This has always confused me for example:

He took a pack of cigarettes and lit it (no up).

The candles lit up the whole room (up).

He stood up from his chair (up).

She was woken by the alarm clock (no up).

Hey, don't wake her up (up).

Is there any rule o way of knowing when and when not to add it?

  • 3
    There is no rule; you really have to learn each combination separately. Don't think of it as "using a preposition", but as a verbal suffix which creates a new word, just as prepositional prefixes do in Germanic and Romance languages. Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 1:24
  • 1
    These are two types of "up"s. The candles can light up the whole room, or they can light the whole room up. In other words, up has freedom of position with respect to the object. But in He stood up from his chair, there is no freedom, so you can't say *He stood from his chair up.
    – user230
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 2:53
  • @snailboat - Well said. Candles can also light the whole room (with no "up" at all). Also, even though you can't "stand from your chair up" we might have seen a statue that, in the dim morning light, stood from the waist up.
    – J.R.
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 15:13
  • 1
    @snailplane Can't you say (dramatically) "Up, from his chair, he stood" ?
    – Amber
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 14:03
  • That's a poetic inversion of He stood [up from his chair], moving the bracketed portion to the front of the sentence. It is syntactically unlike the ungrammatical *He stood from his chair up.
    – user230
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 14:08

3 Answers 3


Phrasal verbs

In your question, you give examples where a verb is used together with another word, and the combination has some idiomatic meaning. These are commonly called phrasal verbs.

For example, look at the definition given by Collins for the phrasal verb pick up. It gives a whopping sixteen senses! That's quite a few meanings for this combination of words. And pick up usually doesn't mean pick. In fact, if you only know what pick means, it would be very hard for you to guess that it means purchase casually in the following sentence:

I picked up the new Glass Hammer album the other day.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of phrasal verbs in English, and most of the time you'll have to memorize what they mean. Sometimes you can guess; wake up means roughly wake, for example. And because this is true, you might be tempted to treat up as an optional part of the sentence. But if we look at pick and pick up, where adding up changes the meaning completely, we can see that this way of thinking doesn't work well at all. Instead, the easiest way to think about it is like this:

  • Wake is a vocabulary item.
  • Wake up is a vocabulary item. It happens to mean the same thing.
  • Pick is a vocabulary item.
  • Pick up is a vocabulary item. It doesn't mean the same thing.

Of course, it's not a coincidence that wake and wake up mean the same thing. And they're not actually separate words. But thinking of them as separate vocabulary items is the easiest way to keep them straight as a learner, and that's why we find it helpful to talk about phrasal verbs.

I'd like to talk about the technical details that make up a phrasal verb, though. Why? Because there are actually two types of idiomatic constructions here, and if you just memorize them as "phrasal verbs", you're not learning the proper rules applicable to each one. And if you do that, you're likely to write ungrammatical sentences like *He stood from his chair up.


Before I talk about the two types of constructions that people call phrasal verbs, I'd like to define a few terms and abbreviations:

  • A noun phrase (NP) is a phrase that is used as a noun.
  • A preposition phrase (PP) is a phrase with a preposition as its head.
  • A particle (PART) is a word that doesn't inflect or take an object.

I'm going to be using these abbreviations in the rest of my answer, along with V for verb. I know they're a bit technical, but my hope is that the examples below will help make it clear what I'm talking about. In any case, I'll be using these terms to describe the following two kinds of constructions:

  1. Verb-particle constructions, in which a verb takes a NP and a PART (a noun phrase and a particle).
  2. Verb-preposition constructions, in which a verb takes a NP and a PP (a noun phrase and a preposition phrase).

Because they take NPs as direct objects, we call these transitive constructions. There are also intransitive versions of both types, which are more or less the same thing but without a NP. For simplicity's sake, I'll be treating these as variants of the transitive versions.

In the sections below, I'm going to talk about how these words fit together grammatically. This won't help you with the meaning, which is still something you'll have to memorize. But my hope is that it will help you put the words together correctly, in the right order.

Verb-particle constructions (V + NP + PART)

These are constructions in which a verb takes a noun phrase as well as a particle. Let's take one of your sentences and use it as an example:

1a. The candles lit [ NP the whole room ] [ PART up ].

