Phrasal verbs - featuring work on, run down, wait for and full supporting cast.

Hotmale

Senior Member
Polish
Hello,
Is "work on" a phrasal verb as in this sentence: "Paul is working on a new book" or is it just a verb with preposition, just like "run down" here: "She ran down the stairs" as opposed to "She ran down her colleague"?

Thank you
 
  • JamesM

    Senior Member
    I think "work on" is a phrasal verb. The proof for me would be that you can't say, "What is he working? He is working on a new book." You would say, "What is he working on? He is working on a new book." It looks inseparable to me.

    This is different from "Where is he working? He's working on the corner of 5th & Main, at the new library."
     

    Hotmale

    Senior Member
    Polish
    I think "work on" is a phrasal verb. The proof for me would be that you can't say, "What is he working? He is working on a new book." You would say, "What is he working on? He is working on a new book." It looks inseparable to me.

    This is different from "Where is he working? He's working on the corner of 5th & Main, at the new library."
    What about "run down (the stairs)"? Doesn't that look inseparable too?
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    What about "run down (the stairs)"? Doesn't that look inseparable too?
    Not to me. I could say, "Where is she running? She is running down the stairs."

    However, for "running down" (as in "making disparaging comments about" or "running over with a car") it would have to be, "Who is she running down? She is running down her boss."
     

    . 1

    Banned
    Australian Australia
    Phrasal verb - informal.
    It is a colloquial term but if you use such terms it is a phrasal verb.

    .,,
    EDIT: I was referring to 'ran down' as in 'she ran down her friend' as being an informal use of 'ran down'
    Of course phrasal verbs are not informal.
    Sorry for any confusion.
     

    winklepicker

    Senior Member
    English (UK)
    See this very useful dictionary of phrasal verbs.

    To answer the question, work on is a bit of a hybrid. In one way it's like 'lean on the gate' (NOT a phrasal verb). But in another way it's like 'get on in life' (meaning to improve one's situation).

    On balance, I'd say yes it's a phrasal verb, because the action doesn't need to take place actually physically ON something (unlike the lean on example). Michelangelo worked on the ceiling (but actually he was underneath it). I realise that I'm restricting the meaning of on somewhat here. However, it does NOT appear in the dictionary I linked to above. Hope this helps.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I found a very useful site that lists phrasal verbs and their meanings.
    HERE
    It includes both work on and run down.
    Scientists are working on genetically modified crops.
    You recharge the battery when it has run down.
     

    languageGuy

    Senior Member
    USA and English
    To me, it is clearly not a phrasal verb, but a verb with a prepositional phrase.

    The true test is whether the meaning of the verb remains the same without the preposition.

    Consider the verbs here.

    'She ran' has a different meaning than 'she ran down her friend.'

    'Paul is working' means the same as 'Paul is working on his book.'

    I would also disagree with JamesM. You can say, "On what is Paul working?" (A little awkward, but correct.) The prepositional nature 'on' is revealed there.
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    'Paul is working' means the same as 'Paul is working on his book.'
    The meaning is not literal, though. It has a separate meaning from, for example, "Paul is standing on his book". :) If this were a preposition it would be giving a location, wouldn't it? "Paul is working on the corner" is a prepositional use of "working on". "Paul is working on his book" has a different meaning. Paul is not standing on his book while working.

    As Winklepicker said, it can be a phrasal verb, depending on context.
     

    winklepicker

    Senior Member
    English (UK)
    The meaning is not literal, though. It has a separate meaning from, for example, "Paul is standing on his book". :) If this were a preposition it would be giving a location, wouldn't it?
    Exactly. You can work on an idea in your head and there is no physical prepositional on here.

    "Paul is working on the corner" is a prepositional use of "working on".
    More probably Paula... ;)
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    To me, it is clearly not a phrasal verb, but a verb with a prepositional phrase.[...]
    There are two different lists of phrasal verbs that include work on.
    The OED says:
    With onward movement or action; continuously. Chiefly forming phrasal verbs with the sense ‘to continue to do’ the action being specified by the verb, as to speak on, hold on, work on, wait on.
    Oh! That is not the same work on that the phrasal verb sites give.

