I need to know what down in this specific sentence means. I don't know if it is a preposition or an adverb.

  • 4
    At the risk of being contradicted by the professional grammarians I would say it is an adverb, qualifying the verb put. One could also say put down your pencils. Or could put down be regarded as a composite verb?
    – WS2
    Commented Oct 18, 2015 at 23:20
  • 4
    Oh boy, you've really done it now!!! :) Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 0:03
  • 4
    @WS2 It depends on whether you mean to place your pencils on the table or whether you mean to disparage them.
    – deadrat
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 0:17
  • 3
    The same part of speech as "up" in "Put your hands up."
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 0:19
  • 7
    @MaxWilliams In what dialect is "Put your pencils down" bad grammar? Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 13:01

2 Answers 2


You pays your money and you takes your choice:

  • Traditional grammar calls it an adverb: a word which modifies words which are not nouns.
    —But down plays an obligatory role in this sentence; I see no sense in which it can be said to "modify" put.

  • Some contemporary grammarians call it a particle:

    a word that
     does not belong to one of the main classes of words
     is invariable in form, and
     typically has grammatical or pragmatic meaning.
        —SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms

    —In other words, particle is a box where we dump anything which doesn't belong anywhere else. (At one time adverb served this function, but that use is no longer chic.)

  • Other modernists call it an intransitive preposition—essentially a word which can serve as a preposition phrase all by itself, without an object.

    —I like this. Down in your sentence behaves just like any other preposition phrase (on the table, in your pockets, behind your ears) would, as a complement to the verb put depicting the goal where the object of the verb ends up.

  • 1
    Good answer. I up voted it. But what about "clean up your room / clean your room up"? Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 0:45
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    @michael_timofeev That's a lot harder to sort out, because what we're dealing with is a figurative extension of up from clearly locative complement uses in collocations like pick up, sweep up to an effectively adverbial sense in of something like "completely" in collocations like eat up, tear up. Clean up seems to lie somewhere in the middle. ... But I think the 'core' sense is still locative, and the syntactic function is still complementary -- so I'd stick with calling it a preposition. Prepositions are gnarly that way in practically all contexts. Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 1:03
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    I ask, because I get asked this often in the classroom and I usually call them particles. "Up" is one that seems to be a particle often. "Down" and "off" not so much. I call them particles because they can move in the sentence and change the emphasis when they move. Interestingly, if we replace "your pencils" with "that" it seems harder to say "Put down that." It's certainly possible but seems more awkward than "Put that down." So, I think calling it a preposition is better. Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 1:12
  • 1
    "Turn on the light." vs. "Walk on the rug." -- In the former, 'on' seems more closely tied to the verb than to the object. In the latter, rearrangement to "Walk the rug on" isn't satisfactory. Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 2:55
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    While "put your pencils down" is something of a set phrase, do you really see down as obligatory here [assuming I understand what you mean by obligatory]? You could also say "put your pencils away", "put your pencils over there", "put your pencils back in your desks", etc.
    – The Photon
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 5:10

Put your pencils down.

The example that you give makes use of a multi-word verb, a phenomenon that is especially common in the English language. According to the Cambridge dictionary, "down" in your sentence would be an adverb particle, the best of both worlds of StoneyB's response. In fact, "down" is on the list of the most common adverb particles.

Specifically, "put down" is a phrasal verb, a classification of multi-word verbs. Phrasal verbs commonly take objects, and in the given example, the object would be

your pencil,

or more strictly speaking, the noun


modified by the possessive adjective "your."

The Cambridge Dictionary gives a very similar example:

Take your shoes off.

where the direct object

your shoes

splits the main verb


and the adverb particle


of the phrasal verb "take off."

Check out this link for more information on multi-word verbs: Cambridge Dictionary.

  • I don't think this is a phrasal verb. Phrasal verbs must modify the meaning of the verb they are attached to. "Take" and "take off" is a good example... "off" completely changes the whole meaning of the verb. "Put down (on the desk) is just "put the pencil downward (on the desk)". Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 19:43
  • See Put Down. Do you have a source that indicates that phrasal verbs must modify meaning?
    – user109263
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 19:48
  • 1
    I invite you to look at this page as an additional resource. It lists many usages of the phrasal verb "put down." Yes, phrasal verbs often take on many meanings, but they're not exclusively used to denote something different from the standalone verb.
    – user109263
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 19:53
  • Parsimony, and because if phrasal verbs didn't modify core meaning, they wouldn't need to be named something different other than "verb and adverb that often go together". The sentence is completely explainable without resorting to "exotic" grammar concepts. Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 20:01
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    I maintain my position and respectfully disagree, and I challenge you to find a source that supports your position. I don't see phrasal verbs as an "exotic" grammar concept. In fact, phrasal verbs seem rather straightforward. They're well-defined by many reputable sources, and in all cases, whether meaning is modified or not, the terms "take off" and "put down" are comprised of a "verb and adverb that often go together." A phrasal verb is defined as exactly that; the only difference is that "phrasal verb" communicates the same thing in fewer words. To each his own.
    – user109263
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 20:15

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