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1) put the phone down = put down the phone

2) put a baby down = put down a baby.

3) put an amendment down = put down an amendment.

Does the preposition 'down' in those phrasal verbs have a flexible position around the object?

If not, why not?

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  • When one puts down something which is living, it ceases to live. One puts down an animal; putting down a baby might be seen as a bit barbaric.
    – Andrew Leach
    Aug 19, 2015 at 15:04
  • In that phrasal verb, I did mean to say "I put a baby to bed". Aug 19, 2015 at 15:06
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    @Andrew: In the U.S., if one is holding a puppy, one can put it down without killing it. I am sure that this is true in the U.K. as well. I also think there's a U.S. idiom "put a baby down" meaning to get him to go to sleep in his bed/crib, although I can't find any examples of it on the web, so it may be rare. Aug 19, 2015 at 15:11
  • @Andrew: Found it! "I put Jimmy down for a nap after lunch." Here. Aug 19, 2015 at 15:17
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    Yes but moving the object can change the meaning; we put babies down (=put to bed) in the UK too. What we don't do is put down babies.
    – Andrew Leach
    Aug 19, 2015 at 15:24

2 Answers 2

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As user 5jj posted on usingenglish.com...

Unfortunately for learners, there are many different types of what are loosely called 'phrasal verbs'.

He identifies Verb + Preposition, Verb + particle, Prepositional Verb, Phrasal Verb, Intransitive verbs followed by a particle/adverb, and Intransitive phrasal verbs as the 6 main subtypes, each with different constraints on how they can be validly used.

But probably the main constraint for most constructions called "phrasal verbs" is that if there's an object, and if that object is expressed as a pronoun, it must appear between the verb and the preposition. Thus...

She told him off (valid idiomatic phrasal verb meaning She rebuked him)
She told off him (not a valid construction)


By my definition of "phrasal verb", OP's examples #1 and #3 simply aren't (they're just ordinary "literal" usages). The true phrasal verb put down has two possible primary senses...

Mary put down the old dog (she either denigrated or euthanized it)
She put it down (valid phrasal verb as above, or the literal sense placed [in a lower position])
She put down it (never valid)

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  • Here, essentially, the usage in (1) is literal and transitive (put = place) with locative/directional particle, optionally separable from the verb for non-pronouns. But 'run the kids over' (accepting 'run' as virtually literal) is mandatorily separable in the happier sense. // (3) is metaphorical (put down = table) and transitive, and again optionally separable. // (2) is ambiguous. 'Put down' with the literal transitive sense here is optionally separable, as in (1), but with the separated version preferred because the unseparated carries the 'euthanise' sense more strongly.... Oct 19, 2015 at 7:21
  • However, the metaphorical euthanise sense (and the denigrate sense) is optionally separable. Oct 19, 2015 at 7:23
  • Interesting bit about the pronoun. I suppose that explains why we can say, "She put down Jim" (meaning, she insulted Jim), but we can't say, "She put down him."
    – J.R.
    Feb 17, 2016 at 15:23
  • @J.R.: In the right context you can just about put the pronoun at the end in a phrasal verb usage. My neighbour is so mean he put his sick dog down rather than pay the vet for antibiotics. Grrrr! I'd like to put down him! Feb 17, 2016 at 15:29
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The compound particle can often change its place before or after an object.

  • Put on your hat - Put your hat on
  • Turn off the heating - Turn the heating off
  • Switch on the radio - Switch the radio off
  • Put down that gun - Put that gun down
  • Put up your hands -Put your hands up

Up to now I haven't found the rule that defines exactly when the changing is possible. I think only with some very frequent particles.

In some cases this changing of place is not possible. Modern dictionaries indicate when the particle can change place with a special sign.

Oald has a vertical stroke with two arrow-heads on both sides. http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/put-up

I've just consulted the Longman grammar by Alexander to see what he says. The grammar point is treated in section 8.28 and I see that is quite a tricky problem.

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