1b. The candles lit [ PART up ] [ NP the whole room ].

In this example, up looks like a preposition. In fact, it is a preposition, but we're giving it a special label (particle) because it doesn't take a complement. That is, it appears as a word by itself. It doesn't appear in a full preposition phrase like up the ladder or up to the sky. It's just up, even if there are other words after it.

So it's a particle. That means up and the whole room must be two separate parts of the sentence. Because this is true, we can move the particle before the noun phrase. That means both 1a and 1b are grammatical.

There is an exception, though. If the noun phrase happens to be a pronoun††, we can't move the particle:

1c. The candles lit [ NP it ] [ PART up ].

1d. *The candles lit [ PART up ] [ NP it ].

In this example it is a pronoun, so we can't move the particle in front of it. Thus, 1c is okay but 1d is not.

Intransitive verb-particle constructions (V + PART)

An intransitive verb-particle construction is the same thing, but without a NP. But since there's no NP, we don't have to worry about what order the words come in. That makes it a lot easier! Take a look at this example:

1e. The candles lit [ PART up ].

Pretty simple! We can't get the order wrong here.

A discussion of transitivity

As you can see, the verb in light up works both transitively and intransitively. We can say the bulb lit up, and we can say the bulb lit up the room. And the same is true of many other V + PART constructions; we can say I woke up, or we can say I woke her up. But the verbs in some constructions are always transitive, like beat up. Others are always intransitive, like fall off.

How can we tell? Well, the verb in a V + PART construction is still technically a regular verb. That means it has the same transitivity the verb usually would. There are only a few exceptions: carry, for example, is almost always transitive, but it's intransitive in the construction carry on. You'll have to memorize these exceptions individually.

Verb-preposition constructions (VP + NP + PP)

Now let's look at examples of the other type. In this sort, there is no particle; instead, there's a preposition phrase.

2a. I talked [ NP her ] [ PP into eating a habanero. ].

2b. *I talked [ PP into eating a habanero ] [ NP her ] .

In this type of construction, the PP and NP are generally in a fixed order. We can't switch them around, so 2b is ungrammatical.

Look at the PP in 2a. The preposition into is the head of this phrase, so it can't be moved around. That means we can't move into to the end. There's really only valid order for the parts of this sentence, and that's the order in 2a.

Intransitive verb-preposition constructions (V + PP)

Now let's look at a pair of examples without a NP object:

2c. I'm looking [ PP forward to the party ].

2d. *I'm looking [ PP to the party forward ].

Once again, I'll draw your attention to the fact that the preposition can't be moved around. The head of the PP here is the preposition forward, and because it's the head of the phrase, it can't be moved to the end. That makes the PP in 2d ungrammatical.

In this case, the preposition forward takes another preposition phrase as an object, to the party. In fact, it's the combination of look forward to that gives this construction its idiomatic meaning‡‡.

The term "phrasal verb"

The term phrasal verb is actually a bit misleading. We often say that these verb + preposition combinations form single words, which is convenient because we can give combinations like pick up their own dictionary definitions and talk about them like they're single things. Well, I'm all in favor of the term phrasal verb, because it gives us a handy way to refer to these things. But if we're going to use this term, we need to get something clear:

These combinations don't actually form new words.

There are a couple ways we can demonstrate this:

  • We can insert things in the middle of them. We can say turn the light off, but if turn off were really a single verb, the direct object certainly wouldn't be inserted into the middle! And we can insert other things, too, like adverbs: I looked carefully after my niece. Here, look after is a phrasal verb of the (V + PP) type. Adverbs naturally fit between the V and PP, but if look after were really a single word, we'd have to put the adverb somewhere else!
  • They don't inflect as words. We don't write *I'm turn offing the light, because turn off is not actually a single word. Compare this to a phrase like do good, which has actually been reanalyzed as a single base for the noun form do-gooder and the inflected form do-gooding. It's very rare for phrasal verbs to actually be reanalyzed as single words, though, and when it does happen they're almost always treated as non-standard English; people say *loginned, but very few people actually consider this reanalysis acceptable. (And it's worth mentioning that once they've become single words, they're no longer phrasal verbs!)

