I expect I would have to put down many coats to do the job. (SOURCE)

One factor to distinguish phrasal verbs from prepositional verbs is particle movement. Phrasal verbs can place the particle before or after direct object, whereas the preposition in prepositional verbs must precede the noun. (Biber et al. 1999)

So, I'm confused when analyzing the fragment "put down many coats to" because I'm not able to distinguish whether "put ... " is a phrasal verb or a prepositional verb. The confusion arises when I read in the Oxford Dictionary of English, under 'put' → 'phrasal verb', the form "put something down to" is correct.

So, the above sentence would be rewritten as follows :

I expect I would have to put many coats down to do the job.

Am I right? If not, how do I correctly distinguish phrasal verbs from prepositional verbs in the cases, like this one, where there are two particles (in this case 'down' and 'to')?

  • 3
    I don't understand these comments. I think this is a perfectly valid question for this site.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jul 24 '12 at 19:28
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    I'm not going to try to make a proper distinction between prepositional verbs and phrasal verbs, but I think that the sentence you quote is not a good example for what you'd like to discuss, as to in your sentence is not a preposition but the introductory particle to the verb form. In fact, were it a preposition, you would have to use the -ing form after it, whereas your quote is "to put down many coats to do the job". Tchrist's comment instead (now deleted?) made a proper use of the verb form with to as a preposition.
    – Paola
    Jul 24 '12 at 19:38
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    It's a terribly-phrased question. The to isn't a preposition at all; it's an infinitive complementizer that marks the purpose clause (in order) to do the job. It has nothing to do with phrasal verbs. You could say To do the job I expect I would have to put ..., since purpose clauses can be moved to the front. Jul 24 '12 at 19:42
  • 2
    @John Wow, I understood Carlo's question way better than your comment. So what about his OED reference?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jul 24 '12 at 19:51
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    That's a completely different construction, not used in the sentence cited. He puts X down to Y means that he believes Y is the cause of X -- put down in this sense means attribute, and takes to for the cause, just like attribute, i.e, He attributes X to Y. Jul 24 '12 at 19:59

In this case, the phrasal verb is put down as you have correctly said that the particle can go either side of its direct object

to put down many coats
to put many coats down

The to immediately following that phrase is part of to do the job.

In order to completely hide the horrible colour, I expect I would have to put down many coats of paint.

Now, there is an idiom to put down to, as in "I put the high cost of food down to the price of fuel" which means "I believe the reason for the high cost of food is the price of fuel". Your original example doesn't use this, and it's not a separable phrasal verb (as in your Biber reference) because down to can only come after the direct object. You can tell the difference because the idiomatic put down to is always followed by a noun or noun phrase.

  • 2
    @tchrist Sorry; it's been a long day. Let's use the word particle. In fact I'll give up and go to bed...
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 24 '12 at 20:12
  • I also fail to understand this “true” phrasal verb thing you are talking about. Do you mean that “to put something down to something else” is a “true” phrasal verb and “to put something down” is not? Why? You can put something down, or up, or off, or inside. I guess those are just adverbs, and that this isn’t a special idiom. Is that it? I’m pretty certain that “to put something down to something else” is indeed a phrasal verb.
    – tchrist
    Jul 24 '12 at 20:13
  • 1
    This answer makes sense to me. It's not obvious OP is even aware of the idiomatic put sth down to sth. So far as I can make out, he's preoccupied with drawing a distinction between phrasal/prepositional verbs (I'm good with the BBC saying they're the same thing), and with placement of the word "down" (either side of the object - makes no difference). Jul 24 '12 at 21:36
  • The definition of 'phrasal verb' differs depending on who is defining it. You might want to say separable phrasal verb rather than true phrasal verb. Jul 24 '12 at 22:28
  • @PeterShor Yes, I like that.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 25 '12 at 8:50

There is no misreading possible, simply because “to put something down to something doesn’t allow the down to be separated from the to. These are two completely different senses, of which only the last is an idiomatic phrasal verb with a special meaning:

  • I put the whole thing down the drain to empty out the pail.
  • I put the whole thing down to get a fresh start on it in the morning.
  • I put the whole thing down to poor management.

I don’t recognize any of the rest of the question as making any sense. It’s too much hyper-analysis, the kind of stuff they needlessly saddle ESL learners with, making them think it is a real thing, and really important, when it is not. The proof is that nobody ever teaches this sort of silliness to native speakers at grammar school.

  • But most sources mention the type of NP that constitute the object of phrasal verb as important factor for the position of the particle and the same source states that the bondage between verb and particle increases with the level of idiomaticity; however, in this last case the question remains what idiomaticity mean.
    – user19148
    Jul 24 '12 at 20:15
  • @Carlo_R. Was that a question? If so, I can’t understand it. Please rephrase, more simply. What are you asking?
    – tchrist
    Jul 24 '12 at 20:19
  • No, tchrist; that was a comment.
    – user19148
    Jul 24 '12 at 20:24
  • @Carlo_R. Well I still don’t understand its relevance to what I wrote, particularly given that you’ve begun your comment with “But...”.
    – tchrist
    Jul 24 '12 at 20:25

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