44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs

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Entry

Some prepositional verbs can also be used without any preposition before their object noun – but usually with a different meaning

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THE NATURE OF PREPOSITIONAL VERBS

Prepositional verbs include both a verb and a preposition. The preposition is a true one, unlike in “phrasal” verbs where preposition-like words are actually adverbs (see 139. Phrasal Verbs). Sometimes there is a noun in the middle (see 123. Prepositional Verbs Containing a Noun), but verbs without one are the focus here. An example is DEPEND ON in sentences like this:

Sun2

Here the verb is not depend but depend on. The preposition on is part of the verb, and sunlight is the object of this verb (for details of objects, see 8. Object-Dropping Errors).

Not all prepositions are part of the verb before them. Consider into in this example:

(b) The River Nile flows into the Mediterranean Sea.

Here the preposition into is combined with the words after it rather than the word before, creating an adverb-like phrase. As a result, the verb flows is intransitive, lacking an object (see 113. Verbs That Cannot Be Passive). Linguists have some ways of deciding which preposition use is present in a sentence, but I will not go into those here.

Prepositional verbs like DEPEND ON have various interesting features. Some of these are considered elsewhere in this blog in the posts 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1 35. “to do” versus “to doing”,  42. Unnecessary Prepositions and 108. Formal and Informal Words.

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THE PROBLEM OF VERBS USABLE BOTH WITH & WITHOUT A PREPOSITION

A problem with some prepositional verbs is an ability to drop the preposition before a following noun in order to express a different meaning. The verb APPROVE is of this kind; readers might like to consider how its meaning differs in the following sentences: 

(c) The committee approved of the proposal.

(d) The committee approved the proposal. 

The meaning of the prepositional approved of in (a) is “liked”, while that of non-prepositional approved in (b) is “allowed” or “passed”. 

Note how both sentences have the same object (the proposal). This is an important aspect of the verbs in question. Some verbs that can be used both with and without a closely-linked preposition have to drop their object without the preposition. For example, if we change LOOK AT into LOOK, we cannot have an object – LOOK by itself is intransitive. This discussion is not about verbs like LOOK (I cannot say for sure that such verbs are less problematic, but my experience suggests they are).

The reason why verbs like APPROVE can be problematic is, of course, that their two meanings are easily confused; if they are, the preposition will be either wrongly added (see 42. Unnecessary Prepositions) or wrongly left out.

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TRANSITIVE VERBS USABLE BOTH WITH & WITHOUT A PREPOSITION

English has quite a lot of verbs like APPROVE. Below is a sample (the abbreviations “sb” and “sth” stand for “somebody” and “something” respectively). It may be useful to try and either guess the meaning differences or discover them from a dictionary. Some of the more problematic meanings are explained below. Two are discussed in other posts: LEAD TO (32. Expressing Consequences) and FACE (21. Active Verbs with  Non-Active Meanings 1)

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EXPLANATION OF SOME ESPECIALLY PROBLEMATIC PREPOSITIONAL MEANINGS

Rather than just list the meanings in question, I offer a matching exercise. The reader is invited to match each definition below with the right verb from the list before it (answers after the exercise).

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1. (AGREE; AGREE WITH; AGREE TO; AGREE ON)

(a) To …………………….something is to decide with other people that something is the best thing to do or believe (e.g. The committee have _________ a course of future action). 

(b) To ……………………. something is to formally authorise something that has been proposed. It can be done by one or more people (e.g. The committee have _________ the budget). 

(c) To ……………………. something is to give permission for something that has been specially requested (e.g. The Principal has _________ the students’ holiday plans). 

(d) To ……………………. somebody is to hold the same opinion as theirs. To ……………………. something is to think that it a good thing.

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2. (CONCEIVE; CONCEIVE OF)

(a) To ……………………. something is to think of it for the first time.

(b) To ……………………. something is to imagine it.

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3. (CONTINUE; CONTINUE WITH)

(a) To ……………………. something is to keep doing it without interruption.

(b) To ……………………. something is to start it again after an interruption.

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4. (DECIDE; DECIDE ON)

(a) To ……………………. something is to fix or settle it (e.g. The war has _________ who owns the land).

(b) To ……………………. something is to choose it from various options (e.g. The bride has _________ yellow flowers for the wedding).

