5

I will grab a taxi back. vs. I will grab back a taxi.

Is there any difference between the two sentences?

5
  • 1
    What makes you think there isn't? Word order usually matters in English. May 25, 2023 at 13:53
  • 1
    As another issue, "I will grab a taxi back" I can think of at least 4 totally, completely different meanings of that sentence. It's completely normal that English is hugely ambiguous at all times in basically every English sentence uttered.
    – Fattie
    May 25, 2023 at 14:27
  • 3
    The first is OK, but the second doesn't really make much sense. Don't use that.
    – Billy Kerr
    May 25, 2023 at 16:08
  • 2
    ''Grab back'' sounds like the taxi was stolen from you and you are stealing it back. May 27, 2023 at 12:11
  • My answer is the correct one, as is clear from all the discussions. Are you satisfied with it?
    – user21820
    Aug 2, 2023 at 15:35

6 Answers 6

30

I will grab a taxi back means that you intend to hail a taxi for your return journey.

I will grab back a taxi is not an alternative way of saying the above. 'Grab back' sounds like someone has taken something from you and you are forcibly taking it back. So, unless someone has stolen your taxi and you're trying to steal it back, don't say this - it isn't idiomatic.

5
  • 1
    +1 And see my answer for the reasons
    – gotube
    May 24, 2023 at 21:32
  • 4
    “Grab back a taxi” makes me imagine that you hailed a taxi, but you see someone else poaching it from you, so you run up to stop them.
    – Davislor
    May 24, 2023 at 23:58
  • 2
    See also "claw back," used in finance to describe a payee being forced to return money paid. "Clawback" is a legally accepted term in a contract specifying a payor's ability to recover (get paid back by payee) for paid money under special circumstances (fraud, etc.) "Grab back" is much less common but the same idea.
    – wistlo
    May 25, 2023 at 17:06
  • 4
    OP: Note that BOTH sentences admit the (unintended and rare) meaning "forcibly repossess a taxi" in the right context. It's just that only the first admits the (intended and common) meaning "I will return by taxi".
    – Dan
    May 26, 2023 at 9:00
  • The only person who would "grab a taxi back" is the driver of a hansom cab at risk of losing his seat. And even that is stretching the bounds of good usage. May 27, 2023 at 6:57
11

Astralbee's answer is correct. I'll add the reasons.

In the first sentence, "grab" is the main verb, and the direct object is "a taxi". The word "back" is an adverbial that means something like "back to my house" or "back to where I came from". It modifies "grab a taxi", so it cannot appear in the middle of it.

In the second sentence, since "back" comes between "grab" and "taxi", it must be part of the main verb, or only modify the main verb. In this case, the main verb is "grab something back", an optionally separable phrasal verb, in this case, not separated.

7
  • 2
    I think the direct object may be "a taxi back". (What are you going to grab? A taxi back.) It would be weird to say that "back" is the direction of grabbing.
    – nschneid
    May 24, 2023 at 21:40
  • 10
    @nschneid I don't think so. That would make "a taxi back" a noun phrase, which it isn't (unless you mean the back of a taxi).
    – Barmar
    May 24, 2023 at 22:31
  • 2
    Why can't it be a noun phrase?
    – nschneid
    May 24, 2023 at 22:33
  • 2
    this answer has some problems (which are perfectly explained in the rebuttal answer). it's a good example of how velocity voting is a disaster on this site.
    – Fattie
    May 25, 2023 at 14:02
  • 6
    "A taxi back will cost $10." Or with a definite article: "The taxi back was late."
    – nschneid
    May 25, 2023 at 23:17
8

"I will grab a taxi back" means that you plan to take a taxi to return home or to your starting point after completing an activity.

"I will grab back a taxi", on the other hand, is not a commonly used phrase and its meaning is unclear. It could possibly mean that you plan to physically take a taxi that you had previously obtained or that was taken from you. However, it would be more clear to say "I will reclaim/take back my taxi".

8

gotube's post is still wrong (after the edit). Adverbials can certainly come between a verb and its direct object. (The contrary claim has now been removed from that post.) But it is still wrong to call "grab back" a phrasal verb. Consider "lug back/away a ton of bricks" or "throw back/away the snowballs that missed" or "towed back/away the stone slab". These show that not everything that looks like a phrasal verb is a phrasal verb!

"grab a taxi back" means "grab a taxi back [to where I came from]" in most contexts, except when in the same context as "grab back a taxi", which can only mean "grab a taxi back [to me]". The correct reason has nothing to do with the grammatical function of "back". In both cases it is an adverb specifying direction, but when it is put just after the verb its possible meanings are more restricted.

