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Many phrasal verbs such as look up or knock out typically allow the object to be placed between the verb and proposition or to be placed afterward. For example,

You can look my brother up on Google.
You can look up my brother on Google.
Knock your opponent out!
Knock out your opponent!

However, when the object is a pronoun, this doesn't seem to hold:

You can look me up on Google.
*You can look up me on Google.
Knock him out!
*Knock out him!

Why is there this discrepancy? Is there something syntactically special about pronouns that distinguish them from other noun phrases? Why can they only be placed in the middle of the verb phrase?

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    Well, you can. By way of advising someone who's about to hit the wrong person, for example - Don't knock out her, you idiot! Knock out him! – FumbleFingers Jun 4 '15 at 2:44
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    @FumbleFingers, I'd look at you funny if you said it that way; I'd expect "Don't knock her out! Knock him out!" – Hellion Jun 4 '15 at 2:47
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    And there's that song by A-Ha, which tries to have it both ways; "Take on me, take me on..," metrolyrics.com/take-on-me-lyrics-aha.html – Brian Hitchcock Jun 4 '15 at 7:15
  • MWVs with 'over' seem to offer more choice: Post your letter, and I'll walk with you while we talk over it. _ "Post Haste" by R.M. Ballantyne. // 'Look over_Meaning: Inspect_Example: They came to LOOK the house OVER with a view to buying it. ... [MWV; transitive] Separable [optional]' / there are many examples of 'look over it', eg: if in doubt, get a friend (with proven grammar skills) to look over it [ http://Mildred Talabi ] – Edwin Ashworth Jun 4 '15 at 8:54
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    @EdwinAshworth MWV = multi-word verbs (I had to look that up) Is that expression going to replace "phrasal verbs" in the future? – Mari-Lou A Jun 4 '15 at 9:25
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It's not that you 'can't place pronouns after any phrasal verb'. It only happens with certain ones.

There are two types of phrasal verbs:

  1. prepositional verbs
  2. particle verbs

If the construction is verb + preposition, the object, noun or pronoun can't split the phrasal verb:

  • You should stand by your friend¹
  • You should stand by him

But not

  • *You should stand your friend by.
  • *You should stand him by.

These constructions are wrong because the preposition must come first to introduce the prepositional phrase.


If the construction is verb + particle, the object can split the phrsal verb if it's a noun, and must split it if it's a pronoun

  • You should think over the matter.²
  • You should think the matter over.

  • You should think it over.

  • but not, *You should think over it.

The last construction isn't used because the it causes confusion. Over could be interpreted as a preposition, which it isn't. Since there isn't an NP to disambiguate that it is a matter (and not a table), we place the pronoun before the particle.


EDIT: I should make it clear that you can't put a pronoun after a particle verb.

@Mari suggested that both of these are right but mean different things

  • "He looked me over"
  • "He looked over me"

Both are correct, but only the first one uses the phrasal verb 'look over'. The second sentence doesn't have a phrasal verb, and uses 'look' and 'over' in their normal senses. The construct has a valid meaning in this case, but it might not be so in case of every particle verb.

Essentialy, if you add the pronoun after the particle, it would either be nonsensical or mean something completely different than the phrasal verb sense intended.


¹ by is a preposition here, introducing the PP 'by your friend'

² over is a particle here, because it does not take a complement

  • Is after a preposition or a particle in the phrasal verb take after ? I can say "She takes after her father" but not "She takes her father after". So... if I'm understanding this correctly, after must be a preposition. I can see that by in the expression stand by is a preposition, meaning "next to", or "adjacent". But take after means to resemble or look like someone. Why is after (in "take after") a preposition and not a particle? – Mari-Lou A Jun 4 '15 at 8:49
  • How do you tell when over is a preposition or a particle? "To look over" I can say: "He looked me over" and "He looked over me" but they mean something quite different. – Mari-Lou A Jun 4 '15 at 8:51
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    @Mari-Lou A This usage of the term 'particle' was introduced because people realised that to call say 'off' an adverb in 'the plane took off' is (unless one is prepared to use over-vague terminology) nonsensical, as the plane is hardly 'taking in an off way', 'taking at off time', 'taking to off' ... do not make sense: the 'off' does not modify the action of the verb. Rather, 'take off' is a new lexical item, different in meaning from the constituent orthographic words. For cohesive pairings (etc), it makes more sense to use the term 'multi-word verb' (trans or intrans), and leave it at that. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 4 '15 at 9:02
  • The real difficulty lies in deciding whether the 'verb + adverby-thingy' or 'verb [+ adverby-thingy] + prepositiony-thingy' is 'cohesive' enough to be considered as a single lexeme. Some strings retain a lot of the senses of the simplex verb and whotsit/s; others have very different meanings. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 4 '15 at 9:06
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    @Mari-Lou A If you look in the lit, you will find that the term 'phrasal verb' is not used consistently, even by linguists. Many in the ESL camp used the term one particular way, for instance, perhaps not realising that certain linguists used it rather (and confusingly) differently. I use MWV as a blanket term to include opaquely ... fairly transparently idiomatic usages; verb + adverby thing, verb + prepositiony thing etc, verb + nouny thing (eg take stock of); verb + verby (+ perhaps prepositiony thing) thing (make do with). This area is highly complex; search for eg 'Claridge' (eg here). – Edwin Ashworth Jun 4 '15 at 9:53

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