How to distinguish transitive phrasal verbs from intransitive verbs followed by adverbial PPs

Consider the following sentence:
The workers were tearing up the street.
It's ambiguous, because you don't know whether it means something like:

"The workers were using jack hammers to tear the street apart."

with the transitive phrasal verb tear up plus D.O. the street

or something like "The workers were running up the street as fast as they could."

with the intransitive verb run plus adverbial PP up the street .

Here are some tests for distinguishing between transitive phrasal verb + D.O. and intransitive verb + ADV PP.

  1. If you can move the little word to the right of the NP, it must be the particle of a phrasal verb. This is the particle movement test:

    The workers were tearing the street up.

  2. If you replace the NP with a pronoun, the particle of a phrasal verb will automatically float to the right of the pronoun. This is the pronominalization test:

    The workers were tearing it up.
    A preposition, by contrast, will stay in its place:

    The workers were tearing up it.
    This can only mean that the workers were running up the street (with adv. pp).

  3. If the little word plus NP is a prepositional phrase (P + NP), you should be able to take the whole thing and move it to the front of the sentence. In this case, the whole phrase can be moved because it functions as a single constituent. We can call this the PP movement test:

    Up the street the workers were tearing.
    can only mean this:

    picture of two guys running

    and not this:

    picture of two guys with jackhammers

  4. The PP movement test will NOT work with transitive phrasal verbs, because in moving the particle of the verb plus the D.O. you are trying to move two things that don't belong to the same constituent:

    The workers filled in the ditch.
    BUT *In the ditch the workers filled.

    As the diagram shows, fill in , the verb plus particle, belongs in the Verb Phrase slot, and that's a single constituent.


Syllabus Class schedule
Assignments Handouts
WWW Resources

Return to main page.

Return to handouts index.

Return to unit index.


Comments to: Sara Kimball
Last updated January, 2001