In this post, I am asking for constituency tests to assist me in writing exercises about phrasal verbs for non-native speakers of English. I respectfully ask that only native speakers answer the questions in this post.

Some background --- I am from the U.S. I am currently working as a private English tutor in Brazil. A common request from my students is an explanation of phrasal verbs. I have looked at a variety of materials on the subject, and have been thoroughly dissatisfied with all of them. The materials are either extremely superficial (read: dodging the issue) or so verbose that my students would be terrified. None of them state how they decided what is a phrasal verb and what is not with any clarity. One book by a respected publisher actually listed verbs that take both a direct and an indirect object as phrasal verbs. I turned to the academic literature on phrasal verbs. There is plenty of discussion and controversy, but for the purposes of my exercises I chose to follow the strategy outlined in Clayton Darwin and Loretta Gray's article "Going after the Phrasal Verb: An Alternative Approach to Classification" (TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1).

Following Darwin and Gray's strategy has proved helpful for nearly all of the verbs that I want to cover. However, there are a few that I am uncertain about. Below I have written some sentences based on their strategy, with the name of the test after each item. Please indicate your judgment of the sentence. Thank you in advance for your help.

  • 2 = Sounds OK
  • 1 = Iffy
  • 0 = Yuck!

A. I figured on $1000 for my vacation and on $500 for my cell phone. (particle repetition test)

B. On how much was he figuring? (fronting test)

C. What was the amount of money on which she was figuring? (relative clause test)

D. Mary figured and bet on a good turnout for the event. (verb insertion test)

E. A thief broke into my car and into my house. (particle repetition test)

F. Into what building did the thief break? (fronting test)

G. A thief broke silently into our building. (adverb insertion)

  • 1
    Hello, kcscarp. Muddy waters indeed. Can you add the definitions Darwin & Gray use for 'phrasal verb' and 'prepositional verb'? The terminology itself is far from standard. / The key issue is the degree of cohesion between simplex verb and preposition/particle/whatever. And the key finding is that this is often very hard to specify, unless the string is obviously at one extreme (hove to) or the other (went to London)*. It's probably far more necessary to know which individual tests have which results for a given string than producing an overall ranking. Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 15:43
  • *Even with what I'd call a prototypical V + PP, He went to London, 'To where did he go?' is unidiomatic. But I'll oblige (using a 5-point Likert-like scale): 1.5, 0.5, 0.5, 0 [mean 0.63] // 1.5, 1, 0.5 [mean 1]. And yes, I'd say that 'figure on' is more cohesive than 'break into'. But I might tweak my estimates on another day. // 'Multi-word Verbs in Early Modern English: A Corpus-based Study' by Claudia Claridge has a good overview of treatments. Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 16:05
  • Are these tests supposed to show that it is a phrasal verb or that it isn't?
    – Xanne
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 17:18
  • Edwin, these are muddy waters indeed. Darwin & Gray define a phrasal verb as a one-word verb plus a morphologically invariant particle. "Prepositional verb" is not a term that they use, but one I borrowed from elsewhere to indicate a verb + preposition combination. As you said, the key issue is the degree to which the two words are behaving as a cohesive unit. I am trying to decide if "on" in "figure on" and "into" in "break into" are behaving as prepositions or not. Thanks for the recommendation, I will check out the Claridge paper.
    – kcscarp
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 18:21
  • Xanne, yes, they are. All of the tests I listed above are grammatical for prepositions, but not particles. For particle repetition, you can say, "I brought coffee on one tray and tea on another tray, but not *"I looked up your first name and up your last name."
    – kcscarp
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 18:26

3 Answers 3


Probably most linguists understand "phrasal verb" to refer to constructions in which a combination of verb and "particle" (often also used elsewhere as a preposition) is a constituent. E.g., the ambiguous "John looked up the street", which in different senses has either the structure (1), meaning "found in some compendium of streets" or (2) "glanced in a certain direction along a street":

(1) John [looked up] the street.  
(2) John looked [up the street].  

Many tests of constituent structure confirm the constituent structures in (1) and (2). For instance, the "look up" in (1) could be conjoined with another verb, as in "John [looked up and found] the street." So evidently in (1), "look up" is a verb, since it can be conjoined with a verb. Something that is both a phrase and a verb is a "phrasal verb" -- hence the term. (2), on the other hand, has a simple verb and prepositional phrase.

The test sentences that you asked about seem to be focused on whether there is a prepositional phrase present, not really whether there is a phrasal verb.

The definitive reference on this construction in English is probably still Bruce Fraser's 1965 MIT dissertation and later revisions of it, The verb particle combination in English.

