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The verb to fall strongly implies the direction down, but in some circumstances it is obligatory (in StdAmEng) to include the word “down.” The example I have in mind right now is

I fall down the stairs
* I fall the stairs

Formally speaking, what’s going on here? Note that this is not the same as

I fall [down] [to/on/...] the ground
* I fall [down] the ground

Here down is optional (it sounds a bit redundant to my ear, but neither option is wrong), and [preposition] the ground is a normal prepositional phrase. In other words, I don’t think down is acting as a preposition in “I fall down the stairs.”

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    Down in the phrase He fell down the stairs is an adverb, as is off in the following: She fell off her bicycle. Although in both instances the person ends up on the ground, in the latter we don't normally say: "She fell down from her bicycle". Consider someone who falls down on their knees, you'd never say: "fall onto their knees". – Mari-Lou A Jun 18 '14 at 19:17
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    Sure you would: "I fall on my knees to the Father of Jesus ..." from the Catholic hymn "Dwelling Place" by John Foley. Reference hymnary.org/text/i_fall_on_my_knees_to_the_father_of – Matt Gutting Jun 18 '14 at 21:23
  • @Mari-LouA I’m pretty sure that off her bicycle is a prepositional phrase, just as from her bicycle is. You cannot otherwise account for the substantive following. Consider “The spider fell off him”, for example. The spider certainly did not fell him in an off direction; it fell from him. If you construe off to be an adverb, you’re stuck with fall somehow becoming transitive (which it isn’t), or else you have an adverb that takes a substantive complement (and in the oblique case where available, as pronominally) — which is what we call a preposition. – tchrist Jun 25 '14 at 4:45
4

to fall down is a bipartite verb. Loads of English verbs are bipartite, including:

  • to throw out
  • to pick up
  • to fill in
  • to see through
  • to figure out
  • to show off
  • to go away
  • to write up

These verbs all have distinct senses compared to the plain verbs.

To fall and to fall down have very similar meanings, but they are distinct. As outis nihil noted, 'to fall down the stairs' is very different to 'to fall on the stairs'. On the stairs is a locative adjunct, it is an optional phrase telling you where the action happened. To fall means that someone or thing that was standing collapsed under gravity. To fall down the stairs means that someone collapsed and tumbled down a stair case - they didn't collapse and stay on a single step. You can also fall down escalators and hills and Egyptian pyramids, anything you can tumble down! So while to fall is intransitive, to fall down is transitive.

If you're interested in reading more about bipartite verbs this is a good article (and where I got the examples from): The bipartite structure of verbs cross-linguistically, or Why Mary can't "exhibit John her paintings" by Heidi Harley.

  • I tend to think that X-bar theory is complete bullshit -- by which I mean both that I don't for a moment believe that it describes any part of the actual mechanism used by the brain to process language, and that as an abstract model it's ridiculously impoverished, such that its adherents have to pile epicycles on top of it if they're serious about capturing real language phenomena. That article is a beautiful demonstration of the latter complaint - the whole "this restriction to Germanic verbs isn't really a morphophonological constraint" nonsense most obviously... (1/2) – zwol Jun 25 '14 at 2:14
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    ... but I could equally complain about the tortured sentence structure diagrams on page one if I wanted ... anyway, leaving the analysis aside, the description of bipartite verbs strictly as phenomenon is well-done, and I like your answer to my original question a lot better than any of the others; it gets at why one construction is intransitive and the other not. (2/2) – zwol Jun 25 '14 at 2:17
  • @Zack I don't care too much for syntactic theories these days, this just happened to be the one article on bipartites I'd already read. Still, I think there's good reason to analyse verbs as a light verb + a content-rich verb; lots of various semantic theories have things like CAUSE(). – curiousdannii Jun 25 '14 at 2:21
  • I used to hang with a bunch of construction grammarians; that theory has sort of the opposite problem, being too flexible (also, while I think it's not as bad as anything Chomsky's put out there, it too has at best only a handwavey connection to things neurons might plausibly be doing). I do agree that the decomposition of (many) action verbs into method + consequence components seems like it has legs. – zwol Jun 25 '14 at 2:26
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    @tchrist I don't think you can 'fall down a chasm', that sounds odd to me. I'd say 'fall into a chasm' instead. 'fall to your knees/fall before' is another idiom, as is 'fall for a pretty face'. I think you've got lots of closely related but distinct senses in those examples. – curiousdannii Jun 25 '14 at 5:01
6

In English, an intransitive verb is a verb that does not take a direct object. "To fall" is quite simply an intransitive verb. That's pretty much all there is to it.

Other intransitive verbs include "to go", "to happen" and "to run" (in the sense of quickly moving, as opposed to "to run" in the sense of operating a machine, or an organization). It is not correct to say "I go market" because a preposition is required: "I go to market". "I fell to the ground."

ETA: I'm racking my brain, Zack, trying to figure out how to give a more "complete" answer. It is a matter of basic grammar. Intransitivity means that the verb does not take a direct object. That means that if it has an object at all, it must be indirect. That's why the preposition is required: it signifies an indirect object. It happens that many intransitive verbs pertain to motion, and for that reason the indirect object's prepositions tend to those that pertain to motion: to; up; down; and so forth.

Can you "fall the duck"? Can you "run the sidewalk"? That's what it would take to omit the preposition and pretend the verbs "fall" and "run" were transitive. Do you not see that there is nothing further to say about it?

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    Great answer. I'd just add that "to fall down the stairs" means something different from "to fall on the stairs." – outis nihil Jun 18 '14 at 19:06
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    @Zack - Gravity. It's hard to fall up the stairs. (Seriously, though, any preposition will work. For example, I might say, "I fell off the stairs," if I took a misstep on a small set of stairs with no handrail, in the same way I could say, "I fell off the stepladder." I could also say, "I fell to the stairs, if I tripped over a skateboard in the basement and landed at the foot of the staircase. However, those are relatively rare cases; most of the time, when we fall around the stairs, we are falling down the stairs.) – J.R. Jun 18 '14 at 19:52
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    As Terry Pratchett puts it, gravity is a hard habit to break. – John Lawler Jun 18 '14 at 19:58
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    +1 But You can say I ran home. To clarify your answer a bit, down the stairs is an adverbial phrase. Stairs, being a noun, needs a preposition to make it adverbial. Home has its own adverbial sense. – bib Jun 18 '14 at 20:07
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    @Cyberherbalist That is how I first thought about it. But numerous dictionaries list home as an adverb on its own. See, e.g., ODO. – bib Jun 19 '14 at 16:49
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To "fell" something is to chop it down. As in "I felled a tree."

"Fell" is also the past tense of "fall." But even in this context, you can't talk about "falling" the stairs. You need a preposition, to fall down the stairs, or even to fall from the stairs.

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