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I thought of this question right after I posted a tweet about a service upgrading me to a free student account since I am in college. I said "That really helps a broke college student out." I actually paused for a second while I was writing that to decide if I should say

That really helps out a broke college student.


That really helps a broke college student out.

Are there any prescriptive rules about splitting phrasal verbs like this? I know this breaks the "don't put a preposition at the end of a sentence" rule, but that "rule" has an exception for phrasal verbs.

To clarify:

  1. Is there any rule that says phrasal verbs can't be split, even if it is just an imposed, prescriptive rule?
  2. Does splitting a phrasal verb to put a preposition at the end of a sentence fall under the phrasal verb exception to the prepositions at the end of a sentence rule?
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There is no "don't put a preposition at the end of a sentence" rule, except in the minds of pettifogging fussbudgets. Where'd you get that idea from? – Robusto Aug 7 '12 at 19:19
Notice how after that statement, when I referred back to the rule, I put "rule" in quotes. This isn't so much a functional question as it is a "do people care about petty crap like this" question. – Nick Anderegg Aug 7 '12 at 19:22
@Robusto Presumably, the outspoken "pettifogging fussbudgets". Incidentally, that's become my new favorite insult. Now I just need to look up what it means... ;) – rsegal Aug 7 '12 at 19:23
up vote 11 down vote accepted

The informal rule is a stylistic one. Keep the complement as close as possible.

That really helps me out.

Clearly this is not a lot of separation, and to phrase it "helps out me" would sound awkward and awful.

That really helps out the children who are starving every day in Africa.

To put "out" at the end would simply require the reader or listener to wait too long to parse your verb as a phrasal verb.

To sum it all up: it's a judgment call.

To sum up everything I have stated in this response: it's still a judgment call.

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So basically, either of my examples would work since either sounds natural, and no "pettifogging fussbudget" has yet come up with a rule to say that either of my sentences is incorrect? – Nick Anderegg Aug 7 '12 at 19:24
Pretty much. I would lean toward "help out a broke college student," but you have to rely on your own ear to tell you when the interpolated material is too much for the brain to digest before forgetting the first part of the phrasal verb. – Robusto Aug 7 '12 at 19:27
You've missed one thing that is a rule, namely that a pronoun must come between the verb and the particle, while nouns can do either. That really helps me out is fine; *That really helps out me is not. – JSBձոգչ Aug 7 '12 at 19:41
@Nick: Robusto said it best, and I concur with him: it's a judgment call. (I don't know what you're "disagreeing with" - that I didn't find your first sentence more readable than your second?) I agree, your second sentence is plenty parsible, and not ungrammatical; I was only trying to say it read more awkwardly than your first. – J.R. Aug 7 '12 at 20:11
What JSBձոգչ said. Another "rule" is that you can't make one component of a phrasal verb do "double duty" by using it in constructions involving "stripping" or other "deletions". You can (just about) say "That helps me understand, and [helps] you control, the process". You can't say "That helps me out, and [helps] you control, the process". – FumbleFingers Aug 7 '12 at 21:25

This from the 'Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’:

Transitive phrasal verbs allow particle movement . . . When the object of a transitive phrasal verb is a pronoun, the adverbial particle is almost always after the object.

It follows that both your examples are possible. However, if you replace a broke college student with the pronoun him, only That really helps him out is possible.

(Different considerations apply with prepositional verbs.)

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Oooh, this is a really good example. To me, "helps out a broke college student" sounds like the lesser form, and "helps out him" helps drives the point home. – Nick Anderegg Aug 7 '12 at 19:43

Splitting an infinitive would be an example of a zombie-rule even more famous than the zombie-rule against ending with a preposition, and would be an example or splitting a phrasal verb, since the two words act as a single verb.

And since it famously is perfectly good English to do so, we can extend that to other phrasal verbs.

It would be poor style to get lost:

It really helps a broke college student, who has to make do on a government grant, and has just learnt that new means-testing rules means he's not even going to be receiving the full amount this year, on top of his car breaking down and needing some rather expensive repairs (or alternatively he could use public transport, but that would mean he couldn't get from college to his part-time job in time, making matters worse), out.

Would probably be considered poor style.

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The split verb question aside, what the sentence really needs is tightening. You don't need the word "out." It should just read - This really helps a broke college student. And in channeling our inner William Zinser, we should also get rid of "really."

This helps a broke college student.

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