  • Your sentences are exactly my point: one is two-word verb, a verb plus a preposition that functions as a single unit versus the other which is a verb + a prepositional phrase. I just explained mine differently.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 23:36

The Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English (p123) separates what it calls 'multi-word lexical verbs' into four classes:

  • phrasal verbs
  • prepositional verbs
  • phrasal-prepositional verbs
  • other multi-word verb constructions

The Collins Cobuild Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs, on the other hand, includes examples of all four MWV types, grouping them together as 'verbs with adverbial or prepositional particles' (Foreword, pIV). And another Collins Cobuild publication, Collins Cobuild English Usage, in its entry on Phrasal Verbs (p504) states:

A phrasal verb is a combination of a verb and an adverb, a verb and a preposition, or a verb, an adverb, and a preposition, which together have a single meaning.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (p274), conversely, rejects 'phrasal verb' altogether as a useful designation:

The term 'phrasal verb' implies that the combinations concerned [i.e. 'referred to', 'put in', 'look forward to', 'paid tribute to'] form syntactic constituents belonging to the category verb. The view taken here, however, is that [these expressions], despite their idiomatic interpretations, do not form syntactic constituents. ... It is for this reason that we do not use the term 'phrasal verb' in this grammar.

There follows a long discussion of (6.1) Prepositional verbs, (6.2) 'Verb-particle-object' constructions, (6.3) Verbal idioms containing intransitive prepositions, (6.4) Verbal idioms containing NP + transitive prepositions, (6.5) Other types of verbal idiom

Teachers need to decide for each of the different groups of students they have in front of them whether it is enough to call all MWVs 'phrasal verbs', reject the term altogether, or if it is more helpful to explicitly distinguish among them as do the Longman Grammar and CGEL.

If the latter approach is to be adopted then the Longman Grammar has some useful tests and a full discussion of the differences. The analysis extends over 10 pages and so it is too long to reproduce here, but the authors also acknowledge the limitations of such tests:

Comparing these features does not always result in clear-cut distinctions between all multi-word verb combinations. Many combinations can function as more than one type, depending on the context. Further, some combinations can be interpreted as belonging to more than one category.

In my view, students' primary focus should be on the comprehension and use of MWVs and not on their classification. Few students will have difficulty with the sentence:

The thief broke into my car,

but may well do so with the sentence:

The thief broke into song.

They need to be taught to spot the idiomatic MWVs in what they hear or read and how to look them up efficiently in the dictionary of their choice. They also need to know how to use their dictionary or online resources to learn how and when to use MWVs in their own writing and conversation.

So, for example, whether or not students need to know that the MWV 'go on about' would be classifed by Longman Grammar as a 'phrasal-prepositional verb' is a matter for the teacher to determine. But as well as learning its meaning, students could usefully learn that for this particular MWV an adverb can be inserted between 'on' and 'about' (e.g. 'She went on forever about her back problems').

Students should also learn that the verb is informal (and most often expresses mild disapproval). It should not be used in academic text, and they would be best advised not to ask their boss or teacher: 'What are you going on about?'.

As to your own sentences and tests, only D (Mary figured and bet on a good turnout for the event) would give me pause for thought if I encountered it in what I read or heard.

  • None of this explains the practicality of how to analyse and explain this to a student.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 17, 2017 at 16:50
  • 1
    @Lambie. As far as I understand the OP's question, he/she has already decided on Darwin and Gray's analysis and is simply asking for native-speaker judgment on the acceptability of the seven sentences listed as based on D & G's tests. I gave my response in the last sentence of my answer. As well as this, my answer provides a little evidence of the 'controversy' on the classification issue to which the OP refers. My answer also suggests that the terminology and classification of MWVs is of lesser important than a focus on meaning and usage. I admit that this advice was not solicited by the OP.
    – Shoe
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 13:08
  • Is that right? I thought it was this: "None of them state how they decided what is a phrasal verb and what is not with any clarity." Correction: "None of them state how they decide what a phrasal verb is and is not with any clarity". [indirect speech] "So, I tried to provide, as I said, a tool to help students figure them out. The "fronting" test for "I figured on $1,000 for my vacation" can be: On what amount did you figure for your vacation? Which works for "figure" in AmE. To figure [on an amount].
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 15:12

Ok, so basically, we are dealing with: figure and break.

Let's take "break into something" first. To break into a building or place is a phrasal verb but it has an implied prepositional phrase.

It is useful to tell students about this. Is there an implied prepositional phrase in the sentence? If so, the phrasal verb is transitive. It can take a direct object. Some manuals call these "prepositional verbs".

  • Break |into a place|. In many cases (let's not say all!), this type of verb is difficult to distinguish for non-natives from what I prefer to call a two-word verb.

For example: The bamboo fishing rod broke apart from the weight of the fish. That is a two-word verb.

A two-word verb would be: to take off [airplane or person], break down [machine]. If I say: "The car broke down on the highway", there is no implied prepositional phrase. Indeed, there is break down + a separate prepositional phrase.

To figure on [an amount] is really like to break [into a place]. Students cannot memorize to "figure on" as a two-word verb. Because consider this: to bet on [an amount]. For me, seeing these two verbs as "figure" or "bet" with "on" have an implied preposition phrase. to figure [on an amount or on a turnout] and to bet [on a horse or a turnout].

Please note: this is by far not the whole story about any of this. I just find that for teaching purposes, the idea of the prepositional phrase versus stand alone two-word verbs is a useful teaching tool.


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