I'm aware of the difference between "pick up" and "pickup" but what grammatical purpose do the individual words serve when separated? How would you distinguish between them or classify them if you were parsing them one word at a time? The words function as a single verb but "pick" functions as a verb by itself. I presume you would say that "up" modifies its' meaning.

The context is that I'm writing a parser to mimic the functionality of text based games like Zork. If you have any thoughts on the subject​, advice, or stumbling blocks to tell me about I would love to hear from you.

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    They don't function as a single word, but as two distinct words. "Pick" is of course a verb, and "up" is a preposition.
    – BillJ
    Apr 6, 2017 at 13:28
  • Building on what @BillJ says, the preposition doesn't act as a 'modifier' on the verb but as a complement to it. And pickup, written as one word, is a noun. Apr 6, 2017 at 13:32
  • On the grammar: "pick up" is not a constituent at word level: it's a verb phrase. Verb is a word category, like noun, adjective, etc., and it’s just "pick" that is a verb: this is the word that takes verbal inflections. So we have "He picked up Ed at 5" but not *"He pick upped Ed at 5".
    – BillJ
    Apr 6, 2017 at 13:41
  • @BillJ I'm with you as far as up being a preposition and the semantic category "particle" being a piece of academic makework. Come pick me up and come pick me are completely different concepts, though, and pick up is most certainly a single phrasal verb.
    – lly
    Apr 6, 2017 at 13:42
  • @lly I wouldn't call "up" a particle here, though it would be in "He picked Ed up" ~ "He picked up Ed". But "pick up" is not a 'single verb'. Please see my last message.
    – BillJ
    Apr 6, 2017 at 13:44

2 Answers 2

  1. Pick up the pen.
  2. Pick the pen up.
  3. Pick it up.
  4. *Pick up it. (ungrammatical)

The idiomatic string pick up is often described as a separable phrasal verb (I don't believe in phrasal verbs so I don't use this term). As shown in examples (1-4) the Direct Object of the verb pick can go either before or after the word up—unless it is a pronoun, in which case it must go before it.

Because the word up can appear without a following noun phrase in such idioms, it has often been regarded an adverb here. In most (but not all) modern grammars, however, words like up are classified as prepositions, whether or not they take a noun phrase as a Complement (in the same way that verbs are still regarded as verbs whether or not they take a Direct Object). In grammars such as Oxford Modern English Grammar by Bas Aarts (2011), for example, the word up would be classified as a preposition here.

All the evidence indeed seems to show that words like up in this example are prepositions and not adverbs. For example, up can be modified by the specialised adverb right which modifies prepositions, but not adverbs:

  • He pick it right up, and ran out of the door.

Unlike adverbs, which are usually modifiable by the word very, the word up cannot be modified by very (and note that up-ness has degrees, it is semantically gradable):

  • *He picked it very up, and ran out of the door. (ungrammatical)

The verb pick, of course, remains a verb—whether or not it is used in idiomatic verb-preposition combinations.

Bert Capelle classifies words like up here as a completely different part of speech, for which he uses the term particle. Note that this is not how other writers use the word. He does not argue that such words are adverbs.

  • You have an excellent point regarding noun and pronoun relations here. Do you have any thoughts on how to derive meaning from a mixed order here? Apr 6, 2017 at 15:27
  • Strictly speaking, up in this example 'is' a preposition only by word class; syntactically it is a preposition phrase acting as a complement of pick. (What kind of complement will depend on which idiomatic sense of the pick .. up construction is intended.) Apr 6, 2017 at 15:39
  • @StoneyB Well, it's a preposition and a preposition phrase. In the same way that a one-word noun can be a noun phrase. "Preposition" is just a word category, isn't it? Apr 7, 2017 at 14:34
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    @Araucaria I think it's useful to distinguish the words--the write-outs or utterances--from the constituents, so I see it as a PP realized as a P. Apr 7, 2017 at 14:40

You seem to have a handle on it: pick is a verb and up is a preposition which has come to be understood as modifying the sense of the verb. Some grammarians will call the up a particle instead of a preposition, but it's essentially a nonsense distinction that just means 'a preposition being used in this way'.

I don't understand what benefit you plan to get from having your parser treat the parts of phrasal verbs separately. Just treat pick up as a separate verb altogether and use coding to work around pick ~ up phrasing.

  • Well, initially the question came because I am trying to imagine how to distinguish between phrases like "pick lock" and "pick up flower". Which of course begs the question of how to distinguish between "pick flower" and those others. If there is a rule that modifies the meaning of "pick" based on possible conditions I need to know it to determine whether the functional verb is "pick" or "pick up". Apr 6, 2017 at 15:26
  • When a noun is verbed 'it' (or rather the new intercategorial polyseme resulting) is called a verb, not 'a noun being used in this way'. The particles involved in multi word verbs have very distinct properties. Feb 2 at 15:25

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