In sentences with the combination “verb + preposition + noun phrase” is there a procedure to identify whether it is a phrasal verb + object or a verb + prepositional phrase? or does it solely depend on the meaning?

For example consider these two examples from which I think the first one has a phrasal verb and the second one a prepositional phrase:

  1. She always talks about her childhood friends

  2. She fell from her bicycle

I think in the first example “talk about” is the verb and “her childhood friends” the object. As for the second example, I think “fell” should be the verb and “from her bicycle” a prepositional phrase.

The two examples seem a lot similar to me and the fact that one has an object and one doesn’t is somehow unexplainable to me.


If the particle cannot be an adverb, it must be a preposition. An example: "from" cannot be an adverb. So when a verb is used with "from", the "from" must be a preposition. That settles your "fell from" example: "from her bicycle" is a preposition-phrase.

Failing that, one way to tell the difference is to try using a pronoun as a direct object. If the particle is an adverb, the direct-object pronoun must go between the verb and the adverb-particle.

Adapting your Example 1:

Example 1a: She's always talking about them

Example 1b: *She's always talking them about

1b fails, so "about" in this sentence can't be an adverb; it must be a preposition. So "about them" is a preposition-phrase. By contrast, with regard to a misbehaving child and her toys,

Example 3a: *She's always throwing about them

Example 3b: She's always throwing them about

3a fails, so "about" in this sentence can't be a preposition; it must be an adverb. So the verb is "throw [something] about".

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