Why can you say "put on your coat" and "put your coat on" but not "depend on someone" and "depend someone on*"?

Why are adverbs ("on" in the first sentence) mobile, whereas prepositions ("on" in the second sentence) have a fixed position?

  • 1
    I think you answered your own question. It's exactly that; they're prepositions and not an adverbial particle linked to the verb. An adposition is always in a fixed position with respect to its complement.
    – Ledda
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 8:14
  • @Ledda: So by in the inseparable come by (he came by some money) is a preposition rather than a particle? Not so. It's far more closely bound to the simplex verb, in a MWV structure, just like on in put on (= don). It's very hard to explain why some of these MWVs are separable while others aren't. And, while we're on the subject, to determine the exact dividing line between MWVs and verb + preposition constructions. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 10:06
  • I don't understand, why is it not just a verb that is frozen to require a specific prepositional phrase?
    – Ledda
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 11:47
  • In phrasal verbs, a distinction is sometimes made between prepositions and postpositions (adverbs, in fact). For example in 'get away with it', 'away' is an adverb or postposition, whereas 'with' is a preposition. The unexpressed complement of the adverb is 'away from the unpleasant situation you are in'. Again, the adverb is a kind of preposition or prepositional phrase which 'carries its complement with itself', which explains its mobility.
    – user58319
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 11:52
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    @Ledda: Phrasal verbs are constructions evolved along the same lines as German trennbare Vorsilben, but they're not necessarily cognate. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 17:37

3 Answers 3


Macmillan says that depend on is a transitive phrasal verb (I'd use the term transitive multi-word verb, MWV).

Certainly, put on as used here, meaning 'don', is a transitive MWV. This is not always the case for 'put on'; here is a discussion arguing that in

put on weight

put on is a MWV, whereas in

put on hold

put is a simplex verb followed by the prepositional phrase 'on hold'.

Once we've decided (assuming we do) that we're dealing with MWVs here, we can drop any mention of adverbs and prepositions, because behaviour of particles may well differ from how adverbs and prepositions behave, especially with regard to distribution (where they may be placed in a sentence).

Some transitive MWVs are separable:

Put your coat on / Put on your coat /// Turn the light off / Turn off the light

and some aren't (or the jury is out):

How did he come by the money /// You can count on her /// This calls for wisdom /// ?gives off a gas

It may well be that the particles in the non-separable constructions have migrated further from any original individual meaning, so they are even more tightly bound to their simplex verbs (to create new lexemes) than those in separable constructions.

  • Yup. Those transitivizing prepositions, like the at of look at him, are in the process of becoming clitics and/or suffixes ("lookit him" in eye dialect), and they're spread all over the separability spectrum. My favorite here is run over. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 17:35

Adverbs are a kind of preposition which carries with itself the name or ponoun it introduces:

so, "put your coat on" is like "put your coat on (yourself/your body)", "put on your coat" is like "put on (yourself/your body) your coat".

I would say an adverb is a preposition followed by a noun or pronoun which is not expressed, which is understood. That is the reason why they can be found in different positions, there is nothing in the sentence that they need to introduce, to precede.

Same thing with conjunctions, which introduce/precede a clause, compulsory front-position, whereas adverbs meaning the same can be found in front-, mid-, or end-position.

"There is sun but the weather is not very warm."

"There is sun. However, the weather is not very warm. / The weather, however, is not very warm. / The weather is not very warm, however."

The adverb 'however' means the same as 'in spite of this' (in spite of = prepositional phrase + this = pronoun representing the first clause/sentence, the fact that 'There is sun.')

It is because the adverb 'however' carries the first clause/sentence with itself that it can come in different positions, which the coordination conjunction 'but' cannot do.

  • And I would say that an adverb is not "a preposition followed by a noun or pronoun which is not expressed", though there are words which can serve as either a preposition or an adverb. What is the preposition and the unexpressed noun which are quickly, or quite, or again?
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Dec 14, 2013 at 1:17
  • I find the knee-jerk reaction of native speakers of English against any attempt to rationalize their language (for the sake of learning it better, because we love it) unsettling!
    – user58319
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 18:47
  • How else can you explain the mobility of the adverb as opposed to the fixedness of prepositions and conjunctions?
    – user58319
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 18:48
  • Those pseudo-rules are short-cuts to mastering your language… but it looks like only circuitous ways will do. If it takes the native speaker of any language fifteen to twenty years to master their mother tongue, why should any foreigner be bold enough to assume they can achieve the same results in less time!
    – user58319
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 18:55
  • I explain the mobility by noting that a preposition introduces a PP (prepositional phrase), which requires a NP (noun phrase) as its head; but an adverb doesn't. It is true that adverbs and PP's generally occur in the same places, and that some adverbs can be replaced by a PP with similar meaning; but claiming that an adverb is a preposition whose NP is not expressed is simply false.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Dec 20, 2013 at 16:59

That's because prepositions are positioned "pre" (= before) the word they refer to.

  • Is that always true? Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 9:29
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    I'll speak plainly. Prepositions do not always have to be placed before the noun group they are associated with. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 10:04
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    "The noun group with which they are associated, dear Edwin". ;o)
    – Ste
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 10:22
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    I'm thinking of a withering riposte. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 10:37
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    'before the word they refer to' is a re-ordering of 'before the word to which they refer', with the preposition 'to' BEFORE the relative pronoun 'which', which represents 'the word'.
    – user58319
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 12:07

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