I was trying to think of some test for whether a verb/preposition combination is a phrasal verb or not, and I though of one, then immediately realised it was useless.

If you turn the combination into a passive construction, it always works.

Squatters lived in the building.

The building was lived in by squatters.


Trucks drove along the street continually.

The street was continually driven along by trucks.

Doesn't this call the whole distinction between phrasal verbs and verbs that are just followed by a prepositional phrase into question? 'Live in' and 'drive along' aren't phrasal verbs here, but they 'passivise' into transitive verbs. Does every verb/preposition become a phrasal verb in the passive voice?

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    These are simply 'prepositional passives' where the subject corresponds to the object of a preposition rather than the verb. Where are the 'transitive' verbs that you refer to? – BillJ May 29 '16 at 13:47
  • Intransitive verbs cannot be put into passive voice. (She lives in France, He sings beautifully, They wake up early, etc.) – Centaurus May 29 '16 at 13:56
  • "France was wonderful, because France was lived in by her." – Dunsanist May 30 '16 at 8:11
  • Obviously you can't turn an intransitive verb into a passive construction, because an intransitive verb has no object to be turned into a subject (in the passive). But if the object of a preposition can become the subject of a 'prepositional passive', isn't this a way of turning intransitive verbs transitive? "Squatters lived [intransitive] in the house." "The house was lived in by squatters." "The house was lived in." The supposedly intransitive verb suddenly has an object--the house (now the subject). The verb relates to 'house' and 'acts' upon it. – Dunsanist May 30 '16 at 8:18
  • So how can it become a passive construction? In the passive, the verb 'acts back' upon the subject. "The house was lived in." Either you have to treat 'lived' as transitive or take 'lived in' to be a transitive phrasal verb. But my point is that 'lived in' would not normally be regarded as a phrasal verb. – Dunsanist May 30 '16 at 8:35

While I agree with the critics that the original question is problematic because no reason is given to believe that the verb+preposition combinations of prepositional passives are actually phrasal verbs, there is still a problem here. I have looked, but so far failed to find, any evidence that passives have any distinction between phrasal and prepositional verbs.

In active transitive sentences, we can tell when we are dealing with a phrasal verb by trying to move a preposition to the right. If it can be moved to after the direct object, we know that we are dealing with a phrasal verb rather than with a prepositional phrase. But in passives, we obviously can't do this, because there is not any object to move a preposition/particle to the right of.

So, is there any difference in mobility between the particle of a phrasal verb and the preposition of a prepositional passive? If not, my answer is a tentative 'yes' to Dunsanist's question "Doesn't this call the whole distinction between phrasal verbs and verbs that are just followed by a prepositional phrase into question?"


Does every verb/preposition become a phrasal verb in the passive voice?


First, your examples are not phrasal verbs, but prepositional passives.

Second, you can't make a prepositional passive from every sentence containing an intransitive verb and a prepositional phrase. The examples with a * below are incorrect.

She slept in the bed.
The bed was slept in by her.
She slept in the nude.
*The nude was slept in by her.

She sang to him.
He was sung to by her.
She sang without accompaniment.
*Accompaniment was sung without by her.

  • "She slept in the bed." "She slept in the nude." Surely considered grammatically the same? So if you can't say "The nude was slept in by her" it is surely because of the sense of it, rather than a grammatical problem. "Slept in the nude" is an idiom, and "The nude was slept in by her" is stretching the idiom way too far. But grammatically, what's the problem? And "Accompaniment was sung without" is clunky because you are making a subject of something that wasn't there. But again, grammatically not a problem. Sometimes things don't work because of sense, not grammar. – Dunsanist May 30 '16 at 8:08
  • Accompaniment was sung with by her doesn't work either. Nor does A guitar was sung with by her. – Peter Shor May 30 '16 at 11:57
  • Again, they're just super clunky. Not ungrammatical. Their meaning is clear and unambiguous. "His heart was played with by her." "A guitar was sung to by her" is the better usage, and pretty uncontroversial (but still clunky). – Dunsanist May 30 '16 at 12:21
  • There lots are of sentences completely ungrammatical meaning of whom is clear and unambiguous. That's not a good criterion. – Peter Shor May 30 '16 at 12:40
  • I meant 'clear and unambiguous by the grammatical and syntactical rules.' The sentences can easily be returned to the active voice without any problems. – Dunsanist May 31 '16 at 5:39

The Original Poster's question looks interesting at first sight, but it is based on a superficial understanding of what a passive is.

A passive is not merely a construction where the Direct Object of an active sentence becomes the Subject of a passive sentence. Many types of phrase and clause can become the Subject of passive sentences. These phrases can also have many different types of syntactic function in the active voice sentences apart from being Direct Objects. For example they can be Indirect Objects, Complements of Prepositions, or, arguably, Subjects of clauses embedded within the matrix clause. There is no syntactic rule that the Subject of a passive sentence is the Direct Object of a verb in some active voice version of the sentence.

For this reason the fact that some noun phrase following a preposition in an active sentence can become the Subject of a passive sentence is no indication that it is the Direct Object of a verb in the original sentence.

