an example:
the girl with the red dress on

Is "on" a dangling/stranded preposition?
If it is, then what's its object?

What licenses "on"?
What does "on" function as?


13 Answers 13


On here is an adverb (or adverb particle1 as Cambridge calls it):

ON: adverb
in or into a position of being attached to or covering a surface especially :
in or into the condition of being worn

put his new shoes on


It is basically licensed by the preposition with which shows possession or accompaniment (see M-W, senses 4a and 8a). The expression is:

have (got) something on
If you have clothes or shoes on, you are wearing them:

I loved that dress you had on last night.


So you can read:

the girl with the red dress on


the girl who has the red dress on

Cambridge confirms the same usage:

on adverb
on your body or someone's body:

  • put something on: It's very cold so put a coat on.

  • nothing on: She wanders around the house with nothing on.

  • have something on: Can you remember what he had on (= was wearing)?

  • try something on: I tried on a few jackets, but none of them looked nice.

The example with nothing on is the closest to yours.

This related post about put something on, or put on something might help.

1 In modern grammar, a particle is a function word that must be associated with another word or phrase to impart meaning, i.e., it does not have its own lexical definition. (Wikipedia)


I would parse this sentence as follows:

The girl with the red dress on

In this context, the word "with" is equivalent to "who has". Both are specifiers which say the same thing about "the girl"; but "with" is shorter so it is more natural in conversational speech.

The girl who has the red dress on

Now the word "on" belongs with "has" to form the verb "have on":

have on (third-person singular simple present has on, present participle having on, simple past and past participle had on)

  1. To be wearing.
    She has on a nice red shirt and skinny jeans.

This verb is formed of two words, making it a phrasal verb:

In the traditional grammar of Modern English, a phrasal verb typically constitutes a single semantic unit consisting of a verb followed by a particle (examples: turn down, run into or sit up), sometimes collocated with a preposition (examples: get together with, run out of or feed off of).

So in this analysis, "on" is neither a preposition nor an adverb: it is a particle, one part of a verb which consists of two words. It's also acceptable for the verb's object to appear between the two words ─ i.e. in "has the red dress on", the object of the verb "has on" is "the red dress".

I think it makes sense to call "have on" a verb, rather than "on" occurring separately as an adverb (or a preposition with "herself" as the implied position), because the meaning of "have on" is not just the meaning of "have" modified by "on [herself]". The latter could mean the dress is folded up and balanced on her head, for instance, but the verb "have on" doesn't allow for that meaning. Hence the two words form a "single semantic unit" as described above.

Therefore, in the contracted form "with the red dress on", I would say that "on" is still a particle because it serves the same grammatical role as a part of the replaced verb "has on".

Of course, other grammatical analyses are possible. For instance, we could say that there are no two-word verbs in English and the word "on" is an adverb attached to the verb "have" (or the preposition "with"). However, I think this is a less useful analysis, because it requires such adverbs to have different meanings depending on which verb they're attached to. For example:

  • To "fold up" means to fold something compactly.
  • To "write up" means to document something officially.
  • To "drink up" means to drink something completely and now.

So it's syntactically possible to call "up" an adverb, but it doesn't have a clear or generalisable meaning as an adverb.

Even worse, consider "turn up", "turn down", "turn in" and "turn out": all have meanings which you don't really get by refining the meaning of the verb "turn" as an adverb normally would. So I think it makes more sense in such cases to say that both words together form one verb.

  • 2
    This is exactly my analysis. The debate about whether to consider this "on" a preposition or an adverb seems pointless to me. Commented May 18 at 2:50
  • 1
    So you think "with ... on" is a verb? Commented May 19 at 23:41
  • 1
    @alphabet The point is not merely that these two sentences have the same meaning, but that one is formed from the other by a standard replacement ("... who has ..." becomes "... with ...") which is typically made in conversational English. Since the replacement doesn't remove or alter the word "on", it has the same function in both sentences.
    – kaya3
    Commented May 20 at 12:28
  • 1
    So in the verb "have on" is the present tense "she have ons" etc and the past "she have onned" and so forth? ;-) The reason I'm asking about "with ... on" is because 'particle' is a relational label like 'mother' or 'daughter', which in your analysis happens to be subsumed inside a verb containing another verb ("have"). So if "with ... on" is not a verb, what is "on" a particle to in your analysis? (i.e. 'who is it the sister of?') Commented May 20 at 13:36
  • 2
    @kaya3 In your example (with "the USA"), you're replacing one noun phrase with another. In this case, you're replacing one syntactic construction (a prepositional phrase with "with") with a completely different one (a relative clause with the verb "have").
    – alphabet
    Commented May 20 at 15:32

On is always a preposition plain and simple.

