Transitive Phrasal Verb

understanding transitive Phrasal Verbs

PHRASAL VERBSOpens in new window are made up of a verb and a following particle. The particle in this sense, refers to words that function as prepositions or adverbs in other contexts (e.g., up, on, down, out, around) but do not function as prepositions or adverbs when part of a phrasal verb. In this entry, we focus on Transitive Phrasal Verbs

TRANSITIVE PHRASAL VERBS fall into three categories, depending on where the object NP can occur in relation to the verb and the particle.

1.  Separable Transitive Phrasal Verbs

In the sentence 1a) below, the phrasal verb looked up is followed by the direct object NP the address. This sentence could, however, be rewritten as is in 1b).

  • 1a)  Maggie looked up the address.
  • 1b)  Maggie looked the address up.

Sentence 1) illustrates that look up is a SEPARABLE TRANSITIVE PHRASAL VERB. It is classified as such because its parts may be separated by an object; that is, the direct object may appear between the verb looked and the particle up.

SEPARABLE TRANSITIVE PHRASAL VERBS occur frequently in conversation, fiction, and news reports. They appear less frequently in academic writing. Examples of separable transitive phrasal verbs that occur with high frequency are shown below.

get backpick upput onlook up
make uptake offtake onturn off

Particle Movement Rule

The separation of the phrasal verb is the result of applying the PARTICLE MOVEMENT RULE, which moves the particle to the position following the object. This is shown in 2b).

  • 2a)  Maggie looked up the address.
  • 2b)  Maggie looked _ the address up.
  • (moving the particle up to the position following the object the address)

Most Transitive Phrasal Verbs take the PARTICLE MOVEMENT RULE. As long as the direct object of a separable phrasal verb is not a pronoun, the particle movement rule is optional (i.e., you can apply it or not). If, however, the direct object is a personal pronounOpens in new window (him, her , it them, etc.) or a demonstrative pronounOpens in new window (this/that, these/those), the participle movement rule must be applied.

Thus, if we change the direct object in 3a), the telephone number, to the pronoun it, we must apply the apply the PARTICLE MOVEMENT RULE, as shown in 3b). Otherwise, an ungrammatical sentence results, as shown in 3c).

  • 3a)  John looked up the telephone number.
  • 3b)  John looked it up.
  • 3c)  John looked up it.

The PARTICLE MOVEMENT RULE is optional if the direct object is an indefinite pronoun, such as some and other, or a quantifier, such as a few and several, as 4a) and 4b) illustrate.

  • 4a)  I picked up {somea few } this morning.
  • 4b)  I picked {somea few } up this morning.

Blocking particle movement: end weight

Although the PARTICLE MOVEMENT RULE is optional except in cases such as the one shown in 3c), native speakers will not apply it if a transitive phrasal verb is followed by a long object noun phrase, as is the case in 5).

  • 5)  John looked up some information about an early religion in which forces of nature such as fire were worshipped.

One reason for not applying the particle movement rule in this case is to avoid creating a sentence such as 6).

  • 6)  John looked some information about an early religion in which forces of nature such as fire were worshipped up.

Although sentence 6) is grammatical, it sounds clumsy because the particle is so far away from the verb. The sentence violates the principle of END WEIGHT, a general tendency in English that can be formulated as follows: put long, “heavy” elements such as complex NPs at the end of a clause or sentence, rather than in the middle.

Failure to follow the principle of END WEIGHT with phrasal verbs that have long object NPs makes a sentence harder to process to understand.

2.inSeparable Transitive Phrasal Verbs

A small group of transitive phrasal verbs do not permit the particle to move over the direct object even if it is a pronoun, as indicated in 7) and 8). Particle movement is not possible with these INSEPARABLE PHRASAL VERBS.

  • 7a)  Don’t pick on my brother.
  • 7b)  Don’t pick on him 7c) Don’t pick him on.
  • 8a)  Look after my sister, will you?
  • 8b)  Look after her, will you?
  • 8c)  Look her after, will you?

As with SEPARABLE TRANSITIVE VERBS, the meaning of INSEPARABLE TRANSITIVE VERBS usually cannot be deduced from the sum of their parts. For example, the meaning “annoy, pester” is not obvious from the verb + particle combination pick on in sentence 7). This small group of verbs include come by (“acquire”), look into (“investigate”), and run into (“encounter”).

3.Permanently Separated Transitive Phrasal Verbs

A very small group of transitive phrasal verbs require that the direct object occur between the verb and the particle. These verbs are therefore referred to as PERMANENTLY SEPARATED TRANSITIVE PHRASAL VERBS. The particle cannot appear directly after the verb, as sentences 9) and 10) illustrate.

  • 9a)   That job is getting Janice down.
  • 9b)  That job is getting her down.
  • 9c)  That job is getting down Janice.
  • 10a)   The judge let the thief off with a light sentence.
  • 10b)  The judge let him off with a light sentence.
  • 10c)  The judge let off the thief with a light sentence.

In addition to get (someone) down and let (someone) off, this group of verbs includes ask (someone) out, do (something) over, and see (something) through.

There are a few idioms that appear to be permanently separated transitive phrasal verbs. However, in contrast to permanently separated verbs, these verbs are highly restricted to certain nouns for their objects. It is therefore more appropriate to view the structures as idioms that have the same form as permanently separated transitive phrasal verbs.

The idioms in sentences 11a) and 11b) mean “cry profusely,” and “laugh uproariously,” respectively.

  • 11a)  He cried his eyes out.
  • 11b)  She laughed her head off.