Of course, many modern grammars do not recognise such a thing as a phrasal verb. They regard all such idioms as merely being verb plus preposition combinations.


Okay, so to answer my own question (tentatively) because a comment would be too short…

An intransitive verb like 'died' can't have an object.

"An old man died in that bed."

But nevertheless, something has happened in or to the bed, so it is the object of the preposition. And the proposition relates to the verb (because the verb is what happened). And in the passive, that object can become the subject.

"That bed was died in by an old man."

The verb is still there and the preposition is still there, and together they convey the meaning. So it seems to me that in 'prepositional passives' all verbs behave kind of like phrasal verbs. Which to me means that the distinction between the object of a verb and the object of a preposition is fuzzy, which again calls into question the distinction between 'phrasal verbs' and 'verb plus preposition'.

If you say a phrasal verb has to have a meaning distinct from the individual parts, (like 'look after someone') all that really means is that you are working with metaphor, rather than literal meaning. And I can't see that that is very grammatically significant.

  • Commenting on my own answer to my own question…"That bed was died by an old man" doesn't work. It has to be 'died in'. Is there a term for this construction in a 'prepositional passive', and how is it distinct from a phrasal verb? – Dunsanist May 30 '16 at 9:20
  • Okay, I've just discovered the terms 'agent' and 'patient'. So essentially the old man is the agent and the bed is a kind of pseudo-patient, because something has happened in or to it. So when a verb is intransitive, English can regard the object of a preposition relating to the verb as a 'patient'. Which means the intransitive verb/preposition combination behaves like a transitive phrasal verb. Which takes me back to my original point. – Dunsanist May 30 '16 at 9:58
  • "I sat on him." 'sat on' is not a phrasal verb by any conventional criterion. But calling 'him' an indirect object is somewhat bizarre. Which English acknowledges by allowing us to say "He was sat on." – Dunsanist Jun 2 '16 at 12:22

Here I go again…

So to sum up: In a sentence with an intransitive verb, and therefore no direct object, English is willing to regard the object of a prepositional phrase to the verb as the 'patient', or receiver of the verb's action (as moderated by the preposition). This can be shown by the fact that the 'patient' becomes the subject of a passive construction.

"Squatters lived in that house." "That house was lived in by squatters." The house is the patient, and receives the action 'lived in'.

Sometimes this practice doesn't work. "Sam struck in the heat of the moment." "The heat of the moment was struck in by Sam." But my contention would be that this is just massively clunky, an abuse of a metaphor, rather than ungrammatical. There's simply nothing useful achieved by the construction, it is stretched and absurd (but not ungrammatical).

To my mind, this practice of treating the object of a preposition as the 'patient' blurs and calls into question three distinctions:

  1. Between direct object and object of a preposition.

  2. Between transitive and intransitive verbs.

  3. Between 'phrasal verbs' and any other combination of verb/preposition.

To state it one more time: in "The students lived in the house" the house receives the action (is the patient), 'lived in' is the complete verb and is transitive. Therefore, we can change it to "The house was lived in by the students." OR just "The house was lived in."

I think this means that all verb/preposition combinations are teetering on the edge of being phrasal verbs, which is why phrasal verbs are so common. It's just that some tip over into metaphor, and take on a life of their own.

After all, if I say "He shot down the plane", is 'shot down' really metaphoric, or is it easy to understand from its constituents? I think it's somewhere in between. But it is definitely a phrasal verb because you couldn't say "He shot bullets down the plane". "Down the plane" is not a prepositional phrase here. 'Shot down' is a transitive phrasal verb. But then, I would say so is 'lived in' or 'died in'. Where you draw the line is largely arbitrary.

Now argue with me...

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    Do you intend to waste everyone's time with pointless implausible arguments, just as you did on Englishforums.com recently? – BillJ May 30 '16 at 12:15
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    One school of grammar reasons as follows – He shot down the plane: phrasal verb, because you can say he shot the plane down; He lived in the house: not a phrasal verb because you can't say he lived the house in. Nice, crisp line. – Peter Shor May 30 '16 at 12:35
  • @Peter Shor But how can "shot down" in He shot down the plane be a phrasal verb. The very fact that you can separate the two words as in He shot the plane down shows that it is not a syntactic constituent. The most plausible analysis then is He [shot] [down the plane], not He [shot down] [the plane]. – BillJ May 30 '16 at 12:57
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    @Peter Shor To add to my last comment, I dislike the term 'phrasal verb' since it would mean that the preposition has come to be incorporated into the verb instead of heading a PP. In "shot down" it's “shot" that is a verb: this is the word that takes the verbal inflections. A clear example is They fell out with Ed where we have They had fallen out with Ed, not *They had fall outed with Ed. – BillJ May 30 '16 at 13:24
  • Most English verbs are compounds where only one part is inflected. "I had talked," "I have talked," "I will have talked." The only pointless implausible argument here is you claiming that there is no such thing as a phrasal verb. – Dunsanist May 31 '16 at 5:50

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