According to examples in dictionaries, "Up" is a preposition in the following sentences.

  1. He climbed up the steps
  2. They were climbing up a narrow mountain road.
  3. I ran up the stairs and saw Alison lying at the top.

To me, they look like prepositions, but they more look like adverbs. I don't know how to distinguish them. Why are they prepositions and not adverbs?

Thank you in advance.

  • 1
    In each case, "up" has an object complement so it can hardly be an adverb. It is a preposition.
    – BillJ
    Aug 12, 2022 at 6:22
  • Why do you want to know, and what good will it do you to know that they're one or the other? Labelling words is not what grammar is about. Plus, the labels change all the time and there's a lot of disagreement about them. If your teacher wants to know, tell them anything and go to the next class. Aug 12, 2022 at 15:11
  • 1
    The labels haven't changed for over 20 years, at least according to what has become the 'standard' work, H&P's CGEL. Aarts, UCL, to name just one, concurs with H&P. In any case, labels are needed to help identify the properties of lexemes and their function in the clause, as well as to draw tree diagrams.
    – BillJ
    Aug 12, 2022 at 16:34

1 Answer 1


They are prepositions because they behave as you would expect a preposition to - they take an optional complement in the form of an NP, do not inflect (up, *uply, *upping, etc.), and, under different circumstances, can appear after a form of be or as a post-head dependent in a noun phrase.

He climbed up.

He climbed up the steps.

The wall is up.

The wall is up the steps.

[The way up] is blocked.

[The way up the stairs] is blocked.

Adverbs cannot appear after be except in special circumstances such as clefts or when modifying a following verb. They also can not appear as post-head dependents in noun phrases.

*His response was violently.

*[The line horizontally] is the one I drew.

He was violently attacked.

How he replied was violently.

  • "On" in "He turned on the light" is an adverb. Why "Up" in "He climbed up the mountain" is not an adverb, but a preposition?
    – A S
    Aug 12, 2022 at 7:10
  • 1
    @AS "On" is still a preposition in "He turned on the light", for the reasons above, despite what you might read in many dictionaries. They're really not the best place to go for well reasoned grammar classifications.
    – DW256
    Aug 12, 2022 at 7:18
  • 1
    @AS DW256 is right. "on" and "up" are prepositions.
    – BillJ
    Aug 12, 2022 at 7:54
  • 1
    @BillJ Whatever you do, don't turn the light on. A mad dog will turn on its master faster than you can turn on a dime. Titillating images are prone to turning people on.
    – tchrist
    Aug 12, 2022 at 14:55
  • First rate answer! Thanks. (You could add that they aren'y modifiable by very but are by the specialised adverbs right and straight, which can't modify adverbs (in standard Englishes). Aug 12, 2022 at 16:04

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