Consider more examples of the same nature:

(1a) (CORRECT) He took away the children who were playing in the park.
  = He took the children who were playing in the park away [to him].
(1b) (CORRECT) He took the children away on a trip.
(1c) (WRONG) He took away the children on a trip.

(2a) (CORRECT) She took back her book.
  = She took her book back [to her].
(2b) (CORRECT) She took a plane back to her hometown.
(2c) (WRONG) She took back a plane to her hometown.

I want to add some remarks to show why it is important not to consider "grab back" in "grab back a taxi" to be a phrasal verb. If we have any definition of "phrasal verb" that does so, it would be purely subjective or totally useless. Why? To accommodate it objectively, we would essentially have to accept every single use of a verb with an adverb as a phrasal verb, including "ferry back" and "plummet away". Then the term "phrasal verb" becomes totally useless, because it just fails to reflect how English works, both in the grammar and in the mind of a native speaker (who hasn't been influenced by theories about language).

The proper approach (not only mine but also that of many linguists) is to define a phrasal verb as a verb plus adverb that is also a multi-word lexical unit (i.e. a sequence of word forms which functions as a single grammatical unit and which has become lexicalized). By this definition, it is obvious that "grab back" is not a phrasal verb. There are very good reasons to have such a proper distinction between phrasal verbs (per this definition) and ordinary phrases with a verb plus adverb.

(a) English learners have to figure out which are true phrasal verbs (and hence must be learnt as vocabulary) and which are not (and hence we only need to learn the meaning of the verb and the adverb separately). In this case, we just have to learn the meanings of "grab" and "back" separately, and we know what "I will grab a taxi back" means.

(b) Some grammatical constructions are valid with adverbs that are not part of a phrasal verb! Consider the following extended examples:

(1d) (CORRECT) He took away in a van the children who were playing in the park.
  = He took the children who were playing in the park away [to him] in a van.
Observe that both "away" and "in a van" modify "took". They are both ordinary adverbial phrases. Any native speaker would think of them as additional information describing how the children were taken. In no way is "away" thought of as part of a single concept of "took away".

(3a) (CORRECT) He got away with the kidnapping in a van.
(3b) (WRONG) He got away in a van with the kidnapping.

By learning that "took away" splits into "take" plus "away", we learn correctly that we can add more adverbial phrases to modify the verb (as long as they are short enough).

By learning that "get away with" is a single lexical unit, we learn that we cannot add any more adverbial phrases to the adverb in this unit.

Same for "grab back". It splits into "grab" and "back", so you can replace "grab" with anything that is a synonym of "grab", like "steal back". You cannot do this with true phrasal verbs! For example, you can "let off a first-time offender", but you cannot "allow/permit off a first-time offender"!

12
  • 1
    What a good analysis this is!
    – gomadeng
    May 25, 2023 at 8:02
  • 1
    The prescriptive is strong in this one. Not sure if you're 'WRONG's are supposed to be universal, but if so 1C WRONG is wrong: Russia's doing a whole bunch of that at the moment. 2C WRONG is wrong: that's definitely an idiomatic usage (which would also work with the taxi example) and further, you seem to argue for it in 2a and your last para.
    – mcalex
    May 26, 2023 at 16:02
  • 3
    @mcalex what's your dialect? I find He took away the children on a trip very unnatural. Same for She took back a plane to her hometown which I would have to parse as her having returned to her town one of the planes she had previously removed. If you're a native English speaker and find both constructs natural, I'd love to know more about your dialect!
    – terdon
    May 26, 2023 at 19:43
  • 1
    @terdon: Exactly my point. I have absolutely no doubt that there are dialects of English that write "would of" instead of "would've", but I choose not to call those dialects standard English, and restrict to global news sources. Yes, this restriction is arbitrary, but at least it filters out variants that arise via grammatical error in some dialects.
    – user21820
    May 27, 2023 at 10:02
  • 1
    @gotube: No, there are multiple errors in your comment. Just because the pronoun cannot be put at the end does not imply anything about whether it is a phrasal verb. I don't think you actually read my answer and arguments carefully at all. The structure does not tell you whether it is a phrasal verb (per my and many linguists' definition). Rather, as I clearly emphasized in my post, it must be a lexical unit. "grab back" is not a lexical unit, and that's all there is to it. As for "ferry", it is transitive, so I have no idea what you are talking about.
    – user21820
    May 27, 2023 at 10:06
2

You got the answer: the first is correct, the second sounds strange at best. I think a clear explanation is missing, however. The phrase 'I will grab a taxi back' is essentially saying the same as saying:

I will take a taxi back [to some place]

Where 'some place' is assumed to understood.

