I was studying phrasal verbs and I couldn't figure out something. The source separated them into three type which are:

Type1: Verb + Adverb


Put off, turn down, get up, break down

Type2: Verb + Preposition


Look after, talk about, wait for

Type3: Verb + Adverb + Preposition


Get on with, put up with, run out of, look forward to

What makes me confused: The words which are called adverb in types 1 and 3 are accepted as prepositions generally. Am I wrong? So why are 'prepositions' called as an adverb? Here is the preposition list I found on the internet.

So what is the mentality that makes a person categorize phrasal verbs into, especially type 1 and type 2?

4 Answers 4


What you call phrasal verbs have always been one of the messier parts of English syntax, and grammarians do not agree on what to call them, or how they are put together, or what to call their components.

Your first source is rather old-fashioned in one respect: it calls words like on and in ‘prepositions’ only when they take explicit objects; when they do not, it calls them ‘adverbs’. Other grammarians call on and in used in verb idioms like this ‘particles’ when they do not take objects; and still other grammarians, represented by your second source, claim that they are always ‘prepositions’, but may be used either transitively, when they take objects, or intransitively, when they don’t—just like transitive and intransitive verbs. This last version has the prestige of the highly admired Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) behind it; but it is still contested.

Everybody, however, acknowledges that there are three different patterns, and my advice is that you focus on that. You will have to learn every single one of these idioms individually anyway, and will have to know which pattern each idiom follows. Don’t worry about what to call the pieces, just know how the pieces are used.


The mentality

So what is the mentality that makes a person categorize phrasal verbs into, especially, type1 and type2?

The mentality is one that wants to categorize things precisely and state precise, always-dependable rules, of course!

Communication is a complex skill involving empathy, aesthetics, logic, creativity, awareness of common knowledge, and much more. The great majority of this kind of knowledge can never be put into words. But, some people try. Some people hope to speed learners past all the cumbersome trial and error that happens when you learn by doing, and some people want official rules to determine in every case what is correct and what is incorrect. Some people want rules to settle arguments. Some people want detailed scientific understanding of how language works, which requires categorizing things much more finely than you need to for everyday conversation.

All those mentalities have a natural alliance when it comes to inventing more and more precise categories in order to make their rules more and more complete. Doing that can lull a person into thinking that language is just abstract rules and symbols. People can forget that language is a real, biological phenomenon, which works mostly by imitating and varying what you've heard, and trying to speak so that others will know what you're imitating and how you're varying it.

When the categorizing and rule-articulating mentality goes too far, it sometimes leads to an unfortunate way of teaching. You might have encountered it. Instead of cultivating your ability to express yourself in a language, mostly through practice and through exposure to influential things that most native speakers have seen, this way of teaching works by mostly telling you lots of declarative facts and rules and requiring you to recite them. This is unfortunate, because learning to recite rules makes you skillful at reciting rules, but not at communicating. For communicating, you don't need a detailed, precise theory of English grammar. I think learning too much theory might even be damaging before you've learned to express yourself spontaneously and clearly in English.

Phrasal verbs

You do need to clearly understand a few facts about English grammar, though. One of those facts is that English has phrasal verbs. If your native language doesn't have them, and you don't know about this quirk of English, they can be very hard to figure out. But it doesn't matter whether you call the second word a preposition, an adverb, a particle, or a rototiller.* The main thing to know is that English has a lot of special phrases that mean something different than what you get by combining the individual meanings of the words—and in phrasal verbs, the prepositions (or whatever you call them) don't introduce prepositional phrases. (I wrote a little more about this here.)

English grammar is kooky. It's hard to learn because you have to master many phrases that all work in their own peculiar way, without any common, simple rule to explain them all. The way to learn it is to practice using specific little phrases in real or at least realistic situations. After a while, you'll notice patterns among these phrases. And after a while, you'll begin to develop a feel for how to create similar phrases of your own, and anticipate how a fluent speaker will react to them. You don't need to memorize lots of terminology.

After a few years, you might even understand what up means in English. But you'll never be able to explain it.

* Actually, it does matter. In most situations, you should call it a preposition, because that's what most people call it. It's common knowledge that people call it a preposition. Most people have never heard it referred to as a "particle". But you can only know what's common knowledge and what isn't by getting to know the culture, not from reading declarative facts about it.

  • "particles" is "particles" ;)
    – user6951
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 22:25
  • @δοῦλος Wendy's has redefined the English language. (BTW, thanks for the edit. That was a good idea.)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 22:29

A preposition is followed by a noun (or noun group or pronoun) as in

1 Put your hat on your head, it's cold ( not very idiomatic).

You can drop the noun after a preposition if it is self-evident:

2 Put your hat on, it's cold. Variant: Put on your hat.

Traditionally "on" in 2 is called an adverb in English grammars. Some learners seem to have difficulties with this change of the word class from preposition to adverb. If it is easier for you you can also speak of "absolute use of a preposition". Here the Latin word absolute is taken in its original sense: liberated from/ separated from/disconnected from".


These words are always prepositions. However, if you want to know why some people think that the words in the first combinations are adverbs and the verbs in the second are prepositions, the reason is this.

For a long time we had a silly idea that we could define a class of words according to the word that came after it. So we defined prepositions as words that came before noun phrases. This is a bit unusual because we do not define any other types of word in this way. For example, we still say a verb is a verb, whether it comes before a noun, an adjective or another verb.

When we had a preposition which didn't come before a noun phrase, we used to say it was an adverb. In the first group of examples, the last word doesn't not have to come before a noun phrase. It's possible for the noun phrase to come before that last word, or there may not be any noun phrase at all:

  • Put the meeting off
  • I turned the offer down
  • My car broke down

Because it is possible to have sentences with no nouns after these "phrasal verbs", the last word must be an adverb according to our old definition. We can put the noun phrase afterwards if there is a noun complement:

  • Put off the meeting.
  • Turn down the offer.

But this is not important. The noun does not have to come after the last word, so the old grammar says that that word cannot be a preposition. It must be an adverb.

In the second group of examples, there must be a complement. There is always a noun phrase after the last word:

  • Look after your friends.
  • Talk about your holidays.
  • Wait for a bus.

These noun phrases have to come after the last word in the 'phrasal verb'. If we put the noun between the verb and the second part of the phrasal verb then the sentence will be ungrammatical:

  • *Look your friends after. (wrong)
  • *Talk your holidays about. (wrong)
  • *Wait a bus for. (wrong)

Because the second part of these phrasal verbs must come before a noun, these words are classed as prepositions, in the old grammar.

In the third group, there are three words: the verb and two other words. There is always a noun phrase complement when we have a three word phrasal verb. Because the third word comes before a noun, the old fashioned grammar says it is a preposition. But the middle word doesn't come before a noun so it is an adverb - according to this old grammar:

  • look forward to the party
  • look (verb); forward (adverb because the next word isn't a noun phrase); to (preposition because the next word is a noun phrase); the party (noun phrase).

Of course the reality is that these extra words are prepositions in every example. There are many test we can do to show this.

What you really need to know about phrasal verbs

The important thing about phrasal verbs, is that for some of them, we can put the noun phrase between the verb and the preposition. If the noun phrase is a pronoun, then in these phrasal verbs the pronoun must go between the verb and the preposition:

  • He picked it up.
  • *He picked up it. (wrong).

Because of this, it is a good idea to learn phrasal verbs with a pronoun. So you need to learn:

  • Pick it up.


  • Look after it.

For more information about prepositions see:

  • A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, Huddleston and Pullum, 2002

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