Oxford English Dictionary (www.oed.com) lists “call for" as an intransitive phrasal verb, while other dictionaries such as Macmillan and Longman list it as a transitive phrasal verb. I see that “call for," as a whole, as a set phrase, functions as a transitive phrasal which takes an object. In what other sense could it be intransitive?

OED Phrasal verbs PV2. With prepositions in specialized senses.

  1. intransitive. a. Of a person or body of people: to ask loudly or authoritatively for; to demand, request.

1987 Brit. Med. Jrnl. 27 June 1695/1 Health Action International..is calling for 218 antidiarrhoeals containing antibiotics to be banned or withdrawn.

2014 Radio Times 6 Sept. (South/West ed.) 31/1 After five minutes' swashbuckling I am exhausted and call for time out.

Macmillan Dictionary https://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/call-for call for PHRASAL VERB TRANSITIVE (call for something) to say publicly that something must happen Several of the newspapers were calling for his resignation. Protesters were calling for a ban on the production of GM foods.

Longman Business Dictionary https://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/call-for#call-for__5 call for something phrasal verb [transitive] tively for; to demand, request.

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  • I don't have an OED subscription so I can't follow the link. Is the entry you quote for the phrase 'call for' or is it part of the definition of the verb 'to call'. Similarly are the Macmillan and Longman entries for the phrasal verb or the base one?
    – BoldBen
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 6:21
  • There is an independent section for phrasal verbs, where each is listed as either transitive or intransitive. See the attached image above.
    – Exp
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 7:02
  • 4
    Preliminary point: the term 'phrasal verb' is a misnomer, and best avoided. In the sense being discussed here, "call" is intransitive. The verb is just "call", not "call for", and the preposition "for" is head of a PP (a separate constituent) functioning as complement of "call". Note that it's the preposition "for" that" has an object, not the verb "call". We thus call the preposition, but not the verb, transitive.
    – BillJ
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 7:36
  • 1
    I checked "look up" in OED, and it is listed as transitive, whereas "look for" as intransitive. It seems to me that OED determins whether transitive or intransitive based not on the function of the phrasal verb as a whole, but on the function of the verb part itself, whether the verb can take an object on its own ("look up the word" and "look the word up" ) or not ("look for the word," not "look the word for").
    – Exp
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 9:25
  • 2
    CGEL is an important voice, but not the only acceptable one, when it comes to analyses. 'Call for' can be seen as a single lexeme, a transitive multi-word verb (compare the single-word verb 'require'). Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 11:29

1 Answer 1


Compare with the phrasal verb call on, which can be either transitive or intransitive.

A campaign group has called on the government to introduce a ‘sugar tax’ to discourage consumption of sweetened soft drinks.

When I called him on this he pretended not to know what I was talking about.

In the intransitive sense, the verb call doesn't have an object, though the preposition on does, namely, the government.

In the transitive sense, both the verb and the preposition have objects. The object of call is him, and of on is this.

And now you can see that call for always functions without an object for the verb, but only for the preposition:

The West German branch of Amnesty International called for an investigation.

You couldn't say The West German branch of Amnesty International called him for an investigation without completely changing the meaning, so that no one would say that what we have there is a phrasal verb.

Note that it makes perfect sense to talk about a preposition having or not having an object, and so being transitive or intransitive. This makes sense when the preposition takes a noun phrase as a complement (CGEL, p. 635).

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