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Begin by introducing the terms "prepositional verb" and "phrasal verb" to your ESL students. Explain that the English language has two types of verbs that are combinations of verbs and prepositions. Depending on the native languages of your ESL learners, some of your students may be familiar with one or both types of verbs. For example, Spanish speakers will be familiar with prepositional verbs while German speakers should be familiar with phrasal verbs.
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First explain the English prepositional verb. Prepositional verbs are defined as intransitive verbs that consist of a verb followed by a prepositional phrase. The prepositional phrase functions as a verb phrase complement. A verb phrase complement is defined as a word or phrase that directly follows and completes the meaning of the verb. The following English verbs are prepositional verbs:
- approve of
- ask for
- cope with
- insist on
- laugh about
- listen to
- Her parents approve of her boyfriend.
- The patient is asking for pain medication.
- He has been coping with his increased workload.
- The doctor insisted on several tests.
- We can now laugh about the accident.
- The neighbors listen to terrible music.
Prepositional verbs are intransitive meaning prepositional verbs do not and cannot take direct objects. A direct object is defined as a words, phrase, or clause that receives the action of a transitive verb. Prepositional verbs are intransitive because English verbs may have either verb phrase complements or direct objects but not both. For example:
- The puppy ate the treat. (correct – direct object)
- The child confessed to eating the cookies. (correct – verb phrase complement)
- *The tourists looked the paintings and at the sculptures. (incorrect)
The prepositional phrase functioning as the verb phrase complement must directly follow the verb. For example:
- The bride objected to the gaudy centerpieces for the reception. (correct)
- *The bride objected for the reception to the gaudy centerpieces. (incorrect)
- She yearned for more adventure in her life. (correct)
- *She yearned in her life for more adventure. (incorrect)
The meaning of a prepositional verb is literal. For example, the meaning of look at "to direct sight in the direct of" is a literal combination of look "to direct sight" and at "in the direct of."
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Next explain the English phrasal verb. Phrasal verbs are defined as periphrastic intransitive or transitive verbs that consist of a verb followed by one or more prepositions. The preposition functions as a particle. A particle is defined as a function word that performs a grammatical function but has little lexical meaning. The following English verbs are phrasal verbs:
- act up (misbehave)
- butt in (interrupt)
- drop in on (visit)
- get in (arrive)
- mix up (confuse)
- take after (resemble)
- My students have been acting up lately.
- His coworker always butts in on his private conversations.
- We dropped in on our grandparents yesterday.
- What time does the train get in?
- I always mix their names up!
- She takes after her father.
Phrasal verbs may be either intransitive or transitive depending on the specific verb. Intransitive phrasal verbs cannot or do not take direct objects. Transitive phrasal verbs must take direct objects. For example:
- The baby just woke up. (intransitive)
- My little brother ran away from home. (intransitive)
- Two toddlers threw up today. (intransitive)
- The construction crew blew up the old building. (transitive)
- The courts have done away with corporeal punishment. (transitive)
- He will pay off his debt. (transitive)
The preposition functioning as the particle may or may not directly follow the verb. Nonseparable phrasal verbs require the preposition to directly follow the verb. Optionally separable phrasal verbs allow the preposition to follow either the verb or the direct object. Obligatorily separable phrasal verbs require the preposition to directly follow the direct object. Only transitive phrasal verbs can be optionally or obligatorily separable. For example:
- The entertainment finally showed up. (nonseparable)
- The boss just laid in on our lazy coworker. (nonseparable)
- The ushers pass out the programs. (optionally separable)
- The ushers pass the programs out. (optionally separable)
- The child looked up the information. (optionally separable)
- The child looked the information up. (optionally separable)
- The child looked it up. (obligatorily separable)
The meaning of a phrasal verb is figurative. For example, the meaning of the phrasal verb throw up "vomit" cannot be determined by combining the meanings of throw "toss" and up "at a higher point." Phrasal verbs often have single-word synonyms as in throw up and vomit.
For more information on phrasal verbs, please read the article English Phrasal Verbs for ESL Students.
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Prepositional Verb and Phrasal Verb Comparison
Finally compare the prepositional verb to the phrasal verb. Because both prepositional verbs and phrasal verbs are verb-preposition combinations, ESL students must learn to compare to distinguish between the two verb forms. The following chart compares prepositional verbs with phrasal verbs:
To determine whether a verb is prepositional or phrasal, your ESL students must look at the transitivity of the verb, the function of the preposition, and separability of the preposition.
- First consider the transitivity of the verb. If the verb is transitive, then the verb-preposition combination is definitely a phrasal verb.
- If the verb is intransitive, then consider the separability of the preposition. If the preposition is separable, then the verb-preposition combination is definitely a phrasal verb.
- If the preposition is nonseparable, finally consider the function of the preposition. If the preposition functions as a particle, then the verb-preposition combination is definitely a phrasal verb.
- If the verb is intransitive, the preposition nonseparable, and the preposition functions as a verb phrase complement, then the verb-preposition combination is definitely a prepositional verb.
Use the ESL Reading Passages for Prepositional Verbs and Phrasal Verbs to practice identifying prepositional verbs and phrasal verbs.
- Screenshots provided by the writer