Home | Table of Contents | Chapter 6 | Glossary


1 Adverbials

Prepositional Verbs

Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal Prepositional Verbs (Optional)

5 Objects and adverbials

6 Conclusion


Keys to the Exercises

Special Topic:

Further Reading


This chapter deals with adverbials, i.e. the optional elements in the sentences that provide background information on when, where, why, and how the event described by the verb and its objects takes place. It is important to be aware that adverbials are not always realized as AdvPs, but can also be realized as PPs (or clauses, see chapter 8). Prepositional objects are also discussed since they are often argued to be adverbials. Objects to phrasal verbs are regular direct objects. They are discussed here rather than in chapter 4 because they are easily confused with prepositional objects and include a preposition-like element called a particle. Finally, two other kinds of verbs are discussed involving particles and prepositions: the intransitive phrasal verbs and the phrasal prepositional verb.

1.     Adverbials

When adverbials modify verbs, they express when, where, how, and why the action takes place. So, they give background information on time, place, manner, and cause of the event. In the tree structure, we make a distinction between direct and indirect objects, subject predicates, and object predicates on the one hand (all referred to as complements) and adverbials on the other: objects, subject predicates, and object predicates are closer to the verb than adverbials. Even if in the tree only the phrases have labels, and their functions are not indicated, you should be able to tell from the tree which phrase is the object and which is the adverbial in (1):


In (1), the NP the story is sister to the V wrote and is therefore the object; quickly is not a sister to V, but to a node not yet named, and is an adverbial since it tells you how the story was written. As in chapter 3, I will leave it up to you whether you want to label the intermediate node in (1), which is currently unlabelled. Since the unlabelled node is an intermediate inside the VP, we would call it a V' (`V-bar').

     There is a difference between a VP-adverbial (e.g. quickly in (1)) and a sentence adverbial (e.g. fortunately). Sentence adverbials (or S-adverbials) do not modify the action of the VP but express the views and the mood of the speaker. Trees for a sentence-initial and sentence-final S-adverbial are given in (2):


I discuss hopefully in chapter 2 (see special topics): for most speakers of English, hopefully is both a VP-adverbial and an S-adverbial. The same is true for adverbs such as happily in (3). There are two interpretations. One is where painting the pictures was a happy event, in which case, happily is a VP-adverbial modifying painted those pictures, and the comma is less appropriate. A second interpretation is where the speaker expresses an opinion about the entire sentence (perhaps because the pictures turned out to be good):

3.     Happily, I painted those pictures.

The same ambiguity exists for adverbs such as wisely.

PPs that function as adverbials are typically VP-adverbials. They often provide background information regarding place, as in (4), and time, as in (5):



A sentence can have many adverbials (depending on the speaker's or hearer's patience). For instance, in (6), the speaker's feelings (unfortunately), the time (that morning), and place (to work) of driving the car are given, as well as the reason for this action (the bus had broken down) and the way in which the action occurred (without glasses):

6.         Unfortunately, he drove the car [to work] [that morning] [without his glasses] [because the bus had broken down].

It is possible to add more adverbials to this sentence, e.g. quickly or recklessly.

            As can be seen in (6), adverbials are not only realized as AdvPs such as quickly, but also as NPs (that morning), PPs (to work and without his glasses), and clauses (because the bus had broken down, see chapter 7). This means NPs function not only as subjects, indirect and direct objects, subject predicates and object predicates (see previous chapter), but also as adverbials. AdvPs on the other hand only function as adverbials. PPs function mainly as adverbials and subject predicates but as we'll see in the next section, they also function as objects to certain verbs, namely prepositional ones (and, as we saw in chapter 3 and will see in more detail in chapter 9, they can also be modifiers inside a phrase).

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2  Prepositional Verbs

Prepositional verbs are verbs such as abide by in (7), refer to in (8), glance at, lean against, account for, reply to, absolve from, long for, yearn for, argue about, and defer to in which the P with the NP functions as an object:

7.         They abided by the contract.

8.         He referred to that article.

These verbs require a PP, i.e. (9) and (10) are ungrammatical, and that's why the PP is considered an object rather than an adverbial. The contract in (7) and that article in (8) can also be passivized, as in (11) and (12), and this test shows that they are real objects, as shown in (13), where the PP is sister to V:

9.         *He abides.

10.       *He refers all the time.

11.       The contract was abided by.

12.       That article wasn't referred to by him.



Native speakers of English know that verbs such as refer are combined with a certain preposition. Non native speakers must learn the meanings of these verbs or look them up in a dictionary, e.g. refer with, refer about, refer at are not possible.

