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.


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


  • 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.

  • 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, 2013 at 14:22
  • This question has been addressed at english.stackexchange.com/questions/96822/… ; a full answer is probably a few decades away. Apr 27, 2013 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). Apr 27, 2013 at 15:56
  • Yeah, and I didn't even get to sentence (4), which is different yet. Apr 27, 2013 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. Apr 28, 2013 at 8:56

2 Answers 2


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 test 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 is 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.

  • 1
    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?
    – yanpengl
    Apr 27, 2013 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. Apr 27, 2013 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. Apr 27, 2013 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. Apr 27, 2013 at 18:44
  • 1
    There may also be other criteria. You can ask whether the preposition can go before who/which. "That is the house at which I was looking" sounds okay (if quite formal), but *"These are the children after whom I was looking" sounds utterly awful. Does that means "look after" should be counted as a phrasal verb, where as "look at" is just a verb + preposition? Apr 28, 2013 at 0:46

I always had students start with the verb "put" and generate as many phrasal verbs from it as they could. Put on, put in, put over, put out, put up, put up with, put down, etc. etc. In each case, they could see that each one has a different meaning than the verb put. Think about and think of have essentially the same meaning, because there's always an object of your thinking, so to say. You have to think about or think of something. Think over is a little bit different -- it will take more time than just thinking. Same with the example @Peter Shor offers -- look at is very different from look after. And the adjective clause criterion is a good one.

  • No disrespect to John, but this helps me understand the difference far more neatly and concisely. I like your example with the various "put" phrasal verbs.
    – Lou
    May 26, 2016 at 21:58
  • @Leo King An ELL rather than an ELU answer, perhaps? Jul 17, 2016 at 10:21

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