Yes, most dictionaries repeat the outdated analysis that any preposition that doesn't have a complement automatically turns into an adverb, but that doesn't pan out with the way other parts of speech are analyzed: verbs don't magically turn into another part of speech if they lack a complement, neither do adjectives or nouns for that matter. Prepositions resemble verbs in that they can take a wide range of complements: no complement, an object noun phrase, an adjective phrase, a preposition phrase, or various clause types.

Now, here on is licensed by with in combination with its object noun phrase - it could hardly appear without some appropriate NP designating a clothing item or similar - it is a locative complement in the prepositional phrase with the red dress on. This type of prepositional phrase can be used independently in clause structure and in phrase structure:

With the red dress on, she walked out the door.

With the red dress on the floor, she walked out the door.

With the red dress under her arm, she walked out the door.

With the red dress over her head, she walked out the door.

Note that in the exact same place, other prepositions (with object NPs) can be substituted.


fev's answer explains how this relates to other uses of on, but to fully understand the picture here, I think it's also useful to consider how it relates to other uses of with. It is a fairly general pattern that with — like have — can take a noun phrase complement plus a predicative complement:

  • "the man with the quizzical look on his face"
    • Note: in this example, it would also be valid to interpret "on his face" as directly modifying "look"; compare "I didn't understand the quizzical look on his face." The same is true of some, but not all, of the other examples below.
  • "the house with the flamingo sculpture out front"
  • "a professional with eight years of experience under her belt"
  • "children with parents in the armed forces"
  • "With half of her teammates on vacation, she found herself with more work to do and less time to do it in."
  • "With that taken care of, he turned to other matters."
  • "With my brother away at camp and my best friend not speaking to me, it was going to be a difficult summer."

As others have noted, "on" here is an adverb and not a preposition.

It is necessary in the sentence to distinguish between simple possession and actually wearing. If I say, "Sally has a red dress", she may or may not be wearing it right now. I'm just saying that she owns such a dress or has it in her possession. But if I say, "Sally has a red dress on", I mean she is wearing it right now.

"On" can also be a preposition conveying the same idea. Like one might say, "Mary is wearing the green dress. The red dress is on Sally." In that case the object of the preposition is clearly "Sally". But in the sentence, "Sally has a red dress on", "on" doesn't work as a preposition because, as you say, it has no object. "Sally" is not the object of "on" because "Sally" is the subject of the sentence. But we commonly use "on" as an adverb, usually modifying "has", to indicate a person is wearing a piece of clothing. "Bob has an ugly hat on", etc.

  • 2
    It could be viewed as a preposition with object elided: "Sally has the red dress on [her]". Maybe that's how this sense originated.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 17 at 14:25
  • Sally is wearing a red dress on HER BODY. The object is Sally's body. Commented May 17 at 15:41
  • @stackoverblown "Sally is wearing a dress" It goes without saying it is on her body. We do not normally say "Sally is wearing a dress on" it sounds redundant and unnatural. Compare 1. "I'm wearing a hat", 2. "I never wear hats but today I am wearing one” here the pronoun "one" stands for "hat". Do I need to add "on my head" for 1 and 2? What about, 3. "I have a beautiful green hat” and 4. "Now, I have a beautiful green hat on” No.3 is about possession while 4. is telling the listener what is the thing on their head.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 18 at 11:03
  • 1
    @alphabet I must admit I've never heard of an "intransitive preposition" before. That sounds like a paradox. In this case, if you want to call "on" a preposition, you can't say that it doesn't have an object. Rather, you have to say that the object is elided or assumed. The object is "herself" or "her body", but that's not stated. It's not that the dress is on nothing. If the dress is in a drawer on nothing, then we wouldn't say, "She has the dress on".
    – Jay
    Commented May 19 at 10:13
  • 2
    @Jay On H&P's approach, on can be either transitive or intransitive, just like the verb to eat. There are also some prepositions, like there, that can only be intransitive; we call them prepositions, not adverbs, because they behave syntactically like transitive prepositions.
    – alphabet
    Commented May 19 at 18:20

to have something to have a car, to have a dog, to have anything at all. I have a car.

The person with a car, a dog, etc. The with refers back to the idea of have. If you have not "had it", you cannot be the one "with it".

To have something on


If you have clothes or shoes on, you are wearing them: I loved that dress you had on last night.

Cambridge Dictionary

To have something on =

To be dressed in something or to be wearing something.

What licenses "on" is the idiom that is not there in full.