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3     Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs must be distinguished from prepositional verbs and from verbs with an adverbial. Like prepositional verbs, they are listed separately in a dictionary since their combinations are somewhat idiosyncratic. Examples of phrasal verbs are call up, bring up, cover up, turn in, put down, take off, switch on, as in (14) to (18):14.       They called up the president.

15.       They covered up the scandal.

16.       Helen turned in her homework.

17.       She put down the nasty people.

18.       She switched on the light.

The prepositions up, in, down, and on accompanying these verbs have become particles rather than prepositions since they no longer always express place or direction. The structure of a sentence such as (14) is therefore one of a verb with a particle, as in (19):


Thus, in (19), for the sake of convenience, the verb and particle are placed in V together, whereas the object is a separate NP.

            One of the easy (but not so well understood) criteria for determining if a verb is phrasal is whether the (pronominalized) object can be put between the verb and the particle, as in (20) to (22):

20.       They called him up.

21.       They covered it up.

22.       She turned it in with many mistakes.

23.       She put them down.

24.       She switched it on.

This is not possible with prepositional verbs, as the unacceptable (25) shows:

25.       *They abided it by.

The basic distinction, clear from (19), is that the V and particle form a unit and that the object is an NP, not a PP. This is so because (a) a pause can occur between the verb - particle complex and the NP object, as in (26), but not between the V and the unit which is not a phrase as in (27); (b) the NP objects can be coordinated, as in (28), but the particle and NP cannot, as (29) shows; and (c) moving the NP object to the left by itself, as in (30), is ok, indicating the NP is a unit, but moving the particle and the NP together is not ok, as (31) shows, indicating they do not form a phrase:

26.       She put down --- the customers.

27.       *She put --- down the customers.

28.       She put down the customers and the owner.

29.       *She put down the customers and down the owner.

30.       It was the customers she put down.

31.       *It was down the customers she put.

            In (32) and (33), examples are given of phrasal verbs without an NP object:

32.       His career is taking off.

33.       They finally gave in.

Because the verb and particle have lost their independent meanings, just like the verbs in (14) to (24) above, they are referred to as phrasal verbs. Unlike the phrasal verbs in (14) to (24), they lack objects. Some other examples are: sleep in, turn in, as in (34):

34.       Even though I turned in early last night, I slept in.


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4     Phrasal Prepositional Verbs (Optional)

Constructions with phrasal prepositional verbs combine a verb, a particle, a preposition, and an NP. The object of such a verb is a prepositional object, as indicated with brackets in (35) and (36):

35.       Orrmm will not put up [with that noise].

36.       Benji came up [with a new solution to Fermat's Theorem].

The reason they are phrasal is that the verb and the particle have lost their independent meaning. They are, however, not very prepositional since the preposition and the prepositional object cannot be fronted very well, as the awkwardness of (37) shows. Nevertheless, they are called phrasal prepositional:

37.       ?With that noise, Orrmm will not put up.


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5     Objects and adverbials

As a possible help in distinguishing the different functions, table 5.1 is provided:

  Objects Su/Obj Predicates Adverbials
Obligatory yes yes no: optional info on time/place, etc


yes no no
TABLE 5.1: Differences among Objects, Su/Obj Predicates, and Adverbials


I have already mentioned that adverbials are optional but that objects and predicates are not. A second criterion for distinguishing the different functions is passivization. As mentioned, direct and indirect objects and the NP in the prepositional object can be passivized, e.g. (38), (39), and (40) respectively:

38.       Emma was seen.

39.       Walter was given a book.

40.       The article was referred to.

Not yet mentioned above is that objects of phrasal verbs can also be passivized, as expected if they are objects. An example is (41):

41.       The scandal was covered up immediately.

            The NPs in adverbials, subject predicates, and object predicates cannot be passivized, as is shown for adverbials in (42) and object predicates in (43):

42.       *The meeting was slept during.

43.       *The chair was elected him.

As expected, the direct object in (43) can be passivized namely as He was elected the chair.

            So, in contrast to prepositional objects such as those in (7) and (8) above, in a sentence with an adverbial PP such as (44), the adverbial PP can be left out, as in (45). Sentences with an adverbial cannot be passivized by making the NP the meeting into a subject, as shown in (42), unlike the ones with prepositional and phrasal objects, as in (40) and (41) above respectively, where the NP can become subject:

44.       He slept [during the meeting].

45.       He slept.

            In the previous chapter, we discussed intransitive verbs such as sleep, sneeze, go, and swim. Now that we know there are PP objects as well as PP adverbials, how can we tell which is which using the criteria from table 5.1, e.g. in sentences such as (46) and (47):

46.       I went [to the library].

47.       I swam [in the pool].

Some speakers regard the information contained in the PP as essential and others consider it less so. If the goal of the going is seen as obligatory in (46), one might call the PP an object, a prepositional object in this case; if the goal is seen as optional, the PP would be an adverbial. Hence, for sentences such as (46) and (47), there are two different analyses: the verbs can be intransitive ones with the PPs functioning as adverbials or the verbs can be prepositional ones with the PPs functioning as prepositional objects. Notice that these sentences differ as to whether or not they can be passivized, as shown in (48) and (49). Testing if passivization occurs or not makes the adverbial analysis plausible for (46); and the object analysis for (51):

48.       *The library was gone to.