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5. (ENTER; ENTER INTO)

(a) To ……………………. something is to start it (e.g. The management and workers have _________ an agreement).

(b) To ……………………. something is to go inside it.

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6. (IMPROVE; IMPROVE ON)

(a) To ……………………. something is to make it better.

(b) To ……………………. something is to repeat it more successfully.

7. (REPORT; REPORT ON; REPORT TO)

(a) To ……………………. something is to tell other people that it has happened (e.g. The journal _________ a new finding in India).

(b) To ……………………. somebody is to be managed by them in a job.

(c) To ……………………. something is to give additional information about it (e.g. There is no more to _________ last week’s disaster).

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8. (TOUCH; TOUCH ON)

(a) To ……………………. something is to make physical contact with it.

(b) To ……………………. something is to mention it briefly (e.g. I will describe the political system and _________ some issues that it raises).

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9. (JOIN; JOIN IN)

(a) To …………………… something is to start participating in something already going on.

(b) To …………………..  something is to become a member of it.

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ANSWERS1(a) = agree on, 1(b) = agree, 1(c) = agree to, 1(d) = agree with;  2(a) = conceive, 2(b) = conceive of;  3(a) continue, 3(b) = continue with;  4(a) = decide, 4(b) = decide on;  5(a) = enter into, 5(b) = enter;  6(a) = improve;  6(b) = improve on;  7(a) = report, 7(b) = report to, 7(c) = report on;  8(a) touch, 8(b) = touch on;  9(a) = join in, 9(b) = join.

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VERBS WITH AN OPTIONAL PREPOSITION

Some verbs can be used either with or without a preposition yet keep the same meaning. They are not problematic in the same way as the verbs discussed above. Usually their non-preposition use is simply a more modern preference. Five common examples of verbs like this are PROTEST AGAINST, APPEAL AGAINST, DEPART FROM, DISEMBARK FROM and IMPACT ON: 

(e) Drivers are protesting (against) the new law.

(f) The company will appeal (against) the guilty verdict.

(g) The new law will impact (on) traffic volume.

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VERBS THAT OCCUR BOTH WITH AND WITHOUT A FOLLOWING ADVERB

Some verbs look to be prepositional but are not. Examples are CUT OFF, PICK UP and FIND OUT. The second word in each of these is actually an adverb: it can be used either without a following noun or after one just as adverbs can (see 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs). A full explanation is in the post 139. Phrasal Verbs. A typical phrasal verb use might be the following:

(h) One cannot write everything down in a lecture.

I mention phrasal verbs because they present a problem that is similar to the one with prepositional verbs: learners of English often confuse the meaning of the verb by itself with that of the verb and adverb combined. Here are some example pairs:

BREAK sth                            BREAK sth UP

CLOSE sth                             CLOSE sth UP (DOWN)

CUT sb/sth                           CUT sb/sth UP (DOWN/OFF/OUT)

DROP sth                               DROP sb/sth OFF

EAT sth                                  EAT sth UP

FILL sth                                 FILL sth IN

FIND sb/sth                          FIND sth OUT

MISS sb/sth                           MISS sb/sth OUT

OPEN sth                               OPEN sth UP

PICK sb/sth                          PICK sb/sth UP

SEEK sb/sth                          SEEK sb/sth OUT

SELL sth                                SELL things OFF

WRITE sth                            WRITE sth DOWN

RISE (intransitive)               RISE UP (intransitive)

To give a flavour of the differences, FILL means “change from empty to full” whereas FILL IN means “add material to a visible space until it no longer exists”. We particularly use FILL IN with forms, shapes and holes in the ground.

FIND and FIND OUT can both mean “discover hidden information”, but out suggests that this required a lot of intentional effort.

PICK means “choose” or “remove from the plant where it grew” (e.g. picking flowers or grapes); while PICK UP means “lift to take possession of” or “allow into your vehicle for transport”. It is interesting that PICK by itself is used in both East and West Africa with all of these meanings.

WRITING DOWN is done when we want something to be remembered; WRITING is writing for any other purpose. 

Finally, RISE means “go up”, while RISE UP means “start a war of rebellion”.

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One thought on “44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs

  1. As always, great stuff (even though I fear the English teacher may not approve of this non-descriptive word 🙂 )! Prepositions are the most challenging for me, because they do not exist in Chinese.

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