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In English, the following phrase would sound unnatural:

  • */? You can change the brightness settings, adjust the volume, and turn on or off subtitles.

However, if we split the phrase at the end, it sounds better:

  • You can change the brightness settings, adjust the volume, and turn subtitles on or off.

Here's another example:

  • */? Turn on and off the TV with the remote.

  • Turn the TV on and off with the remote.

I can't find a specific rule explaining why we would usually postpose the particles in this case. Since phrasal verbs using multiple particles are kind of rare, there aren't many situations where it even becomes an issue. But I currently have to deal with someone insisting that we should write sentences like "Turn up and down the volume of the speakers."

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  • 2
    Well, on and off aren't prepositions here. Jan 6 at 0:58
  • @YosefBaskin Of course, apologies. I've edited the title, but it was written correctly in the body text. Do you know the answer to my question? Jan 6 at 1:27
  • Are you asking why "Turn up the volume" is more acceptable than "Turn up and down the volume", while "Turn the volume up" and "Turn the volume up and down" both work?
    – Henry
    Jan 6 at 1:29
  • @Henry In a way. Specifically, I'm curious about why saying something like "Turn up and down the volume" is strange, while "Turn the volume up and down" isn't. Jan 6 at 1:32
  • 1
    In what dialect is the first sentence "unnatural"? I have no issue with it. Jan 6 at 17:08

3 Answers 3

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Heavy (long and complicated) dependents are more likely to appear later in a clause. Hence,

We can turn the TV on or off.

but,

It was the Conservative Government's idea that the way to control the situation and deal with the problem was to turn on and off the tap of consumer demand that was at the root of their stop-go policy. (British Parliament; House of Commons; Prices and incomes; 25 October 1966)

Then again, the construction with on and off between the verb and a relatively light object is not quite so uncommon or unwieldy as assumed in the question. In fact, there are examples to be found which do not offend my ear.

The decision to turn on and off the tap does not rest in one person's hands: That is what is different about individual donations:(HANSARD; House of Commons; Mr Martin Linton; 13 March 2000)

She could turn on and off the TV set with the stubby tip of her middle toe, change channels, even tweak the reception (except for Channel 46, which didn't come in clearly since her father threw his shoe at Dan Rather). (NOVEL: Iris; Buttner, Brenda Lee; 1995)

The hidden units in turn try to turn on or off the output units, obeying the same principles. (Wet Mind: The New Cognitive Neuroscience; Stephen Michael Kosslyn)

In the NATMAP program, a certain parameter allows the support price to be raised or lowered, and another parameter can entirely turn on or off the U.S. dairy price support program. (North American Trade Model for Animal Products; William F. Hahn)

The sheer frequency of the construction with on or off before the object - 831 hits for TURN on or off the in the iWeb Corpus - suggests that it's quite acceptable and that any rule against it would fall under 'style advice' rather than grammatical rule.

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  • Thanks for taking the time to answer. Those all sound pretty offensive to my ear. Maybe this is a bigger can of worms, but I'm not sure we should formalize grammar based on instances of public usage by political figures. Ngram also points out this kind of thing is used, but even "they is" produces results. Jan 6 at 4:20
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    There are plenty more examples for anyone willing to do a bit of searching; I've added two more from academic sources. Anything with this high a frequency in edited and published texts is grammatical, even if it does not suit everyone's fancy.
    – DW256
    Jan 6 at 6:29
  • The reason I would call this into question is because there are plenty of published works with tons of grammar mistakes. I guess I don't feel good about taking grammar tips from the author of an government document entitled "North American Trade Model for Animal Products." It's available as a PDF. Please take a look at it. He's obviously a smart guy, but no one should use him as a resource for style or grammar. Jan 6 at 7:01
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    @koreanpeach: If you want standard English, restrict your search to official news media sources. This BBC article has an example of the construction in question.
    – user21820
    Jan 6 at 14:49
  • The BBC is state-owned but not an official news media source. There is no authoritative source for English grammar. If you want examples from a particular source, then you need to specify the source, whether it's Dickens, Hansard, the Times, or the Daily Mail.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 6 at 15:39
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The strange thing is that the order V Adv DO is idiomatic only when the DO (direct object) is heavy or the Adv is a single particle.

Admittedly, as pointed out in another answer, people do sometimes write phrases such as "turn on or off the tap". Yes, it's used, but, if the DO is light, people are far more likely to put it next to the verb. We are far more likely to "turn the computer off and on" than to "turn off and on the computer".

