Particle Movement (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

With phrasal verbs (e.g., cut down), the particle ( down) may be placed before or after the direct object ( tree).

In a construction made up of a verb and a particle (e.g., "look up the number"), the relocation of the particle to the right of the noun phrase that serves as the object (e.g. "look the number up"). As discussed in Examples and Observations below, particle movement is optional in some cases, required in others.

Linguist John A. Hawkins (1994) has argued that in modern English this discontinuous order is the more common one and that under the conditions of the particle movement rule, the discontinuous order is converted into the continuous one "by moving the single-word particle from its underlying position to the position next to the single-word verb in the VP" (Nicole Dehé, Particle Verbs in English, 2002).

See Examples and Observations, below. Also see:

Examples and Observations:

  • When Frank handed the report in a day earlier than promised, his colleagues were amazed.
  • If Sarah didn't know the meaning of a word, she looked it up in a dictionary.
  • "A book agent called him up last year, after a big article of his ran in one of the music magazines."
    (Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days. Random House, 2009)
  • "They turned into the hotel parking lot and jolted to a halt in a space. Delia switched the engine off and they sat for a moment in the hot sun, the remaining chilliness of air conditioning dying fast around them."
    (Antonya Nelson, The Expendables. Simon & Schuster, 1990)
  • "Just at this time the other men arrived and pulled the man away from her. They took his gun away and shot the charge into the air."
    (Luther Standing Bear, My People the Sioux, 1928; Bison Books, 2006)
  • Obligatory Particle Movement With Personal Pronouns and Reflexive Pronouns
    "The particle in a two-word verb may be shifted away from the verb to a position following the object of the verb. This operation is called particle movement [prt movt]. The particle movement transformation is optional in subject-verb-direct object sentences with particles, except when the direct object, the NP, is a personal pronoun. In this case the transformation is obligatory. optional prt movt:
    Mary put out the fire.
    Mary put the fire out.
    obligatory prt movt:
    *Mary put out it.
    Mary put it out.
    In the second sentence in each pair, the prt movt transformation is used, and in the second set, the transformation is obligatory. The movement of the particle is away from the verb so that it follows the noun phrase that is the object of the verb. The first set of sentences illustrates the optional use of the prt movt. In the second set, the object of the verb is the personal pronoun it; therefore, the particle must be shifted away from the verb. The particle is also shifted around demonstrative pronouns, as in Pick that up.
    Throw this out. "The particle movement is obligatory when a reflexive pronoun is the NP, although the use of reflexives as objects of verbs with particles does not occur as frequently as does the use of the personal pronouns:
    Jane let herself out.
    The thief turned himself over to the police.
    I dried myself off.
    "By way of review, note that in the sentence Mary put the fire out, out does not indicate location. Together with the verb, the two morphemes have a different meaning. Neither put nor out retains its own meaning, and the combined words put out mean extinguish."
    (Virginia A. Heidinger, Analyzing Syntax and Semantics: A Self-Instructional Approach for Teachers and Clinicians. Gallaudet University Press, 1984)
  • Syntactic Variation
    "A paradigm case of syntactic variation in English is the so-called particle movement. Transitive phrasal verbs generally permit two alternative constructions, one in which the verb and the particle are placed next to each other and the other in which the two words are broken up by the object. [Stefan] Gries (2003) demonstrates that one of the many factors influencing the cohesiveness of phrasal verbs is their idiomaticity. The more idiomatic their meaning is, the more likely their component parts are to resist splitting. The natural explanation here is that a more idiomatic (i.e., holistic) meaning coactivates the verb and the particle more strongly than a less idiomatic meaning, thereby increasing their cohesiveness and decreasing the probability of their being intercalated by an object."
    (Thomas Berg, Structure in Language: A Dynamic Perspective. Routledge, 2009)
  • Particle Movement and Prepositional Verbs
    "Prepositional verbs consist of a transitive verb plus a preposition with which it is closely associated. He stared at the girl.
    She finally decided on the blue car. Prepositional verbs do not take the particle movement rule. The verb and the following preposition can be separated by an adverb, and the preposition can precede a relative pronoun and appear at the beginning of a wh- question.
    He stared intently at the girl.
    The girl at whom he was staring was strikingly beautiful.
    At whom was he staring?" (Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2008)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Particle Movement (grammar)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Particle Movement (grammar). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Particle Movement (grammar)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).