The girl who has the red dress on. AKA: The girl with the red dress on.

ALSO: If the girl has the red dress on, she is the girl with the red dress. You can't get to "with the dress on" without going through the idiom with have.

Try any phrase with with, and somewhere there is a have. The house has open windows. The house with open windows.

The girl dressed in a red dress.
The girl wearing a red dress.

on is part of the idiom: to have something on: on your body, head, feet or hands

He has gloves on [his hands].
She has boots on [her feet].
They have trousers on [their bodies].
We have our hats on [our heads].

on can be called a preposition here but unless you know the idiom, you are not going to get very far with them. The clothes are on [their bodies, or hands or heads or feet, implied]. on=preposition. So, does it matter? It matters whether or not you use the idiom correctly. You wouldn't be using it correctly if you said: They on have their clothes.

Furthermore, it is separable: They have their clothes on. OR They have on their clothes.

Merriam Webster:

: an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as up in the air for "undecided") or in its grammatically atypical use of words (such as give way)

Oh, and one can also have things off: The boys with their shoes off. The ladies with their wigs off. The man with his shoes off.

[Apologies to Araucaria=Him for using a dictionary to explain what an idiom is.]


Another interpretation here - though I find the previous ones convincing enough.

the girl with the red dress on


the girl with the red dress on her(self)

In a sense, on is licenced by the subject, i.e. girl, in this case as there is no other object in the phrase to cause ambiguity.

If it were instead

the girl with the red dress on cycled through Oxford carefree as a springtime sparrow

there might be a possibility that the phrase meant that

the girl with the red dress on her bicycle (carrier) cycled through Oxford carefree as a springtime sparrow


This usage is licensed by a simple definition.

(OLD) on adverb
on somebody’s body; being worn

  • Put your coat on.
  • I didn't have my glasses on.
  • What did she have on (= what was she wearing)?
  • So the whatever 'on' = a prepositional phrase 'on someone's body'? Commented May 16 at 18:44
  • @EdwinAshworth Rather, "< whatever > on"= the construction "< whatever > + 'placed on' the implied part of body of the person implied by the context". Sometimes the implied part has no obvious name (glasses, on the nose?), but more often, I think, it does (hat - keep(s) it on - placed on your/their/our/… head).
    – LPH
    Commented May 16 at 19:30
  • It would be useful to give info in the answer such as part of speech. Links rot.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 17 at 6:33

To explain it simply, "on" functions as indicating that she is wearing the red dress. If the word was not there, the sentence would be "the girl with the red dress", which could either mean a) she has (as in "owns" or is in possession of) the red dress; or b) she is actually wearing the red dress. While I am not 100% familiar with the meaning of a dangling/stranded preposition for an object, I would assume the object is "dress". Just the noun "dress", not "red dress" or "the red dress".

  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented May 18 at 3:16

What licenses this is a particular sense of the adverb on. It is not the verb have or be or even the preposition with that does so. The OED says that this sense of the adverb on dates from Old English. This is what they givepaywalled link for sense 6 of this adverb:

  1. In the position of being attached to or covering a surface, esp. the body, as clothing, hair, etc.

They give a great many citations both early and late. These include citations with other verbs than have as well as examples using with that are not associated with a particular verb.

To show you that this is part of the adverb, here is a small sub-selection from among their many citations that should illustrate these properties. In each quote below, do look carefully at exactly how the word on is used. (And please have patience with the original spellings in the earlier examples.)

  • a1425 (?a1400) Largesse hadde on a robe fresh.
    ―G. Chaucer, Romaunt of Rose (Hunterian MS.) 1187
  • c1480 (a1400) He gert dispoile hir..of al þe clathis scho one had.
    St. Juliana 12 in W. M. Metcalfe, Legends of Saints in Scottish Dialect (1896) vol. II. 424
  • a1500 (?c1450) Thei..hadde on hattes of stile.
    Merlin 191
  • 1560 If you send 100 of them [sc. seal skins] tawed with the haire on, they will bee solde, or else not.
    ―Letter in R. Hakluyt, Principal Navigations (1598) vol. I. 307
  • 1570 To weare a linnen Ephod on.
    ―B. Googe, translation of T. Kirchmeyer, Popish Kingdome ii. f. 26
  • 1597 O let me thinke on Hastings and be gone To Brecnock while my fearefull head is on.
    ―W. Shakespeare, Richard III iv. ii. 125
  • a1616 You crow Cock, with your combe on.
    ―W. Shakespeare, Cymbeline (1623) ii. i. 24
  • 1645 Then to the well-trod stage anon, If Jonsons learned Sock be on.
    ―J. Milton, L’Allegro in Poems 36
  • 1813 He received the donors with his hat on, while seated under the half-tester of a wretched bed.
    ―T. Dibdin, Metrical History of England vol. II. xii. 198 (note)
  • 1902 Your idea of a happy life is always to do the disagreeable thing; mine is to gather the roses―with the gloves on, so that the thorns should not prick me.
    —W. S. Maugham, Mrs. Craddock v. 46
  • 1936 My red silk dressing-gown on, tied tightly.
    ―R. Lehmann, Weather in Streets ii. 173
  • 2001 He walked right up to the lake as if he planned to walk right into the water with his twills and his wool shirt on.
    ―C. Cooke, Bostons 158