49.       ?The pool was swum in.

Those of you for whom (48) and/or (49) are ok consider both or one of the adverbials more like objects.

            It could be that (49) sounds awkward because speakers feel ill at ease with the participle of the verb swim. Let's therefore try two other sentences and their passives:

50.       He walked on the grass.

51.       Washington slept in this bed.

52.       The grass was walked on.

53.       This bed was slept in.

Sentences (52) and (53) provide evidence that the grass and this bed are real objects.

            Two other frequently asked questions are (a) how the object predicate, as in (54) to (56), repeated from chapter 4, differs from a modifier to a noun, e.g. from Mars in (57), or (b) from an adverbial in (58). I have indicated the most likely analyses by means of brackets:

54.       She painted [the house] [purple].

55.       Jane considers [Pride and Prejudice] [a classic].

56.       She put [the cup] [on the table].

57.       I saw [a man from Mars].

58.       I saw [a man] [in the garden].

The answer is that, in (57), from Mars forms part of the direct object (as indicated by the brackets) which can be replaced by a single element, as in (59). In a sentence such as (56), on the table is not part of the direct object since they cannot both be replaced by one element as the ungrammatical (60) shows:

59.       I saw him.

60.       *She put it.

The same is true for (55), since (61) has quite a different meaning than (55):

61.       Jane considers it.

Taking the object predicate away in (54), however, does not result in such a different sentence, but here I would argue purple is a real object complement since, unlike in (57), house purple is not one unit, and unlike in (58), purple says nothing about where, when, or how the painting took place.


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6.     Conclusion

As a conclusion, I list instances of the eight types of verbs we have discussed, their traditional names, their typical complements, and an example are given:

Name example verb complement example sentence
intransitive swim, arrive -- She arrived (early).
(mono)transitive see, eat, read Direct Object She saw me.
ditransitive give, tell Direct and Indirect Object I gave him flowers.
copula be, become Subject predicate He is nice.
complex transitive consider, know  Direct Object and Object Predicate I consider her nice.
prepositional refer, glance Prepositional Object He glanced at the paper.
phrasal switch on/give in Direct Object/--

She turned off the light.

He gave in.

phrasal prepositional get down to Prepositional Object He got down to business.

TABLE 5.2: Verb Types

Typically, the direct and indirect objects are realized as NPs and the subject and object predicates as AdjPs, but as was indicated above, there are other possibilities. The prepositional object is always a PP.

            Adverbials are not relevant for the classification of verbs since they can always be added or deleted. As mentioned above, they are typically realized as PPs and AdvPs even though NPs and clauses are also possible. Key terms are adverbial, prepositional and phrasal verbs, (don't worry too much about phrasal prepositional verbs), VP- and S-adverbials.

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A.        Identify the functions in (62) to (63). Draw trees for (62) and (65):


62.       She found it easily.

63.       I separated it carefully.

64.       She found it easy.

65.       He baked her bread last night.

66.       The pig from Mars left relatively early.

67.       The hard-working students seemed exhausted after three weeks of classes.


B.         Find the adverbials in the text below (adapted from an Amnesty International document). How are they realized, i.e. what kind of phrases are they? Be careful not to list the phrases that modify nouns (of the failure of justice) or adjectives.

            Are there prepositional objects? Are there phrasal verbs?

            The organization provides a number of instances of the failure of justice in this report. The government authorities have failed to address the problem of `disappearances' in Punjab. The government has not responded to any of the cases documented since December 1993. The practice of ignoring petitions continues.

The Supreme Court found the police guilty of abducting and killing people but grave concerns remain unaddressed. The report expresses concern about recent allegations in the press that hundreds of people have been killed in Punjab. Continuing allegations of `disappearances' are indicative of the absence of a serious commitment by the state authorities.


C.        Take a verb and combine it with different prepositions and explain what kind of verb is the result. For instance, take sleep, combine it with in, during, off, around, over.


D.        What do (68) and (69) tell you about switch on and look up respectively:

68.       It was the light he switched on.

69.       *I looked up the word and up the quote.