    We snatched what we'd brownbagged while we worked on.
     

    . 1

    Banned
    Australian Australia
    I beg to differ. :( See this very useful dictionary of phrasal verbs. There's nothing colloquial or informal about the term (though you might consider it TEFL/TESL specific jargon).
    The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary thinks that 'ran down' is informal.
    I had always thought that the use of 'ran down' as in, 'She ran down her friend', to be colloquial. The link you proffered did not seem to address 'ran down' but perhaps I was just not looking properly.

    .,,
     

    elroy

    Imperfect Mod
    US English, Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    We had this debate once.

    It depends on your definition of a phrasal verb.

    To me, it's not enough for the combination to have a different meaning from the isolated verb.

    To me, a phrasal verb consists of a verb and an adverb - not a preposition. If there is a prepositional relationship between the word following the verb and the object, we have a normal prepositional phrase influencing the meaning of the verb.

    To me, the word following a phrasal verb does not have a prepositional relationship with the object. It is a preposition lookalike functioning as an adverb.

    Consider:

    She ran down the stairs. ("Down the stairs" - prepositional phrase)
    She ran down her friend. ("Down her friend" - not a prepositional phrase)

    He is working on a book ("On a book" - prepositional phrase)

    Another test is to replace the object with a pronoun. If the pronoun must come between the two words, the verb is a phrasal verb. If it must come after the second word, the verb is not a phrasal verb.

    She ran down the stairs -> She ran down them. (not *She ran them down.) - no phrasal verb
    She ran down her friend. -> She ran her down. (not *She ran down her.) - phrasal verb

    He is working on a book. -> He is working on it. (not *He is working it on.) - no phrasal verb

    Therefore, in my book "work on" is not a phrasal verb but a verb-preposition combination. Other opinions differ.
     

    bellerophon

    Member
    English - Canada
    Working on is a phrasal verb.

    Run down is too, as far as I can see.
    Both can be seen as phrasal verbs. The ultimate litmus test for phrasal verbs is to replace the preposition with another to see if the meaning of the verb changes.
    "Working on (a book, a movie, anything)" means that you are trying to complete the project
    "Working with" means that you are cooperating with someone/thing

    However, you will sometimes run into similar phrasal verbs:
    "Working at (a book, a movie, anything)" also means you are trying to complete the project.
     

    winklepicker

    Senior Member
    English (UK)
    Consider:

    She ran down the stairs. ("Down the stairs" - prepositional phrase)
    She ran down her friend. ("Down her friend" - not a prepositional phrase)

    He is working on a book ("On a book" - prepositional phrase)
    I'd be interested in your view of 'she ran up the curtains' elroy. Could this be a platypus?
     

    Hotmale

    Senior Member
    Polish
    I've got another question concerining phrasal verbs, especially "wait for". Is it a phrasal verb, or not?

    Thank you
     

    bellerophon

    Member
    English - Canada
    It depends on your definition of a phrasal verb.
    Agreed...
    A quick search in a dictionary or search engine will show a variety of definitions that linger on the same notion: a phrasal verb consists of a verb and a particle (be it an adverb, preposition, or otherwise) that changes the meaning of the verb. By its nature, a phrasal verb cannot be broken apart without a loss in (the verb's) meaning.

    If there is a prepositional relationship between the word following the verb and the object, we have a normal prepositional phrase influencing the meaning of the verb.

    She ran down the stairs. ("Down the stairs" - prepositional phrase)
    She ran down her friend. ("Down her friend" - not a prepositional phrase)

    He is working on a book ("On a book" - prepositional phrase)
    While the first 2 examples are correct, the 3rd is not (using the same logic). A prepositional phrase can stand alone without a loss in meaning, eg. "down the stairs". The sentences with phrasal verbs do not hold the same meaning when they are broken apart, eg. "down her friend" and "on a book". He was not working (physically) on the book, but instead he was working (to complete) the book.
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    Another test is to replace the object with a pronoun. If the pronoun must come between the two words, the verb is a phrasal verb. If it must come after the second word, the verb is not a phrasal verb
    One of the sites cited above included such word combinations as "act up", "back down", and "make out" as phrasal verbs. These all make sense to me as phrasal verbs, but none of them can be split in the way you suggest.

