Prepositional Verb

Constructing Sentences with Prepositional Verbs

PREPOSITIONAL VERBS are verb + preposition sequences that function as a single, inseparable unit and typically have the same meaning as a single-word verb.

Typical examples of prepositional verbs include decide on, stare at, care for, result in, deal with, long for, add to, stand for, depend on, and apply for.

These words can appear in sentences in the following form.

  • apply for something,
  • comment on something,
  • care for someone or something,
  • decide on something,
  • stand for someone.

The verb and preposition usually have the meaning of a single-word verb; for example, decide on means “choose” and stand for means “represent.”

Usually, a prepositional verb consists of a transitive verb followed by a prepositionOpens in new window with which it is closely associated to form a new word.

    For example:
  • 1a)  He stared at the girl.
  • 1b)  She finally decided on the blue car.

Like many phrasal verbsOpens in new window, prepositional verbs are transitive. However, their second element is a preposition and so their two parts cannot be separated by the object, in contrast to separable transitive phrasal verbsOpens in new window, to which particle movement can apply. An attempt to separate the verb and preposition will produce an ungrammatical sentence, as 2b) and 3b) illustrate.

  • 2a)  He applied for the job.
  • 2b)  He applied the job for.
  • 3a)  Xochitl depends on her mother.
  • 3b)  Xochitl depends her mother on.

In contrast to phrasal verbs, most prepositional verbs meaning can usually be deduced from the verb alone. However, some have meanings that are not obvious from the verb alone or from the two parts together. Examples of these prepositional verbs include stand for, which means “represent,” and call on, which means “visit.”

In some prepositional verbs the preposition following the verb can be separated by an adverb, as is the case in 4a), and the preposition can precede a relative pronoun as in 4b), and appear at the beginning of a wh- questionOpens in new window, as 4c) illustrate.

  • 4a)  He stared intently at the girl.
  • 4b)  The girl at whom he was staring was strikingly beautiful.
  • 4c)  At whom was he staring?

Constructions that look like prepositional verbs

There are two constructions that have a superficial similarity to prepositional verbs. Taking a closer look will reveal the clear differences.

Verbs such as cut, set, and wash can be followed by adjectives to create a meaning that differs from that of the verb when it stands alone. For instance, cut short means “curtail,” and set free means “liberate.”

These combinations seem to have meanings that are a literal product of their components, rather like prepositional verbs. However, these combinations differ from prepositional verbs in that the element following the verb is an adjective.

And although the combinations are transitive, its two elements are usually separated, as shown in 5) and 6). There are some exceptions to the latter point, for example, cut short, as shown by 7b), in which the adjective appears directly after the verb.

  • 5a)  The gamekeepers set the young lion free.
  • 5b)  The gamekeepers set free the young lion.
  • 6a)  After a few minutes she was able to work the ropes loose.
  • 6b)  After a few minutes she was able to work loose the ropes.
  • 7a)  Robert had to cut his vacation short and fly home the next day.
  • 7b)  Robert had to cut short his vacation and fly home the next day.

The verb be combines with various adjectives and specific prepositions (primarily of and to) to form predicates that have the same meaning as simple verbs. For instance, be able to and can have the same meaning, as do be afraid of and fear, be fond of and like, and be aware of and know. These combinations clearly differ from prepositional verbs in their inclusion of an adjective.

  • 8a)  I’m aware of your objections to the plan.
  • 8b)  He is not fond of my brother-in-law.