I was writing a text and I stumbled upon the differences between:

  1. Lily slipped and threw up her keys
  2. Lily slipped and threw her keys up [in the air]

For a moment I was finding phrase 1 more natural to hear but then I realized the meaning there is completely different.

Is there a name for this phenomenon in English (if this is not an exception), in which a verb+adverb change completely its meaning by repositioning the object on the sentence?

Should I learn some rule in order to be cautious when using this composition?

  • It might put it into sharper focus if Lily had thrown up her wine rather than her keys. Feb 3 '14 at 21:38
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    When I was a child, my sister and I always derived great merriment from the plight of the hapless narrator of A Visit From St. Nicholas ('Twas the Night Before Christmas), who "tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash." That must've been some party.
    – phenry
    Feb 3 '14 at 23:00

Labels for words matters. The two verbs in your example are "slipped" and "threw".

Up can be an adverb (I was sick and vomited up everything), a preposition (They took a cruise up the Rhine), an adjective (the mood here is resolutely up), a noun (You can't have ups all the time in football), etc.

In your first example, up is an adverb (a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb). In your second, it is according to @Edwin Asworth, also an adverb. Please see below. However, if one presumes she threw her keys up into the air, it could be considered a preposition.

Also, in (Ame at least) English, throw up means to vomit, so that threw up her keys will first strike someone as a bit awkward, although in context it will be understood as it is meant to be.

Edited to reflect @Edwin Ashworth's information.

  • 'Up' is not a preposition in either example here. It is a directional adverb showing a degree of freedom in its distribution. Feb 3 '14 at 21:42
  • I think such a fundamental error is worrying enough to require really serious thought about giving such authoritative-sounding answers. Unless one buys into CGEL's (etc) 'intransitive prepositions', a preposition must be followed by a noun group that it is closely bound to. Thus, 'threw up the ball' is just a re-ordering of 'threw the ball up', with 'the ball' a direct object in each case; in 'threw the ball up the corridor', 'up' is a preposition heading the prepositional phrase 'up the corridor'. Feb 3 '14 at 21:52
  • Are you saying that not knowing what the classical definition of a preposition is isn't a basic error? Your statement "In your second, it is a preposition" is erroneous and misleading. I don't know how I can state this any more kindly – we're trying to help people with their English. Feb 3 '14 at 21:58
  • In your alternative version, unless you claim that 'up into' is a 'double preposition' (and I'd say they do exist), 'into' is the preposition ('into the air') while 'up' remains a verb-modifier, ie an adverb. Feb 3 '14 at 22:01
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    I would consider that the little word "up" to be a preposition in both of OP's examples (as explained in the 2002 reference grammar CGEL). :) -- But people have different grammar backgrounds, and I usually try to go with the flow. (Fortunately for me, I can't log into "chat" (though I can see it), which is actually a good thing: so I don't spend even more time procrastinating.)
    – F.E.
    Feb 3 '14 at 23:05

After having heard of this ambiguity, I can not listen to A Visit From St. Nicholas without chuckling. "...I ran to the window and threw up the sash...why I had eaten the sash earlier that evening is beyond me..."

As a real answer - I always took "throw up" to be what I call an 'inseparable' phrase (I don't know if this is the technically correct term). As such any direct objects would have to come after it. This is in contrast to, say, "pick up", which is a simple verb + prep, and thus by English rules can have the object either within or after the pairing. When we say "throw up her keys" it is ambiguous, since either usage fits, but if we say "throw her keys up" it fits only the separable form of the phrase, and thus excludes the gastronomic interpretation.

Similarly, I can "walk my dog around," and I can "walk around my dog", but those are two very different activities since, like "throw up," the phrase has a different meaning in its inseparable form. (Although, curiously, I just noticed that neither of those phrase forms is ambiguous)


  • Your dog example is different, though: ‘around’ is an adverb in the first and a preposition in the latter. Not so in the throwing example. ‘Throw up’ is also not quite inseparable: adverbs and pronominal objects can intervene, as in “She ate the live slug, but immediately threw it back up”. Feb 3 '14 at 22:28
  • +1 for providing a good answer. :) -- According to the 2002 reference grammar CGEL, the little word "up" is a preposition; and in the examples where it could be either before or after a direct object (and the two versions have the same meaning), then the word "up" is functioning as a particle (e.g. "He threw the keys down", "He threw down the keys"); where the verb allows only certain prepositions to follow it, then the verb is a prepositional verb; and it seems that the expression "threw up" with the meaning upchucked could probably be considered a type of a verbal idiom.
    – F.E.
    Feb 3 '14 at 22:52
  • This is what I meant by "phrase 1 [sounded] more natural" but then I realized that to throw up, together like that, means to vomit and how ambiguous that is. Still, there are some discussions on the comments and I can't decide on the different function of 'up' on the two sentences.
    – gibertoni
    Feb 4 '14 at 11:19

Kurama - with reference to your specific question about positioning, you may find this piece on shifting useful.


One's a preposition. One's an adverb. Threw where? Preposition Threw how? Adverb

  • I see, the second phrase really doesn't have an adverb since "up" is not right by "threw". Another thing, being that I am working with this preposition of place, is "in the air" an obligatory part of my sentence?
    – gibertoni
    Feb 3 '14 at 19:32
  • Ah - to a native speaker, the implication of the first sentence would be that she'd previously swallowed the keys. As a phrasal verb, 'up' and 'threw' would be positioned as closely as possible. In the second, 'up' relates more to the keys, so you'd put them nearer. Does this help? Feb 3 '14 at 19:47
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    This answer is totally wrong. Unless 'threw up' is the multi-word verb (= vomit), which I wouldn't use with 'her keys', 'up' is an adverb in both cases here. He walked up; up = adverb. He walked up the road; up = preposition (introducing the prepositional phrase). Both are directional rather than referring to manner. Adverbs may occur in various places in most sentences. Feb 3 '14 at 21:38
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    What @Edwin said. ‘Where’ and ‘how’ are completely irrelevant here—‘up’ always deals with ‘where’, never with ‘how’. ‘Up’ is a direction/location, not a manner. And while it can be both an adverb, a preposition, an adjective, a noun, and an interjection, it is quite unambiguously an adverb in both cases given in the question. Feb 3 '14 at 22:34
  • Actually, Janus, the distinction is relevant - see entries 3 (adverb) and 26 (preposition) here: dictionary.reference.com/browse/up?s=t Feb 3 '14 at 23:42

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