Yes, some confouding factors exist, but, to avoid them, consider sentences where the DO is a light noun phrase. (The DO can't be just a pronoun; if it is, it must go before the other argument.) And consider the question not whether or not a phrase is attested at all but whether it is idiomatic. On this basis I would exclude "turn on and off the TV".

So, then, what can go in the Adv position even if the DO is light, the resulting pharse being idiomatic?

It's curious. Some adverbs work, such as on, off, up, down, as the OP and others have noted. Other examples:

  • Don't let in the cold.

  • Put out the candles.

They work whether the particle has no independent meaning, has a figurative meaning, or bears its usual meaning.

  • Lock up your valuables.

  • Turn up the volume.

  • Lift up the lid.

Typical adverbs used in this way make for unidiomatic phrases:

  • *I turned sideways the picture.

  • *I visited recently/yesterday London.

  • *I read quickly/fast the book.

  • *I watched excitedly the film.

The fact that each of the particles which work is a homonym of a preposition might suggest that it is a preposition, and that the pattern here is that prepositions work but adverbs don't. One trouble with this is that prepositions can be conjoined, and the result can be used the way a single preposition can:

  • I walked up and down the path.

whereas, as has been noted, such phrases as "turn up and down the volume" are rare and unidiomatic. Another is that, with some "prepositions", the word order with DO last doesn't work:

  • I lifted the flap and squeezed the package through.

  • *I lifted the flap and squeezed through the package.

And at least one adverb that does work is not also used as a preposition:

  • That brought back some memories.

But I have difficulty in finding where to draw the line. These last examples bring home the difficulty.

  • ?I brought home the shopping.

  • I bring home the bacon.

I tentatively suggest that there is a lightness constraint on the adverb. A test failed by coordinations such as "off and on", and by most adverbs, but passed by a few adverbs. The latter are short. But the matter of whether or not the word can also be used as a preposition is not a reliable guide to whether or not it works in this context.

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  • CGEL calls them "intransitive prepositions", which I think is very clever. That's what they are, just the prepositions used semi-quasi-hemi-adverbially, with a whole lot of syntax instead of an object. As for off and on, that's a fixed phrase and can migrate on its own. Another is up and down. Note also that or works as well as and here. Should I turn the heat up or down? but *Should I turn up or down the heat? Jan 6 at 14:05
  • I think your point that length (or lightness) is a defining factor is key. If one expands either part, its "weight" flushes that part to the end: "We turn the TV sometimes on but mostly off"; "they turned on and off the large flat-panel TV screen until it broke". And so on.
    – Pablo H
    Jan 6 at 14:59
  • "Turn the TV on" sounds to me like "Paint the wall black". I find your answer illuminating. :-)
    – Pablo H
    Jan 6 at 15:00
  • @Pablo H Are you arguing that 'on' here is a wotsit used semi-quasi-hemi-adjectivally? Jan 6 at 15:35
  • @PabloH *"Paint black the wall" is not OK (if the DO is not heavy). "Turn on the TV" is OK.
    – Rosie F
    Jan 6 at 16:45
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This is just a thought, but I would approach the matter from an ellipsis-gone-wrong angle: It sounds unnatural when two phrasal verbs try to share what they have in common with two adverb particles. Consider the following:

I turned the TV on.

I turned on the TV.

I turned the TV on and off.

? I turned on and off the TV.

The problem with the last one is that the phrasal verb turned on is a unit (until you physically split it — more on that later). It sits in the verb slot of the sentence and it doesn’t want to share. The particle off is stranded without a verb:

I {turned on} and off the TV.

Compare:

I kicked and hit the TV. =
I kicked the TV and I hit the TV.

and

? I turned on and off the TV. =
I turned on the TV and I off the TV.

If you must or choose to split the verb, the verb turned now sits in the verb slot and the adverb particles sit in the adverb slot. Call them what you want but, set free, they are effectively adverbs and there’s nothing to fight about:

I turned the TV on and off.

You can swap in some “real” adverbs to compare the syntax:

I turned the TV upside down and sideways.
? I turned upside down and sideways the TV.

In any case, the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows turn* ART NOUN+ on and off as roughly ten times more common than turn* on and off ART NOUN+. In a dueling phrasal verb situation I would — unless your object is utterly ponderous — set the particles free.

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