Let down and look after: the difference between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs

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by Liz Walter

My colleague Kate Woodford and I have written many posts about phrasal verbs because students find them difficult but know they need to learn them. These posts often include prepositional verbs, and readers sometimes ask about this.

So what is the difference between a phrasal verb and a prepositional verb? Strictly speaking, a phrasal verb consists of a verb and an adverb (or in the case of 3-word phrasal verbs, an adverb and a preposition). When phrasal verbs are transitive, the object can go either between the verb and the particle or after them:

She let her friends down.

She let down her friends.

Some phrasal verbs can also stand alone as intransitive verbs:

I enjoy chilling out with my friends.

On the other hand, a prepositional verb consists of a verb and a preposition which can never be split up and must always have an object:

I have to look after my little brother today.

So does this matter? Do we really need to know which are phrasal verbs and which are prepositional verbs? And should we teach them separately?

In my view, the essential point for learners is that with both types of verb you need to learn the verb and the particle together as one single unit of meaning. It is probably not worth worrying about whether rely on is a phrasal verb or a prepositional verb, especially if you just want to remember what it means.

Most of the major dictionaries for learners of English take this approach: both classic phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs are labelled ‘phrasal verb’. There seems to be general agreement that this is the most sensible way to present them.

However, if you want to use these words productively, you do need to remember that you can’t separate prepositional verbs. This is particularly important if you are using a pronoun as the object because in ‘real’ phrasal verbs, the pronoun must come between the verb and the particle:

She let them down.

However, as I mentioned above, prepositional verbs are never separated:

She looked after them.

Good dictionaries for learners give information about this in their entries, so if you are unsure, it is worth using one to check. For example, the Cambridge Dictionary  says look after sb/sth to show that the object (‘sb’ for a person, ‘sth’ for a thing) must come after the particle, but let sb down to show that the object can separate the verb and the particle.

I’d be interested to know what you, as teachers and learners of English think: do you notice the difference between phrasal and prepositional verbs? Do you think it is necessary or useful to treat them differently? And do you have any tips for learning them?

25 thoughts on “Let down and look after: the difference between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs

  1. Mohamed

    good afternoon my best dear,,
    iam as alearner of english , see that it’s better and necessary to separate between pharasal verb and and prepositional verb ,,,,,
    in short ,, I agree with you,,
    but , the big problem in english is that these verbs are more and there are aplenty of them in language ,, so i need actually to know how can I be aware of them easily???

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, this is a problem for most learners of English. I’m afraid there’s no easy answer, but do search for more of my posts on phrasal verbs (my colleague Kate Woodford has also written several), and they may help you.

  2. Zech Hcez

    To a learner the label difference doesn’t matter, as long as you are taught and learn your verbal compound as being separable or not, moreover learners whose mother tongue is a European one know by instinct that the parts of propositional verbs can’t be separated. But it may not be the case for all languages.

  3. As an English learner, I notice the difference by looking at what comes after the verb.
    If the verb comes with an adverb, then this verb will be a phrasal verb.
    On the other hand, if the verb follows up a preposition, this verb will be a prepositional verb.

    In my opinion, it’s useful to treat them differently so that we can use them correctly.
    For English beginners, I’d like to recommend learning the differences from reading instead of dealing with the grammatical tricks. It helps when we familiarize with how phrasal and prepositional verbs are used in reality 🙂

  4. S. Saran

    In our days (1960s) there used to be two English grammar books named Nesfield Grammar and Brighter Grammar. These books helped to get a good grasp of the nuances English grammar. But now, I have forgotten those rules of grammar. And to make matters worse, the books got destroyed in a major flood in the 1970s. Can you please recommend one exhaustive book on English grammar , which I may buy and use it to refresh my English grammar and use the knowledge to write my second book for oublishing. The grammar lessons in bits and pieces is a bit annoying to me.

  5. jerly

    I’m a English learner,and I did’t realise the difference before reading your post.I think it isn’t important to treat them differently.You just need to memory the usage of each one.After storing a lot of such kind of fixed collocation,you will automatically use them correctly without thinking,at least, for me.

  6. I think prepositional verbs are a part of phrasal verb if you go logically as the ne suggests. After all ‘looked after” together, works as a verb which is in the phrasal form. However, your clarification on the two types was very interesting and a good learning experience.

    1. Hi there! I found the post really useful and discovered that it attracted a lot of comments. I would suggest that it is worth making a difference between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs depending on the level we are teaching them. For beginners and even intermediate levels that are having their first experiences with them, it would be much more advisable just to mention a general definition comprising the two of them. For upper levels, I do consider it is appropriate to explain differences, because that’s the way the English language is and functions and as teachers we should be commited to refer to the aproppiate terminology. However, I have discovered something really useful to add to my classes when teaching phrasal verbs in unadvanced levels, that prepositional verbs cannot be split up. Funny as it may sound, I haven’t been able to come up with such symple but accurate definition. Thank you!

  7. Antonella

    I think that deepening the use of phrasal verbs is very important. Personally I would like to have patterns that deepen the topic and facilitate memorization: patterns by preposition, by typology (phrasal verbs with preposition and adverbs, etc

  8. anissa kadem

    Le mer. 29 janv. 2020 à 12:03, About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog a écrit :

    > Liz Walter posted: ” by Liz Walter My colleague Kate Woodford and I have > written many posts about phrasal verbs because students find them difficult > but know they need to learn them. These posts often include prepositional > verbs, and readers sometimes ask about this. ” >

  9. Hello, Liz. Your article has become an eye-opener for me. It wasn’t until I read it that the difference between the two types of verbs is the key 🔑 to know what case I can separate a phrase in and what one I can’t.
    Moreover, I must confess to missing the information about the existence of any differences. I merely thought that it was just different names for the same single notion.

    Nuances are the king.
    Thank you very much, Liz.

  10. Nga Lam

    I think it will be good to point out the differences in dictionaries.

    For beginners, it may be good not to point out the differences to avoid making things too complex. But when the beginners learn more, they should be given something to check and advance their English. Here comes a good dictionary.

    A good grammar book with a chapter on this could also help.

  11. Ness

    I totally get the difference. And I have to thank German and latin for that. Obviously when you learn from French only, it must be a challenge. I have to be honest though, I needed to look it up, I don’t remember having this lesson at school or even university.

    1. BRIKI

      There is no problem with the phrasal verbs such as look at,look after,go after,rely on, put on. because the meaning is always the same and should be definitely learned once time.(no separation between the verb and particle).But these verbs can be used alone or with a preposition and can be separated from the particle (up,out,down..over…).and change the meaning..So we get used to them through reading ,the context and too the flair and instinct..(look …up.,turn ..over….)
      I tend to use formal verbs in academic language rather than synonyms that are more appropriate such as leave out /omit,rebuke instead tell off…,put up with./
      Thanks for this interesting lesson of grammar rules( how to deal with transitive and intransitive phrasal verbs ..)and especially the links to improve vocabulary ..

  12. Haitham Ghazy

    In my view, as an English learner. it really does not matter its classification if I know the meaning well. I am treating them as if it is only one word.

    Thank you, Liz.

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