    I take it that they are not phrasal verbs, in your estimation.
     

    elroy

    Imperfect Mod
    US English, Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    I'm sorry; my test only applies if the verb is transitive.

    There is no doubt that "act up," "back down," and "make out" (meaning "kiss, neck" etc.) are phrasal verbs because they are intransitive.

    The transitive "make out" passes my test.

    Make out the check. - Make it out. (not *Make out it.)
    I can't make out his words. - I can't make them out. (not *I can't make out them.)
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    I'm sorry; my test only applies if the verb is transitive.

    There is no doubt that "act up," "back down," and "make out" (meaning "kiss, neck" etc.) are phrasal verbs because they are intransitive.
    So, "the clock ran down" would be a phrasal verb, but "she ran down her friend" would not, in your definition?
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    I still run into a problem with "working on", though. Splitting up "working on a book" changes the meaning of "on a book" to me.

    He is working:

    in the office
    on the top floor
    after hours
    on a book


    The meaning of "on a book" doesn't match these other prepositional phrases to me. A prepositional phrase indicates the relationship of one thing to another, doesn't it? "in the office" gives us the location; so does "on the top floor". "on a book" does not give us a relationship to "he". "After hours" gives us a location in time. It requires "working" and "on" to make sense of "he is working on a book."

    In other words:

    "Where is he working?" :tick: in the office, on the top floor
    "When is he working?" :tick: after hours
    "What is he working?" :cross: on a book

    The question we must ask to make sense of "he is working on a book" is "What is he working on?" To me, this means the "working on" has a distinct meaning which is more than "working".
     

    Hotmale

    Senior Member
    Polish
    I've got similar doubts:

    I am waiting:

    for you
    around
    in for the plumber
    on the jury's veridict
     

    elroy

    Imperfect Mod
    US English, Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    I still run into a problem with "working on", though. Splitting up "working on a book" changes the meaning of "on a book" to me.
    Granted, but as I said above it's not enough - to me - for the meaning to change for the combination to be considered a phrasal verb.
    He is working:

    in the office
    on the top floor
    after hours
    on a book


    The meaning of "on a book" doesn't match these other prepositional phrases to me. A prepositional phrase indicates the relationship of one thing to another, doesn't it? "in the office" gives us the location; so does "on the top floor". "on a book" does not give us a relationship to "he". "After hours" gives us a location in time. It requires "working" and "on" to make sense of "he is working on a book."
    In all of these examples, the preposition links its object to "working" - not to "he." It's just that in the last one, the meaning is different.
    In other words:

    "Where is he working?" :tick: in the office, on the top floor
    "When is he working?" :tick: after hours
    "What is he working?" :cross: on a book

    The question we must ask to make sense of "he is working on a book" is "What is he working on?" To me, this means the "working on" has a distinct meaning which is more than "working".
    Yes, but that does not mean "on" is not a preposition.

    I ran for exercise.
    I ran for office.

    The second "ran" takes on a new meaning because of the preposition (this does not happen in the first sentence), but to me both "for exercise" and "for office" are prepositional phrases. They show the relationship between their respective objects and the verb.

    Furthermore, not all prepositional phrases can be easily replaced with a question word when in question format.

    I played with my brother.

    Who did you play with?
    or
    With whom did you play?

    This does not mean "with my brother" is not a prepositional phrase.
     

    Hotmale

    Senior Member
    Polish
    How could you name these? Are they all prepositional phrases?

    He is working:

    in the office
    on the top floor
    after hours
    on a book

    Thank you.
     

    elroy

    Imperfect Mod
    US English, Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    To me, none of them are phrasal verbs.

