Composite verbs are giving me a lot of trouble. In German the syntax is simple; if the composite verb has the moving part, it goes to the end. But in English I've found many forms and I'm not sure which to use.

For example, which of those would be correct and why?

  • I've come across him yesterday.
  • I've come him across yesterday.
  • I've come him yesterday across.
  • 1
    I've come across him yesterday is the only one that I'd say is correct (by ear), but I can't say why it is correct. Jan 23, 2013 at 21:18

3 Answers 3


NOTE: at the head of an utterance marks it as unaccceptable in Standard English.

There are, broadly, three types of these “multi-word verbs”, also called “phrasal verbs” or “compound verbs”. In what follows I’m only going to address the ones which are likely to give you trouble, transitive verb+preposition compounds which take a direct object

  1. The first type consists of a lexical verb + a ‘preposition’:

    I asked for chips with my beer.
    Prof. Sartorius went over my paper, point by point.

    In this type, the preposition must come before the object.

    I asked chips for with my beer.
    Prof. Sartorious went my paper over.

    Because the preposition here behaves just like an ordinary preposition, these compounds are often called prepositional verbs. Of note is that in constructions in which a relative or interrogative WH- form is substituted for the object, the preposition may (and in formal writing should) be “pied-piped” to the head of the clause along with the WH- form:

    For what did you ask?
    The paper over which Prof. Sartorius went ...

  2. The second type also consists of a lexical verb + something which looks like a preposition but doesn’t always behave like one:

    We’re putting on a show in May.
    I handed in my paper.

    This ‘preposition’ may be moved after its object—and in fact must be moved after the object if the object is a pronoun:

    We’re putting a show on in May … We’re putting it on in May.
    I handed my paper in … I handed it in.

    Because the preposition here doesn’t act like an ordinary preposition, it’s often called a particle, and these compounds are called particle verbs.The particle is not pied-piped in WH- constructions:

    On what are you putting in May?
    The paper in which I handed …

  3. The third type consists of a lexical verb + a particle + a preposition:

    Bob dropped in on us last night.
    I think I’m coming down with leprosy.

    These are tricky. In indicative sentences, the three components stick together—you don’t move either the particle or the preposition after the object:

    Bob dropped in the Joneses on last night.
    I think I’m coming leprosy down with.

    However, the preposition may be, and in older formal writing often is, pied-piped in WH- constructions:

    It was the Joneses on whom Bob dropped in last night.
    With what are you coming down?

    Such usage is not quite deprecated now; but it should be avoided by rewriting.

    It is purely a joke to pied-pipe both the particle and the preposition, as in Winston Churchill’s alleged rejoinder to the hapless grammarian who ventured to correct his placement of prepositions:

    That is an insolence up with which I will not put.

There's an enormous body of linguistic study trying to define what compounds behave which way. In practical terms, however, I'm afraid you're just going to have to learn them idiom by idiom.

  • +1, but you might want to make it more clear in your answer that sentences marked "✲" are not correct Standard English.
    – Matt
    Mar 1, 2013 at 3:03

Some composite verbs can be separated with a pronoun or a location:

I brought home some ice cream.
I brought him home some ice cream.

I went to bed.
I went upstairs to bed.

But others really cannot. These are both incorrect:

*I came him across yesterday.
*I came him yesterday across.

A "prepositional verb" such as come across is used as if it were a single word.

I came across him yesterday.

(Note that I've changed your "I have come" into "I came" because the word "yesterday" puts your sentence firmly into a specific point in the past, and thus you can't use the present perfect tense.)

  • 2
    The present perfect tense can be used if there's no specific time implied, as "I've come across a good example." It's more likely that the object of the verb in this tense would be an actual object, rather than a person. Jan 23, 2013 at 21:48

Rhino is correct, in that the first one is correct (although 'I came' would be used instead of 'I've come').

In these types of sentences, the verb comes before the adjective pretty much all of the time.

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