Harry picked it up and stared at it, his heart twanging like a giant elastic band. No one, ever, in his whole life, had written to him. Who would? He had no friends, no other relatives - he didn't belong to the library, so he'd never even got rude notes asking for books back.
(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

Is "ask for ~ back" a phrasal verb?

"Ask for" collaborates with back and select books as their object.

How would you parse it?


1 Answer 1


REVISED 11/14/15. My original answer (which I have left in place at the bottom of this post, struck through) now seems to me utterly wrong.

Ask for is a very common 'phrasal verb' or 'preposition verb' or whatever you want to call it.

He asked for his books.

Back, however, is controversial. Some folks would understand it as an adverb modifying ask; others as a 'particle' in a particle verb construction, like

He brought me my books back.
Please come back.

Yet others (notably CGEL) would understand back as an intransitive preposition, one which does not require an object.

I am coming more and more to understand these particles/adverbs/prepositions as locatives, expressions which name the location, path or goal of an action or entity in space or time. Most locative expressions are preposition phrases, and many others are single words which are obviously constructed from preposition phrases (away, upstairs, downriver); but there are also single words (here, then, home) and noun phrases (last week) which act as locatives.

Locatives cannot comfortably be classified as adverbs, because they readily 'modify' nouns, both as attributives (the man on the street) and predicate complements (He's home now); and it seems to me that in many cases where they are traditionally held to modify verbs what they actually 'modify' is the clauses which the verbs head (Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo).

In this particular case I now take back to be a locative acting as a secondary predication: back is the 'location' where it is requested that the books end up.

This is one of those questions on the border between the Old Grammar and the New. Certainly it behaves in some respects like a phrasal verb: you write

They asked for them back

It's possible you could write:

?The books were asked for back.
?The books for which he asked back

And you can't possibly write:

The books back which he asked for

On the other hand, you can't write these, either:

He asked for back the books.
He asked for back them.

All in all, I think in this case I have to follow the Old Grammar and see back as an ordinary adverb.

But it's employed with what I would regard as a participle phrasal verb, ask for.

Perhaps it's safest (however unsatisfying) to say it's an idiom.

marks an utterance as unacceptable; ? marks an utterance as marginally or dubiously acceptable.

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