I think the following sentences are all grammatical. So I am wondering whether there is a phrasal verb "rub on" that has the same meaning as "rub"-as-a-transitive-verb. If there is no phrasal verb, I guess I don't know how to describe the grammar of sentences 2 & 3 below.

  1. You should rub some lotion on your hands.

  2. You should rub on some lotion.

  3. You should rub some lotion on.

  • 1
    It's not a phrasal verb. You should rub some lotion on (yourself). In a phrasal verb, the meaning usually isn't the sum of its parts. Not the case here.
    – Tushar Raj
    Jun 19, 2015 at 10:39
  • Or 'on the spot which itches'.
    – WS2
    Jun 19, 2015 at 11:08
  • I find all three of your examples to be perfectly fine. And I'd call #2 and #3 instances of phrasal verbs. Just because it has close to the same meaning as having a true prepositional phrase doesn't mean it's not a phrasal verb.
    – Mitch
    Jun 19, 2015 at 12:22
  • Put on the lotion = put the lotion on. But put it on vs *put on it. It passes the pronoun object test for transitive phrasal verbs. Syntactic identification requires syntactic tests, not semantic ones. The meaning doesn't hafta be idiomatic, though that's common. Jun 19, 2015 at 15:02
  • No, it isn't a phrasal verb. Additionally, the preposition on should be onto here.
    – user231780
    Aug 24, 2017 at 1:36

2 Answers 2


This is a question that well illustrates the inconsistency of analyses surrounding these whotsits.

From UsingEnglish.com

Phrasal Verb: Put on {Separable (optional [except with pronouns])}

Meaning: Start wearing

Example: I PUT my coat ON [You should put some clothes on.] [Put it on.]

(choosing the obviously corresponding usage from those given)

But there is no corresponding entry for 'rub on'.

I'd say that there is exactly the same degree of cohesiveness (unitariness) between rub and on in say 'Rub some lotion on' as there is between put and on in 'Put some clothes on'. (Some would class these particles as 'intransitive prepositions', perhaps to dodge the 'MWV or not?' issue.)

An argument that they should be considered as MWV (multi-word verb) + object constructions rather than simplex verb + PP constructions is the availability of:

Put on your coat. *Put on it.

Rub on the lotion. *Rub on it.

Sit on the chair. Sit on it.

Another is the availability of simplex equivalents: 'Don your coat' / 'Apply the lotion' / *'Asseat the chair'.

However, there are grey areas in the {MWV + DO} vs {V + PP} classification debate. This one is one of the trickier ones.


'whotsits'? I know of at least 3 conflicting usages of 'phrasal verb'. The essential element is: 'Are rub on / take care of etc cohesive enough to be regarded as single lexemes?'

  • I'd say it is not obvious to a non-native speaker that put on means the same as "to wear". "If I put on the television", am I wearing it? "If I put my bag on the table" Is the table wearing the bag? So to put on a coat, does not mean I place a coat on top of a surface, not does it mean I "switch it on". In other words, put on is a phrasal verb, because it has other meanings too. Whereas rub on AFAICT has the one meaning.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 19, 2015 at 11:17
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA I avoid the term 'phrasal verb'. I've made this quite clear. Using it without defining the sense one is using is never going to be helpful. Some people think that their way is the only / correct way to use it, and rapidly get into logomachy. // The British Council Learn English site correctly says 'Often [adding a particle] gives the verb a new meaning'. // It also includes the transparent and hardly polysemous 'give back' as what it calls a 'phrasal verb'. Jun 19, 2015 at 11:54
  • It seemed to me, that you were arguing that if "put on" is a phrasal verb then why not rub on, you showed that "it" could not follow the verbal expressions for either. But I tend to see PV as expressions whose meanings are not obvious from their separate parts, "rub on" can only mean to smear something on with vigour, whereas "rub it in" is an idiom, whose meaning is not obvious.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 19, 2015 at 12:02
  • As for "give back" being classed as a phrasal verb, I would agree with you that it doesn't appear to have any other meaning beyond its most "transparent".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 19, 2015 at 12:08
  • M-W says the verb give back means retire and retreat. I did not know that.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 19, 2015 at 12:13

While Edwins's answer is excellent, and not in debate (especially the observation that these whotsits are inconsistently analysed), I would like to offer another tool for analysing them.

At least one definition of a phrasal verb includes the fact that it is an idomatic phrase.

So in deciding whether a phrase is a phrasal verb, ask yourself "is the actual meaning of the verb being used literally?". If so, it is not a phrasal verb, it's probably a verb plus preposition. If the literal meaning of the verb does not really apply, and the meaning of the phrase is idiomatic, then its a phrasal verb.

So for example in "Seeing her ex makes her break down and cry", "break down" is a phrasal verb. Nothing is literally breaking, and the direction down is not really relevant. The phrasal verb has an idiomatic meaning.

In contrast, "rub on" is not idiomatic. You are rubbing something onto something. It's pretty literal, and the meaning of "rub" is its normal meaning.

Sentences like "You should rub on some lotion" are contractions that make the a phrase appear to be a phrasal verb. But they aren't (IMHO). This sentence structure arises from

1) Implying rather than stating the target of the action.

"You should rub some lotion on yourself"


"You should rub some lotion on" (obviously, yourself)

2) Rearranging to avoid a dangling preposition

"You should rub on some lotion".

As Edwin says, this is tricky one, and you could make an argument that "rub on" is a phrasal verb that means "rub on yourself". Personally, I would not readily accept this argument. It is much more like a contraction than a phrasal verb, because it is not really idiomatic.

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