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Prepositional and phrasal verbs
traffic lights
Hande Hamamclar from Turkey asks:

What are the differences between prepositional and phrasal verbs?
Roger replies:more questions
Consider the following sentences:
  • 'I just didn’t see them. I drove through the traffic lights when they were red.'

  • 'He wasn’t tall enough and couldn’t climb over the fence.'
In these two examples, through and over are prepositions and are used with objects: 'through the traffic lights' and 'over the fence'. Prepositions always have objects. This combination of verb and preposition is usually referred to as a prepositional verb, although sometimes it is also known as a phrasal verb. Further examples might be:
  • 'Could you look after my cat while I’m away?'

  • 'She sailed through her exams and got top marks.'
Now consider these two sentences:
  • 'He broke down on the Dover to Canterbury Road.'

  • 'I was too close to the car in front so I dropped back.'

In these examples, down and back are not prepositions but function as adverbs to extend or change the meaning of the verb. This combination of verb and adverb is always known as a phrasal verb.

Note that it is not always possible to guess the meaning of phrasal verbs (or prepositional verbs for that matter) from the normal meaning of the verb. Instead, you may need to try to guess the meaning from the context, or, failing that, you might have to look it up in a dictionary.

In the above examples:

Prepositional/ phrasal verb Definition
look after care for, take care of
sail through get through something without difficulty
break down It’s not clear what is meant by this sentence without the larger context. Either the car broke down and stopped working or the driver broke down and started crying because he/she was very sad about something;
drop back drive more slowly to increase the distance between yourself and the vehicle in front.

Note that when a phrasal verb takes a direct object, the adverb can be put before or after the object:
  • 'Could you please pay the money back / pay back the money as soon as possible after Easter?'
  • 'He ripped the contract up / ripped up the contract even before he had read it.'
  • 'They frightened the deer away / frightened away the deer when they got too close to them.'
However, if the object is a pronoun, the adverb must be placed after the object:
  • 'Could you please pay it back as soon as possible after Easter?'
  • 'He ripped it up even before he had read it.'
  • 'They frightened them away when they got too close to them.'
Most phrasal verbs consist of two words, a verb and an adverb or a verb and a preposition. However, there are a number of phrasal verbs which consist of three words: a verb, an adverb and a preposition.

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