E.         Make a sentence containing the verb complain about. What kind of verb is it? Do the same with resort to, comment on and catch up with.


F.         Explain the ambiguity in the cartoon below:

CARTOON: `Forever


G.        How would you describe the difference between `to visit with somebody' and `to visit somebody'? Speakers of English use both. What would you say?

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Keys to the Exercises

A.        Su Pred DO Adv

            Su Pred DO Adv

            Su Pred DO ObPred

            Su Pred IO DO Adv

            Su Pred Adv

            Su Pred SuPred Adv


            NP                   VP

            She      .                       AdvP

            V                     NP       Adv

            found                it          easily


            NP                   VP

            He        .                                               NP

            V         NP       NP                   D                     N

            baked   her       N                     last                   night


B.         Adverbials: in this report: PP; since December 1993: PP; in Punjab: PP. Respond could be argued to be prepositional; no phrasal ones.

C.        in class

D.        -Because the light is preposed in (68) without taking on along, on the light is not a unit that functions as an adverbial. Since one can say switch it on the verb is phrasal and not prepositional.

            -Up the word is not a unit in (69) since it cannot be coordinated with a similar unit. Also, one can say look it up, indicating look up is phrasal.

E.         She complained about the government; He resorted to violence; They commented on the book. They are all prepositional object verbs.

            A sentence with the phrasal prepositional verb `catch up with' is: They caught up with him.

F.         The ambiguity is due to `forever' being either and adverb, or a preposition and a noun `ever'.

G.        `To visit with somebody' is said to be American English, whereas `to visit somebody' is said to be British English. The difference is that in the former case, visit with is a prepositional verb, whereas in the latter case, visit is a (mono)transitive verb.

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Special Topic: The Split infinitive

Infinitives are non-finite verbs. The infinitival marker to is not a preposition but an infinitive marker and is therefore seen as belonging to the Verb Group (see next chapter).

The Rule: "Do not separate an infinitival verb from its accompanying to, as in to boldly go where ...".

Swan (1980: 327) writes: "[s]plit infinitive structures are quite common in English, especially in an informal style. A lot of people consider them `bad style', and avoid them if possible, placing the adverb before the to, or in end-position in the sentence". Fowler (1926 [1950]: 558) writes:

            [t]he English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know but care very much; (3) those who know & condemn; (6) those who know & approve; & (8) those who know & distinguish.

Fowler himself disapproves of the use of the split infinitive. Quirk & Greenbaum (1973: 312) remark

            [t]he inseparability of to from the infinitive is . . . asserted in the widely held opinion that it is bad style to `split the infinitive'. Thus rather than: `?He was wrong to suddenly leave the country' many people (especially in BrE) prefer: `He was wrong to leave the country suddenly'. It must be acknowledged, however, that in some cases the `split infinitive' is the only tolerable ordering, since avoiding the `split infinitive' results in clumsiness or ambiguity.

            Some examples of the split infinitive, from 1200 on, are (70) to (77). Would you change these? If so, how?

70.       I want somebody who will be on there not to legislate from the bench but to faithfully interpret the constitution. (George Bush, quoted in The Economist, 6 July 1991)

71.       Remember to always footnote the source. (from a computer magazine)

72.       [This] will make it possible for everyone to gently push up the fees. (NYT, 21 July 1991)

73.       ...to get the Iraqis to peacefully surrender... (NYT, 7 July 1991)

74.       Layamon Brut Otho, 6915 (early 13th century)

            fo[r] to londes seche, `for to countries seek'.

75.       Cursor Mundi (Ld MS) 18443, (early 14th century)

            Blessid be žou lord off hevyn ... Synfull men for to žus lede in paradice, `sinful men for to thus lead in paradise'.

76.       Wyclif, Matthew 5, 34  (late 14th century)

            Y say to 3ou, to nat swere on al manere,

            `I say to you to not curse in all ways'.

77.       Apology for the Lollards 57  (late 14th century)

            Poul seiž, žu žat prechist to not steyl, stelist,

            `Paul says, you who preach to not steal steal'.

In the discussion on the Verb Group that follows in the next chapter I am not including the split infinitive. As mentioned in the preface, I am not completely happy with the analysis in chapter 6, but giving an alternative structure would lead too far away from the central parts.


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Further Reading

On prepositional, phrasal and phrasal prepositional verbs, see Quirk et al (1985: 1150-1157; 1178-9); on phrasal verbs, see Radford (1988: 89-101). Cowie & Mackin's (1975) dictionary is helpful for combinations that are unknown. On the earliest use of the split infinitive, see van Gelderen (1993).

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