    But as I said in my first post, there are other opinions. There are many who views things like James. It all comes down to your definition of a phrasal verb.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Please forgive these questions if they seem inappropriate. They are meant sincerely and asked out of grammatical naïveté.

    This debate about what is and what is not a phrasal verb is interesting. It matters to people who care about what is and what is not a phrasal verb.
    But does it matter to ordinary people?
    Does it make any difference to the way we use the verbs?
    Is it the way we use the verbs that determines into which class they fall?
     

    Hotmale

    Senior Member
    Polish
    If you ask me, I am not that interested in how you call "run down (a friend)". What I need to know is the way they (phrasal verbs or non-phrasal verbs) function in a sentece, when a preposition/adverb is moveable.
    However, I asked this question because I am doing an exercise in which I am to identify phrasal verbs out of a list of both pharsal verbs and verbs with prepositons. I put off doing this exercise to the last minute :).

    However, it is great to know so much about a language, isn't it?
     

    elroy

    Imperfect Mod
    US English, Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    Good question, Panj.

    It doesn't really matter to "ordinary people" unless you're interested in how a sentence parses grammatically. Some people, like me, get a kick out of that. Others couldn't care less.

    For learners of the language, though, I think it can be important. For one, knowing whether a verb-particle combination is a phrasal verb (according to my definition) helps you with pronoun placement.

    What is more important, though, is that it helps you internalize the difference between a particle so closely connected to the verb that together with the verb it creates a new verb, and is only different from ordinary verbs because there is a space, and one that shows a clear prepositional relationship with the object. Understanding this difference helps you understand the language.

    In my opinion, this debate would not exist if the adverbs in phrasal verbs were physically attached to the verbs they go with. Other Germanic languages have a similar phenomenon, but in German and Dutch (I can't speak for the others) the particle in a "phrasal verb" is attached to the verb as a separable prefix in the infinitive form, whereas a preposition is not, even if it dramatically changes the meaning of the verb. Those who know German or Dutch will know what I'm talking about, and will have an easier time coming to terms with the distinction the way I see it.
     

    elroy

    Imperfect Mod
    US English, Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    However, I asked this question because I am doing an exercise in which I am to identify phrasal verbs out of a list of both pharsal verbs and verbs with prepositons. I put off doing this exercise to the last minute :).
    I think for the purposes of your exercise "work on" would definitely not be considered a phrasal verb. It obviously parallels "She ran down the stairs" and not "She ran down her friend."
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    Sorry to dig this one up from the distant past, but I still think "working on" is a phrasal verb. With the others, such as "she ran down the stairs", you can pose a question that deals only with the verb: "Where did she run"? You can't split it up in the same way with "working on": "Where is he working/What is he working?" :cross: The "on" must be included in the question to make sense: "What is he working on?"
     

    elroy

    Imperfect Mod
    US English, Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    That's only because "down the stairs" refers to a location so you can replace it with "where." In "He's working on a book," there's no single interrogative word that can replace "on a book," so you have to use "on what." This is purely related to the semantics of each sentence; grammatically, "run down the stairs" and "work on a book" are the same.
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    I still disagree. :) You don't need to say "She's running down what?", do you? They are not the same because a question cannot be formed in the same way for both.

    (It's so good to see you on the board, elroy.)

    To me the proof is in the formation of the questions. I do not need to include any part of the prepositional phrase in my question. I can simply include the word that indicates the type of information contained in the prepositional phrase. "Where is she running?" There is no such word to cover the meaning of "working on". You can't say "What is he working?" without adding "on". In the same way you can't ask "Who is she running?" without including "down" with that phrasal verb.
     
    Last edited:

    elroy

    Imperfect Mod
    US English, Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    (Thanks, JamesM!!!)

    Again, the differences in question formation have to do with semantics only.

    I worked in Spain. - Where did you work?
    I spoke in verse. - How did you speak?
    I slept in shorts. - What did you sleep in?

    The questions are formed differently, due to semantic differences, but "in Spain," "in verse," and "in shorts" are all grammatically the same (prepositional phrases).
     
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