the squishy nature of the category label Noun. –  John Lawler Apr 27 '13 at 18:44
    
Different verbs, different alternations, different prepositions, etc. Levin 1993 is a good example of how governed alternations vary, and how the verb classes that govern them cohere semantically. –  John Lawler Apr 27 '13 at 22:40
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A phrasal verb is a verb combined with an adverb or a preposition, or sometimes both, to give a new meaning.

'Verb + preposition', from your definition, is just how to use a particular verb in a sentence. The form doesn't give a new meaning. For example, think about still has the meaning of think while look after, which is a phrasal verb, has a completely different meaning to look.

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Thanks. I begin to understand the difference from your reply. But in my book, it defines look after as verb+prepositon, I don't understand why. –  Timothy Li Apr 27 '13 at 14:46
    
I'm surprised. In this case, I can't seem to understand how the book categorizes these verbs too. But using Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary as a reference, look after is under Phrasal Verb section of the word look. –  Fantasier Apr 27 '13 at 14:56
    
@Fantasier Phrasal verb is used by some authorities only for those idioms in which the "particle" - the preposition or adverb - may shift beyond the object. –  StoneyB Apr 27 '13 at 16:00
    
@Fantasier Yeah, exactly as StoneyB said, so you are right too. –  Timothy Li Apr 27 '13 at 17:35
    
There are a number of different constructions that different people call Phrasal Verbs. They don't all use the same criteria. I use the term only for constituents that pass the tests I mentioned in my answer. –  John Lawler Apr 27 '13 at 18:21
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