As you see, the licenture derives solely from this particular sense for the adverb. It is not dependent on other verbs nor on other prepositions.

  • Just about anything can be with [something]. However, for the "with" to have meaning with on to mean to be dressed in that, there must be a underlying assumption of the idiom: to have something on. Just because the verb have is not there doesn't mean it is not operant sub rosa. Also, to be on, as a head, for example, is not the same meaning. Also, the dressing gown is elided for: dressing gown [was] on
    – Lambie
    Commented May 19 at 18:24
  • Isn't this adverb:4 / preposition: 2 / particle but adv: 1 / particle and essentially neither: 1 (ignoring less credible answers)? Commented May 19 at 18:44

Consider the following...

"the girl with the red dress on"

"the man with the silly hat"

"a student with get-up-and-go"

In each case 'with' is an idiomatic alternative for 'who has'.

The 'licence' for the preposition "on" is that it is understood as being part of a common phrasal verb

to have (a piece of clothing) on

As such, and in common with many other phrasal verbs, the preposition is not necessarily meaningful except as a part of the whole.

  • 3
    But 'the girl with the red dress on' doesn't have a verb. Commented May 19 at 22:35
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth - a very good point! I've re-worked my answer.
    – Dan
    Commented May 20 at 23:21
  • @Lambie - yes I realised too late that there are several of us making a similar point!
    – Dan
    Commented May 22 at 22:32
  • No worries. I just don't see why folks don't see that if there is with an/a/the or null word that it has to be have or a stand-in for have.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 23 at 14:50

on is licensed by dress.

on is an adjective.

Keep your mind open.

She's the girl with the red dress on.

It's the house with the garage door open.

  • I'm surprised there's only one downvote, but not surprised that it's anonymous.
    – TimR
    Commented May 17 at 20:25
  • It would help your case if you could provide any evidence that on is an adjective here, and even better if you included citations and references for this position. Why would it follow the entire noun phrase “the red dress” rather than show up in the normal position for adjectives somewhere between the determiner the and the head-noun dress? What would “the on red dress” or “the red on dress” mean? While English does have a few postpositive adjectives that can or must follow their head-noun, examples galore you will not find—and this doesn’t seem like one of those.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 18 at 12:18
  • @tchrist I think it is possible to analyze "on/off" and "closed/open" and "up/down" etc as ungradable adjectives of state, and that the state is being predicated of the preceding noun. "It's the house with the light on" or "It's the house with the garage door open" or "She's the one with the hat on" or "He's the one with his hat off". The preceding noun licenses the particular ungradable adjective: "He's the one with his hat open" uses an unlicensed adjective of state, and is a no-go, but "He's the one with his fly open" is OK. "It's the car with driver-side front window down".
    – TimR
    Commented May 18 at 13:30
  • @TimR All you're noticing is that the copula is omissible in "with clauses. It does not make the PC or Locative Complement and adjective. Why should it? Commented May 23 at 10:42
  • @Araucara: with-clauses have an implied copula and on can therefore be understood as a "predicate adjective" predicated of "dress".
    – TimR
    Commented May 23 at 12:02

The quotation in context is:

See the girl with the red dress on// She can do the birdland all night long// ...

This is from the song What'd say by Ray Charles, released in 1959. The lyrics were put together for (rough) scansion and rhyme, not to conform with grammatically standard English.

  • 1
    Are you saying that "the girl with the red dress on" is not grammatically standard English?
    – tchrist
    Commented May 18 at 17:23
  • Yes. Although not exactly ungrammatical, it isn't natural English. “The girl in the red dress” would be the normal phrasing here. Commented May 19 at 11:23
  • 4
    I'm sorry but See the girl with the red dress on? is 100% standard. See the man with his clothes off? Standing in the dressing room?
    – Lambie
    Commented May 19 at 15:38

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