In the phrases "Creeping up the backstairs" or "Climbing up the wall",
is up only a preposition, or is it part of a phrasal verb?

  • 2
    Can we get a bit more clarity on what you mean? The short answer to your headline question is no, they're not phrasal verbs - their meaning can be recovered from the meaning of the verb + preposition. An example of a phrasal verb is look after, where it has nothing to do with taking care of something/one.
    – jimsug
    May 7, 2014 at 13:16
  • 2
    You can't say "he crept it up" or "he climbed it up", and the meaning is fairly obvious from the combination of the verb and the preposition, so: no. May 7, 2014 at 14:59
  • 1
    The definitions of 'phrasal verbs' are several and contradictory. But these two strings are V + Prep, non-unitary. Oct 7, 2021 at 18:28

1 Answer 1


The test to distinguish a

[Verb + [Prepositional Phrase]]

constituent from a

[[Phrasal Verb] + Object]

constituent uses the syntactic rule of Particle Shift, which applies only to phrasal verbs.

The test works like this: true transitive phrasal verbs like look up in its 'research' sense govern the syntactic alternation that produces these two synonymous grammatical sentences:

  • I looked up the word in a dictionary.
  • I looked the word up in a dictionary.

The "particle" (which is a question-begging term for the "preposition part" of a phrasal verb) may appear either before or after the direct object noun phrase, at the speaker's choice. There is no difference except pronunciation between these two variants. Further examples:

  • They burned up/down the barn. ~ They burned the barn up/down.
  • She drank up/down her coffee. ~ She drank her coffee up/down.

By comparison, real prepositional phrases do not allow the object to appear before the preposition:

  • He looked up the staircase, but not *He looked the staircase up.

Applying this test to the original example phrases, we find that

  • The ivy is creeping up the backstairs, but not *The ivy is creeping the backstairs up.
  • The ivy is climbing up the wall, but not *The ivy is climbing the wall up.

So the syntax lab results show that these are not phrasal verbs (because they fail the test),
but rather verbs modified by prepositional phrases.

The situation is even more definitive with a pronoun object; phrasal verbs require Particle Shift with pronoun objects, so we get very clear contrasts like

  • That's the dictionary I looked it up in
    *That's the dictionary I looked up it in.
  • *The back wall, the ivy is climbing it up
    The back wall, the ivy is climbing up it.
  • Does this mean that look after in ‘She looks after her children/them’ would not be considered a phrasal verb?
    – neubau
    May 8, 2014 at 4:12
  • Since you can't say *She looks her children after, then, yes, it's not a phrasal verb. Transitive phrasal verbs are easy to determine with this test; intransitive ones are harder because there's no direct object. But final stress (stressed particle) is a good test, too. Verb + PPhrase constructions stress the verb, rather than the preposition. May 8, 2014 at 15:25
  • 2
    There are, of course, times when because the meaning of the verb can differ, the construction can be either a phrasal verb or a verb + pp: He tore up the runway.
    – pazzo
    Jan 7, 2015 at 4:31
  • 2
    Nice example. The particle-shifted version He tore the runway up can't express fast driving, but can only express excavation. This indicates that tear up Path is a prepositional idiom, whereas tear up is a phrasal verb idiom with a completely different meaning. At least that's true when tear up is pronounced /ter/; when it's pronounced /tir/ the identically spelled phrasal verb tear up means to have one's eyes fill with tears (whether they escape to the face or not). That one's intransitive but can be identified because of the stress on up. Jan 7, 2015 at 14:27
  • I feel that 'this takes one definition of "phrasal verb" that is not universally accepted' needs adding. Claridge, in Multi-word Verbs in Early Modern English ..., seeks to clarify the situation. 'Look after' = 'mind, tend, care for' would be classed by her as a MWV. May 28, 2019 at 18:17

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