Currently reading "A Student's Introduction to English Grammar" by Geoffrey K. Pullum and Rodney Huddleston.

Consider the following contrast between the phrasal verbs ask for and come across.

"The information for which I asked."—is given as grammatical.

"The information across which I came."—is given as ungrammatical, as in this case preposition fronting is not allowed.

Are there any good dictionaries which clearly state when preposition fronting is allowed? None of the freely available ones seem to have this feature (Merriam-Webster, Macmillan, Oxfordlearnersdictionaries), not even the web version of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Edit in response to comments: In the example above, 'across' is correctly classified as a preposition. You can see that it can be a complement for a noun phrase in the example: "My travels across the ocean have been perilous."

  • The idea that anything in English is 'allowed' or 'not allowed' is inappropriate. France has an official Academy which rules on what is 'allowed'. No Anglophone country has such a body and there is no United Anglophone Nations either. In general, this so-called 'fronting' is dying out. That is, fewer people 'do it' Churchill himself retorted to a critic who dared to correct his failure to obey the then normal 'fronting, retorted: "That is the sort of pedantry up with which I will not put." He was obviously deeply affronted.
    – Tuffy
    May 9, 2021 at 0:08
  • My interest is academical, not to advance any prescriptivist approach. In the reference I am citing above, the authors give an example of preposition fronting which they consider ungrammatical. I am simply curious if this has been standardised in any way. May 9, 2021 at 0:19
  • @BenjaminHarman Thank you for your answer! In my comments, I will abbreviate by SIEG the reference 'Student's Introduction to English Grammar' from my original question. I have several comments: 1. You state "'Asked' is different because 'asked for' isn't a phrasal verb". This is one of the points where your analysis is inconsistent. You can check that "ask for" is also defined as a phrasal verb (oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/…). May 9, 2021 at 1:48
  • @BenjaminHarman 2. I am using here the SIEG framework: 'across' is correctly classified as a preposition. This is because it satisfies many syntactic criteria (there are more than 10, so I can't go over them here, but you can look at the book I mentioned if you are curious). In particular, [across which I came] is a prepositional phrase headed by the preposition across, and can serve as dependent of noun phrases, verbs and as predicative complement for the verb 'to be'. May 9, 2021 at 1:54
  • 3. In SIEG, phrasal verbs are not usually treated as unitary blocks, so it does not make sense to claim that 'across' is part of the verb. Again, there are many fascinating reasons for this, the bottom line is that a phrasal verb is an idiom, that does not mean it should be treated as a indivisible component in syntactic analysis. I already pointed to the source that "ask for" is a phrasal verb. One piece of evidence that it should not be analysed syntactically as one building block is the phrase: "Ask him for the groceries". May 9, 2021 at 1:57

1 Answer 1


[1] The information for which I asked.

[2] *The information across which I came.

The ungrammaticality of [2] arises because in the idiom "come across" (meaning "find by chance") the prep "across" is specified by the verb, and thus cannot be separated from it.

We need to distinguish two types of specified preposition, mobile ones like the "for" in [1] and fixed ones like the "across" in [2]. The mobile ones behave in essentially the same way as unspecified prepositions, while the fixed ones do not permit variation in their position relative to the verb.

Another example is the idiom "let off" (meaning "allow not to do"), where again the verb and the prep cannot be separated (we can't say *the work off which I let him). This is a matter of syntax, so I'm not sure if it is covered in detail in any dictionary.

Further, the term 'phrasal verb' is a misnomer. In for example "They fell out" (meaning "quarrelled"), it's just "fell" that is the verb. "Fell out" is not a constituent at word level: it’s a VP. Verb is a word category, like noun, adjective, etc., and it’s "fell" that is a verb: this is the word that takes verbal inflections. So we have [3] but not [4]

[3] They had fallen out.

[4] *They had fall outed.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. May 11, 2021 at 11:12
  • I've just discovered this. I've been interested in the 'cohesiveness' of multi-word verbs for a long time but have never thought about the post-modifier distribution. Nov 12, 2021 at 16:00

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