If you were to actually treat them as single words, you'd come up with ungrammatical sentences. So don't do that--treat them as idiomatic constructions which have special meaning, which is what they are.

So really, what you need to memorize here is this:

  1. Certain combinations of V ( + NP ) + PART are idioms with special meaning.
  2. Certain combinations of V ( + NP ) + PP are idioms with special meaning.
  3. In V + NP + PART idioms, you can switch around the NP and PART unless the NP is a pronoun.


So when can you use up? I'm afraid that's something you're going to have to learn and remember on a case-by-case basis.


Some linguists dislike the term phrasal verb because they don't actually form phrases in the technical sense, among other reasons.

Particles aren't a separate part of speech; most of them are actually prepositions. In the constructions we call phrasal verbs, particles are usually prepositions that don't take objects (sometimes called intransitive prepositions), but a few of them are actually adjectives or verbs. Regardless, they do not inflect.

†† I believe this is actually a matter of stress. Generally, pronouns in this position are unstressed, and that doesn't work for much the same reason we don't end sentences with it's. But I think you can switch them around if the pronoun is (unusually!) stressed.

‡‡ Some linguists analyze this as a third type of construction, in which you have both a particle and a preposition phrase. This becomes unnecessary if you allow a preposition to take a preposition phrase as an object. And if you do call it a particle, you have no explanation for why it cannot move after the preposition phrase, so I prefer not to.

  • 1
    I'm afraid this answer is far too long, and it probably isn't terribly helpful. I apologize for posting it anyway--I couldn't bear not to after putting so much work into it :-)
    – user230
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 13:37
  • Thanks! Wow, just 9 minutes. I bet you can write a whole but in an hour.
    – wyc
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 13:47
  • I've become very good at picking out yours, Stoney's, and J.R.'s answers before I scroll down to the usercard at the bottom ;) You all have a unique style, and great answers. +1!
    – WendiKidd
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 22:29
  • @WendiKidd I'm just now seeing this ... shouldn't it be recategorized as a Canonical Post? Commented Mar 23, 2014 at 0:59
  • I really think this answer should go into a canonical post, a wiki, or into the tag for phrasal verbs
    – Nico
    Commented Mar 23, 2014 at 18:35

This is a matter of idiomatic usage, and the most common usage for any particular expression varies by location; you just have to learn the particular cases. Every one of the examples you gave can be correctly used either with or without the "up"!

As a note, there's a specific expression relating to cigarettes:

He took a pack of cigarettes and lit up.

In this case, "light up" is intransitive, but it's understood that you're referring to lighting a cigarette.

  • I think you omit the up when the "object" is directly mentioned after the verb? Like you omit the up if you say "lit it" or "woken by the alarm"?
    – wyc
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 1:21
  • 1
    @alexchenco Unfortunately, there's no such rule. It's also quite common to hear "lit it up" and "woken up by the alarm". Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 1:21

Okay, so here we are talking about the adverb(ial) particles. They are the little words but add some spice to the sentences.

Let me try these examples -

a) He took a pack of cigarettes and lit it (no up because you are just lighting it).
b) The candles lit up the whole room (up because when you lit, it finished (#9) spreading the light across the room).
c) He stood up from his chair (up because he raised himself towards a higher position (#1)).
d) She was woken by the alarm clock (no up because the alarm will not raise her on the bed).
e) Hey, don't wake her up (up because the person will not just wake but also raise her as in Chair's example up there.)

However, there's no rule as far as my knowledge goes. But I just tried to look it microscopically.

  • I like your reference to #9 for (b), but I think the use of "up" is used to distinguish verb tenses. Saying "the candles lit up the room" implies an event that happened at a particular moment in time (i.e. perfect tense); by contrast, saying "the candles lit the room" would imply that they were, for some duration, the primary source of illumination (imperfect tense).
    – supercat
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 17:16
  • With regard to "wake up", I think the issue is not whether someone is caused to rise, but rather with the fact that "wake up" doesn't work well in passive voice. Saying "the alarm clock woke her up" would work just fine, and would imply that she was awakened in such a fashion that she stayed awake thereafter, as distinct from "the alarm clock woke her" which could be true even if she was only awake long enough to swat it before falling back asleep.
    – supercat
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 17:22

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