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I just read a book to learn English. And the topic I read is about the phrasal verbs, but a big doubt has come up to my mind.

Is it correct to change the position of the preposition (putting it with the verb instead of after the direct object)?

As in:

Common structure:

  • My wife backs me up over my decision to quit my job.

  • We have to blow 50 balloons up for the party.

  • I need to break these shoes in before we run next week.

  • Please help me out to get this job done.

So, would it be correct to do the following:

  • My wife backs up me over my decision to quit my job.

  • We have to blow up 50 ballons for the party.

  • I need to break in these shoes before we run next week.

  • Please help out me to get this job done.

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If you have answers to this question, please post them as answers. Comments are not for discussion. –  KitFox Sep 7 '12 at 18:55
    
@KitFox Two people have downvoted this post? Why? Did I ask anything out of the rules? –  Dante Sep 7 '12 at 21:57
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I don't know why you got downvotes. Your question seems OK to me, especially given that you have gotten so helpful answers. –  KitFox Sep 7 '12 at 22:00
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That is not a preposition, as it has no object. It’s normally called a(n adverbial) particle. It is part of a phrasal verb. And no, movement does not (usually) matter with this particular kind. There are those where it does, though. –  tchrist Dec 16 '12 at 1:38
    
@tchrist You're not a subscriber to the CGEL's doctrine on 'intransitive prepositions' either, then? –  Edwin Ashworth May 3 '13 at 12:23
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4 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Some rules of thumb:

  • if the preposition indicates a genuine "direction" or essentially carries its 'intrinsic value' as a preposition, then it comes before the noun or pronoun as you would expect with a preposition. For example: He turned off the motorway. He ran out the room. Notice how in these cases, you can often take away the prepositional phrase and the sentence still more or less makes sense, though is much more vague ("He turned", "He ran").
  • If the preposition is effectively "fused" into a transitive verb, and especially where the choice of preposition is fairly arbitrary, then it is likely that will come before a noun (but after a pronoun). He carried out the experiment. He carried it out. Contrast: He carried the boxes out, when out has its more literal meaning, and notice how "He carried" bears no relationship at all to the sense with 'experiment', but bears some relationship with the sense of carrying boxes.
  • With some prepositions that have a "semi-figurative" sense but still keeps some of its value of the preposition, you can put the preposition before or after a noun, arguably depending on whether you want to the emphasise 'directionality' of the preposition: He turned off the tap or He turned the tap off.
  • A "figurative" preposition fused into a transitive phrasal verb is in any case likely to come before the noun phrase if it is relatively long. So for example: He turned the taps off would be common, but He turned off [all of the taps in the house as well as the house next door] would be a common word order because of the length of the object phrase in brackets.
  • If you coordinate prepositions that are fused into a phrasal verb, then they usually go after the nouns. For example, He turned the taps off and the washing machine on is fine, but you can't generally say *He turned off the taps and on the washing machine, even though individually you can say either He turned off the taps or He turned on the washing machine. (With "genuine" prepositions, coordination works as expected: He turned off the motorway and onto the ring road.)
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Excellent! Could you address the phrasal verb OP instances, and say which of these descriptive rules apply? –  StoneyB Dec 16 '12 at 2:26
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There are further considerations of factors affecting particle placement in structures like these in an article by Catherine Browman at web.haskins.yale.edu/Reprints/HL0594.pdf . –  Edwin Ashworth May 3 '13 at 11:59
    
Thanks Edwin that's interesting. (Skimming rapidly, I think their results largely concur with what I suggested in my answer, though obviously setting out actual evidence and detail is always a good thing!) –  Neil Coffey May 4 '13 at 15:39
    
I just wonder about the first bullet point because things like 'turn off the motorway' can never be 'turn the motorway off'. For something like 'cut down the tree', I might say, 'cut the tree down', but perhaps that's better connected to bullet point 2. –  Wolfpack'08 May 18 '13 at 2:27
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You should read about the two kinds of phrasal verbs:

  1. separable

  2. inseparable

Knowing what type a phrasal verb is can help you answer your questions above and other future questions about particular phrasal verbs. There are many available lists on the Net that provide this kind of information.

This particular list for instance includes at least 3 of the 4 phrasal verbs that you cited:

list

Luckily, all your example phrasal verbs are separable, which makes answering your question easier.


Next you should learn that the position of the object can normally vary depending on whether it's a noun or a pronoun.

Like this:

turn off the TV = Ok

turn the TV off = Ok

turn off it = X

turn it off = Ok

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Yes - 'knowing what type' is the answer to Dante's question, but terminology, while (hopefully but not always) helpful, doesn't address the underlying grammar. Neil's answer is very helpful (whilst still leaving problem areas; how 'fused' is 'fused' (ie the strength of the verb-form - particle/preposition cohesion in individual cases). –  Edwin Ashworth May 3 '13 at 11:42
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Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. "We have to blow up 50 ballons for the party." and "I need to break in these shoes before we run next week." are both correct. The others aren't.

It can even vary with the same phrasal verb used in different contexts with two slightly different meanings. "Back up the important files on your computer." would be correct, even though "back up me" is not.

I don't know of any reason that some phrasal verbs can be switched like that and some cannot; it seems to be arbitrary.

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Particle movement is possible with phrasal verbs when they are transitive, as is the case with all your examples. However, when the object of a transitive phrasal verb is a pronoun, the particle is almost always placed after the object. That means that My wife backed up me and Please help out me do not occur, but both forms of the other two sentences can.

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Oh! It's not the phrasal verb itself, but whether the object is a noun or a pronoun! Is that a hard, fast rule? For example, "My wife backed up her sister," sounds "off" to me, but "Please help out Karen," seems fine. –  Kelly Tessena Keck Sep 7 '12 at 16:58
    
@Kelly While to me "My wife backed up her sister" sounds fine (if potentially ambiguous, with possible comedic interpretations). –  SevenSidedDie Sep 7 '12 at 17:04
    
Excellent answer, but I would add: 1) the lenght of object influence the movement [Browman, 1986, says: "the lenght and complexity of the direct object has the clearest influence"]; 2) Chen, 1986, and Fraser, 1974, say that the 'verb'-'object'-'particle' construction is preferred if a directional adverbial follows; 3) Browman, 1986, mentions animacy of the object as a variable for particle movement. –  Elberich Schneider Sep 7 '12 at 17:26
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It's as hard and fast as any syntactic rule -- meaning there are exceptions, as there always are. But not that many, and often for explainable reasons. Here, for example, is a homework problem on English phrasal verbs from the syntax unit in a freshman college Intro Ling course. Most of the students were native American English speakers, and they generally agreed with the grammaticality judgements indicated by the stars on the examples, though there are some weird cases, like run over. –  John Lawler Sep 7 '12 at 17:27
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@FumbleFingers: In that example 'her' is not a pronoun but a possessive determiner. –  Barrie England Sep 18 '12 at 6:39
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