This sense of 'take' is the same as 'take a train', 'take a plane', or 'take a bike ride'. Obviously, you aren't physically picking up a train or boat or 'taking' possession of these things. It means 'ride on' or 'travel in' in this context. 'Take a walk', 'take a swim', 'take a shower' are similar constructs related to engaging in an activity.

Here's the confusing part: 'grab' is a synonym of 'take' in the physical sense. Relatively recently, we started using it for travelling in a vehicle like 'take' above but only for certain things. I've not heard people say, "I'm going to grab a boat" or "I'm going to grab a bike ride". "I'm going to grab a plane/train" isn't as common but doesn't seem strange to my ear. People don't say 'grab a swim' or 'grab a walk' but they might say 'grab a shower'.

Now we get to the point "I will grab back a taxi" is understood as "I will take back a taxi" The phrase 'take back' has a particular meaning and the assumed 'to a place' does not really work here. "I will take back to home a taxi" might be understood, but it's very awkward.

-4

The answers here so far are perhaps incorrect.

  1. It's - usually - possible and normal to swap the order as in the example given.

  2. Note that by slightly modifying the sentence, it becomes more clear that one could indeed say it either way. For example, "I'll grab a taxi to Soho" and "I'll grab to Soho a taxi". (In spoken speech the rhythm would be along the lines "I'll grab - to Soho - a taxi.") You can easily make up example situations where it works both ways. Other illustrative examples are something like "I'll grab real quick a taxi!" which sounds fine.

  3. Further to point 2, the key point is that the example at given is a poor/unusual example because: saying "back" as such is meaningless, and is a contraction of a greater phrase in context. If I stood up from my desk just now and uttered "I'm going back." it would be meaningless. I'm going back .. to Scotland? To the toilet? To a rear-wards part of the room? "bacK" here very likely means "back to the office", "back to my house" or "back to the party". Realizing that, it would be normal to utter something like "I'll grab, back to the office, a taxi ..."

{As an aside note that in English, that sort of formulation often happens in an argumentative series. Jack: "I'll grab a taxi back to my house". Jane, his boss: "Hmm. It seems to me that if you're going to be grabbing any taxis, you'll grab, back to the office, a taxi." Jack: "Hmm, it seems to me it's well after 5PM, so I'll be grabbing, directly back to my house, a taxi! Hop in, doll!"}

  1. The overwhelming point at hand: To put it briefly, "grab a taxi" is a common phrase, it's very idiomatic, formulaic speech. It can sound awkward, when you split-up a common phrase. That's all there is to it. If the conceptually same question had been asked using a different example, the answer would be nothing more than "yes, you can."

So in short, yes, you can say "I will grab back a taxi"; it just sounds uncomfortable, purely because "grab a taxi" is such a common phrase, it's a stock phrase.

Note that - indeed - a very common pattern in, say, comedy is indeed breaking up a stock phrase, and inserting "more stuff in the middle".

For example ... Standing on the street corner together, the date over, the cheeky female lead looks shy boy lead up and down. Shy boy says "I'm going to grab a taxi ..." "Oh yeah, and where do you think you're going in this taxi you're grabbing?" "I'm going to grab, and go home in it, a taxi." "And who's going with you?" "For the last time! I'm going to grab, to go home alone, a taxi!! Ayyy! Don't kiss me! Stop, senpai!" etc...

4
  • Thanks for your analysis and I respect your point of view. Are you a native English speaker or not?
    – gomadeng
    May 26, 2023 at 6:30
  • hi @gomadeng - yuppers
    – Fattie
    May 26, 2023 at 11:46
  • 1
    For "I will grab back a taxi" the hearer needs to understand whether "grab" relates first to "back" or to "a taxi". For most commenters here (myself included) it is understood that "grab" and "back" go together - "grabbing back" is done to the taxi. Your understanding that grabbing is done to the taxi and that back is the destination is not standard in UK, US or Aus English.
    – Peter
    May 27, 2023 at 13:08
  • @Peter it doesn't matter, but you seem to have totally misunderstood (or simply misread?) the answer, which literally explains all that you say - and more.
    – Fattie
    May 28, 2023 at 12:34

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .