Put the book back on the table.

I'm having trouble. I think it is a preposition.


First, and most important, asking what part of speech a particular word is tells you nothing about it, or about grammar, or about English. Nothing. Even if you get an answer. It's the wrong question.

Second, put back is a Phrasal Verb, and the back part is generally called a "particle". (See what I mean about telling you nothing?) The put part is called the "verb", which is also not terribly useful.

Phrasal verbs consist of a "verb" plus a "particle", which usually has the same form as a preposition, but doesn't have an object. Some linguists call it an "intransitive preposition", which means a preposition without an object. But the verb + particle unit acts together like a verb.

There are far more phrasal verbs than non-phrasal verbs in English, because every verb has several particles that it can occur with in a phrasal verb, with mostly unpredictable meanings.

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    But just about every word in English can be any part of speech. Plus they only ever ask this if they're using old incorrect lists of The Eight Parts Of Speech, which don't work for English. English grammar is not a big bag of words; it's Constructions. – John Lawler May 23 '12 at 22:34
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    The meaning of "put back" here can be figured out by knowing the meaning of "put" and "back". I thought phrasal verbs were reserved for cases where the meaning was unpredictable, or where the two words form a collocation which occurs significantly more often than you'd expect otherwise. If you call every verb/particle combination a phrasal verb, then the term "phrasal verb" loses its significance. – Peter Shor May 23 '12 at 22:37
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    If I could upvote this answer more than once, I would! However, in this particular case it is not necessarily a phrasal verb. In fact I think it's more likely not to be: "Where shall I put the book when I've finished with it?" "(Put it) back on the table" – Colin Fine May 23 '12 at 22:42
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    (a) Back means 'behind one'; that's not what put back means. (b) The term "phrasal verb" is used for both compositional and non-compositional (i.e, idiomatic) V+Pt constructions. (c) You can tell a true phrasal verb by whether it governs Particle Shift, which equates put the book back, put back the book, and put it back, but disallows *put back it. It's a syntactic constituent, not a sequence of words. – John Lawler May 24 '12 at 0:05
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    So "row back" is a phrasal verb, as in "row the boat back when you're done with it", despite the fact that I'm not sure I've ever heard it used? – Peter Shor May 24 '12 at 2:40

It serves the function of controlling/modifying the verb put, so it is an adverb.

A preposition is a part of speech used to connect a noun or pronoun. Back is obviously not used in this way here. The only preposition here is on, as it connects the noun phrase the table.


I knew the answer but I had to confirm with my MAC AIR built-in Dictionary. Allow me to simplify.

The word back has 4 uses in speech;

  1. Noun
  2. Adjective (Adds to a noun or object)
  3. Verb
  4. Adverb (Adds to a verb)

Consider re-phasing your sentence so the meaning is the same, when in doubt.

  • from Put the book back on the table.
  • to Put back the book on the table.

You get a point, if you can choose the correct answer easier this way.

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    ... and you lose a point if I can't? (^_^) After all, this is a question-and-answer site, not a question-and-riddle site. – RegDwigнt May 24 '12 at 14:32
  • Pity MAC AIR can't check whether you need an adjective or an adverb. – TimLymington May 24 '12 at 18:46
  • If you need to be told that "Put" is a Verb, I apologize. the modifier after the Verb is called an Adverb. That's the answer... MAC Air told me the 4 types. the open office add-on said no correction needed. I understand your comment, but teaching is not always about just giving the answer. It's about explaining how to get the answer and let the person make an easier choice. The former method although direct is akin to spon-feeding. The latter is preferred for teaching methods, not just memorizing solutions. – Sunnyskyguy EE75 May 24 '12 at 22:06
  • @TonyStewart: my point was that easier should have been more easily. If you think that was too opaque, I apologize. – TimLymington May 25 '12 at 19:09
  • I lost the connection or missed your earlier comment. but the 3rd party grammar checker does report accurately and the lookup to the desktop dictionary widget supported my hunch for the explanation so the user could make sense of conjugating the word to understand , aha it is an adverb. Yes I understand "be easier said than done" to "be more easily talked about than put into practice." :) – Sunnyskyguy EE75 May 25 '12 at 19:17

The analysis of structures consisting of what I'll start by calling a verb + an adverby- or prepositiony- word, is difficult.

Sometimes (perhaps most often), as John Lawler indicates, it is best to consider the whole structure - even if there may be / must be intervening words - as a unit. This then constitutes a multi-word verb (MWV). Often, there is a single-word paraphrase,

eg the plane touched down = the plane landed

though there doesn't need to be:

Big Al knocked Elliot out (unless one allows KO'd). Notice that the verbs touched and knocked would not carry the same meaning (in fact touch cannot be strictly intransitive).

However, this is not always the case.

Although 'put the book back on the table' has a single-word verb equivalent ('replace the book on the table'), the very similar 'pass the book back to Tom' and 'kick the ball back under the table' have not. It seems illogical to argue that 'put back' is much more firmly bound than 'pass back' and 'kick back' are here. In the latter examples, the back arguably modifies (further describes) the process described by the bare verb. One could also argue that it describes the resulting state (which is an adjectival function!)

In 'Back on the table, the book was soon spotted by the boy who had left it,' the issue is further complicated.

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