For an interface I'm working on, there's a command available to a user called "Put Item On Hold." Or possibly it should be "Put Item on Hold," since the style guide I'm using says that prepositions shouldn't be capitalised unless they're part of a verb phrase.

Is "on" part of a verb phrase in "Put Item on Hold?" Is it a preposition? I think the answer is yes, but I can't help but think there's more to it that I'm not thinking of.

  • On is a preposition all right. However, it influences the meaning of the verb put because of the phrasal meaning of [verb] + [preposition] combinations : put on, put in, put out. More importantly, the preposition qualifies the word that follows in a similar way: on hold is a set phrase with a specific meaning, while hold has several possible meanings. We cannot say on is a part of a phrasal verb; it could be modifying a noun instead. – Kris Dec 14 '12 at 6:35
  • @Kris: Could you make an argument that the phrasal verb is "to put on hold"? – tylerharms Dec 14 '12 at 7:42
  • @tylerharms on hold is a set phrase * n. in a state of temporary postponement or delay* (dictionary.reverso.net/english-definition/on%20hold 36), to put on hold is an idiomatic expression, to decide that you will leave an activity until a later time (usually passive) The project has been put on hold until our financial position improves. (idioms.thefreedictionary.com) --> This is GR. – Kris Dec 14 '12 at 14:35

The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) describes on hold as an adverbial phrase, while put in this context seems to fall under the OED’s third category of definitions with the meaning ‘To place or bring (a thing or person) in or into a specified relation, condition, or form.’ That makes on a preposition having hold as its complement.

Which initial letters you capitalise is a matter of convention and house style. Beginning on with a majuscule and a minuscule are both defensible, but my own preference would be for Put item on hold.


Put on hold and put on weight should not be analysed similarly.

There is more cohesion between on and hold in the first example than between put and on, and the expressions put on hold and on hold with the same sense are both given at McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. There is no reason to consider put on as a multi-word verb here. On hold is an idiomatic prepositional phrase, and put [somebody / something] on hold is also an idiom.

However, on weight is hardly unitary, and is not found in the above reference work. Put on here is however correctly analysed as being unitary - a MWV with the meaning 'increase (in)', 'add', 'gain'. Put on has several senses as a MWV, listed at thefreedictionary (where they use the traditional term 'phrasal verb'). I wouldn't regard on as a preposition here (though some would) - I prefer just to see MWVs as verbs (even though they might sometimes surround their objects!)


Yes, "on" is within the verb phrase. "Put" takes two complements, a direct object and a directional locative. In "put item on hold", "item" is the direct object and "on hold" is the locative. "On hold" is not an adverbial, but rather a verb complement. It is not clear that it has the sense of a locative here, since it is part of an idiom.

"Item on hold", the two verb complements, are what McCawley calls remnants of a diseased clause, the meaning of which is that the item goes on hold (status). That clause can be modified by a durational time adverb, like "4 days", for instance:

They put the item on hold for 4 days.

There is a potential ambiguity here, with the less likely interpretation being that the action of putting the item on hold was some sort of repetitive action, so that "for 4 days" is logically a modifier of the verb phrase "put the item on hold". But the more likely interpretation is that "for 4 days" modifies the verb phrase of the understood clause "the item [went] on hold", so that the item kept its hold status for 4 days.

Another fact that supports "on hold" being a complement rather than an adverbial is that it is present obligatorily:

*They put the item.

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