Please, restrict your answers to etymological info. I browsed some other questions and found some good info here: Is it correct to change the common structure in these phrasal verbs?, which is more of a disambiguation question, but it may help answerers on this question. Specifically, this idea: 'The preposition is fused to the verb to create a new, figurative meaning.'

I'm wondering why some verbs have a preposition dangling after the object. I thought it was perhaps because it's expected to connect to an indirect object, but then I found myself adding additional prepositions that sometimes obviate the need for the first one (some examples in square brackets). Example:

I put some burgers on. Cooked them up. Turned the heat down [to low]. Called Nancy up [on the phone]. Asked her if she could come down [to my house]. She freaked out. Said she was down [to come]. I passed out. When I came to, she was looking me over.

She asked, "What knocked you out?"

"You and I being on," I replied.

"Let's chow down," she suggested – but I cautioned, "Wait up. Maybe the burgers are burnt up."

She said, "No. You'd turned the heat down," and pulled two plates out. We scarfed the burgers down and funned around for two more hours before turning in.

I'm basically wondering how words like these developed.

  • Out of curiosity, is etymology the right word for grammatical history as well as lexical history? I get what the questioner means, I just don't usually usually hear the word used in that context. May 3, 2013 at 1:20
  • @BraddSzonye I'm not sure, but I believe the correct term for that is grammaticalisation.
    – p.s.w.g
    May 3, 2013 at 1:36
  • 2
    I think it's worth noting that some of these phrasal verbs have prepositions "fused" to the verbs while others are only linked by dialect or style. For example in "turned down the heat", down is required, but in "called Nancy up" and "burgers are burnt up", both "ups" are stylistics flourishes.
    – tylerharms
    May 3, 2013 at 11:57
  • @tylerharms I agree. After thinking about this some more, maybe each stylish flourish was thought up in its own right and is meant to be connected to something. For example, 'burnt up into the sky' because hot air rises, or 'came up'/'came down' because friends live up or down in elevation from one another. May 3, 2013 at 23:25
  • @BraddSzonye I think a phrasal word qualifies as a word, otherwise I wouldn't have used etymology. May 5, 2013 at 23:50

2 Answers 2


There are relevant sections in 'Multi-Word Verbs in Early Modern English: A Corpus-Based Study' by Claudia Claridge, précised at http://linguistlist.org/issues/12/12-698.html which contains:

Chapter 5 examines the history of these types of multi-word verbs from Old English through to Modern English. ...Chapters 6 and 7 describe the particular multi- word verbs found in the Lampeter corpus, and attempt to describe the patterns found among them. Chapter 6 treats the data synchronically, while chapter 7 looks at diachronic developments during the 100 year period covered by the corpus.

I've accessed various portions online, but had to order a copy via my local central library.

In an article by Catherine Browman at http://web.haskins.yale.edu/Reprints/HL0594.pdf , it is stated that the transformational grammarians Absalom (1973), Chomsky (1957) and Fillmore (1965) considered the contiguous form to be basic and the separated form a movement-transformation derivative, whilst Edmonds (1972) believed it was the other way round. Other grammarians, such as Gazdar, Klein, Pullum and Sag (1985) retain the verb and particle as separate constituents, but seem neutral with regard to direction of transformation (if any).

(Still other grammarians regard the verb-particle combination as more or less unanalysable, in any given example.)

  • 'verb particle object-n' can often be analyzed as 'verb {object-1} [to be] {object-2}; and when that doesn't make sense, the particle is usually superfluous.
    – AmI
    Dec 7, 2015 at 21:47
  • Does that address the question? And is it true? 'He looked up relativity.' Dec 8, 2015 at 0:26
  • I think it's true, and relevant. 'He cut down a tree = He cut a tree to be down'; that makes sense. 'He looked relativity to be up'; that needs a definition (as a phrasal verb): To 'look up' probably derives from pulling a file up, into the line of vision.
    – AmI
    Dec 21, 2015 at 23:40
  • @Aml You will notice that the answer above is supported by academic articles. And that the grammarians involved do not agree on how the divide into separable and non-separable MWVs arose. If you have a credible source (which includes supported analysis of how multiword verbs develop, and how to identify them) please post an answer, rather than a comment which could well be assumed to be merely personal opinion. Dec 22, 2015 at 12:29

These are often called "phrasal verbs" or "particle verbs" in the linguistic literature. They're found throughout the history of English, e.g. Hi ðærrihte ut eodon "They immediately out went", from Ælfric's 10th-century Catholic Homilies. However, many of the modern phrasal verbs only appear later, during the Middle English period and beyond.

Since the phenomenon is so old, it's difficult to know exactly how particles like (o)ut etc. arose. It's usually said that they develop from "preverbs", a category found in all the Indo-European languages. Preverbs (as their name suggests) precede the verb, as in the Old English example I gave above. In the history of English, the particles go from preceding the verb to following it, which is probably related to a more general change from object-verb to verb-object order.

For a fuller answer to your question, you could look at Thim (2012) or Hiltunen (1983), if you have access to them via a library. There's also a bibliography here.

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