A Government Binding Perspective On Phrasal Verbs English Language Essay

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The analysis of phrasal verbs has given rise to much debate in the linguistic literature over a long period of time. Traditionally a bipartite classification of these verbs has been consumed consisting of a class of verb particle combination as in (1) and (2), and a class of prepositional verbs such as those in (3) below:

1. I took my coat off .

2. I gave smoking up.

3. Look at that nice car.

This paper is concerned with the constructions of the type of (1) and (2) above.


Authors working in the earlier generative frameworks of the Standard Theory and the Extended Standard Theory dealt with the phrasal verb construction by making use of a rich transformational apparatus (see e.g. Chomsky, 1957; Franser, 1974; and Emonds, 1976). Some of these linguists have suggested that these constructions involve particle movement. Thus, Chomsky assumed that at Deep Structure the particle was adjacent to the verb, and that movement to the right across the NP yielded the alternative configuration. This rule was obligatory if the NP was a pronoun (Chomsky, 1957: 75-76 and 1964: 228). In Emond's analysis (1976: 182) the NP is adjacent to the verb at Deep Structure.

Leftward movement of the particle then drives the alternative order. Recent Government- Binding (GB) work has not paid a great deal of attention to the phrasal verb construction. The most important studies are Kayne (1984 b), which provides a detailed analysis, and the discussion of Radford (1981) and Stowell (1981).

Stowell (1981: 296) assumes that the particle in sentences such as, (4) They below up the hotel. Where it is adjacent to the verb, is incorporated within the verb to form a complex unit. This newly- formed verb subcategorizes for an NP, and the two together are dominated by V', as in:

(5) They [ vp [v'[v below-up] the hotel]].

The main motivation for this analysis is the Case Adjacency Principle (Ibid: 113) which requires that for an NP to be assigned case, it must be adjacent to the verb. In (5) the NP the hotel is adjacent to the complex verb after application of the rule of particle incorporation. Stowell accounts for structures such as (1) above, where the particle appears to the right of the NP, as follows: first the word formation rule of NP Incorporation applies, resulting in the creation of the complex verb below- the hotel, then rule of particle incorporation applies to the output of this process. The resulting S- Structure is (6).

(6) They [vp[v'[v[v below- the hotel]-up]]].

The NP the hotel has the status of an incorporated object. Below compelling arguments against this treatment will be shown.

Radford (1988: 90) argues for a structure like that in (7) for the sentences in (1) and (2) above.

(7) S




I gave smoking up

I took my coat off

according to Radford (Ibid) this structure involves a PP rather than a bare preposition because the elements in question (up and off) can be premodified by intensifiers such as right and completely. The alternative configurations for those in (8) and (9), are assigned the structure in (10).

(8) I gave up smoking.

(9) I took off my coat.

(10) S




I gave up smoking

I took off my coat

In this structure gave up and took off are complex verbs in which the prepositions up and off can be regarded as word- level adjuncts (Ibid: 257).

Kayne (1984 b) attempts to account for the constructions under investigation in the binary branching model. He argues for the analysis of (1) and (2) as in (11):

(11) [vp V [ sc NP Prt]]

Gave smoking up

Took my coat off

The verb subcategorizes for a small clause (sc) which is headed by the particle and whose subject is the NP. Kayne makes no syntactic distinction between (1) and (2). He does remark, however, that in (1) the particle expresses a result (Ibid: 121), whereas this is not the case for the particle in sentence (2), which is said belong to the class of verb- preposition constructions that have '' an idiomatic character (Ibid: 124). In Kayne's framework structures such as (8) and (9) in which the particles appear in a position adjacent to the verb, are derived by moving the NPs to the right and by adjoining them V'. For similar treatments see Beukema and Verheijen (1987) and Hoekstra (1988).

2.Types of Phrasal Verbs

Verbs such as switch off, which take small clause complements, are going to be called A- Verbs, and the label B- Verbs is going to be used for verbs like look up which do not subcategorizes for clausal complements.

The first argument that supports the distinction between A- Verbs and B- Verbs concerns the fact that only the [ NP+ particle] complements of A-Verbs can occur elsewhere as complements.

Thus in (14) - (15) below such sequences occur as the objects of prepositions in what van Riemsdijk has called absolute prepositional phrases (Riemsdijk, 1978: 44).

(14) He dropped the bonnet of the car up; with the bonnet up he then drove off.

(15) Jack turned the radio off; with the radio off he could finally relax.

For B- Verbs the absolute construction is not available:

(16) He brought the kids up by himself; with the kids up he could go on holiday.

(17) Jack sold the car off to a friend; with the car off he could buy a boat .

It can be noticed that the [NP+ particle] sequence may also occur after the comparative prepositions than and as:

(18) a. The oven off is less dangerous than the oven on.

b. The oven off is as dangerous as the oven on.

These facts clearly suggest that in (14) - (15) and in (18) the elements following the prepositions form a constituent, whereas the elements in (16) and (17) do not.

The sentences in (18) reveal another interesting property of the [NP+ particle] complements to A- Verbs, namely their ability to appear in subject position. The inability of the constructions to do the same is a second argument in favour of analyzing A-verbs and B- verbs differently. To illustrate, consider the following examples:

(19)* The kids up is very desirable.

(20)* His pupils down is terrible.

The existence of a subject- predicate relation between the NP and the particle in each of the sentences in (14), (15) and in (18) points to a small clause analysis for the strings following the prepositions and for the subject expressions in (18).

With regard to (18), an objection to this claim might be that off and on are post modifiers. There is, however, empirical evidence which strongly suggests that is not the case.

Firstly, if the noun oven is pluralized in these sentences, we find that there is no concomitant change in the verb form (Safir,1983).

It should be noticed that a sentence like the following is possible:

(21) Younis out is a disaster for the Iraqi team.

As proper nouns cannot be modified, out in sentences like (21) are best analyzed as complements which take an abstract complementiser in C which assigns case to the small clause subject:

[ cp [ c C ] [ I P Younis out]]


It can be argued that the main clause I assigns case to the small clause subject. However, this is unlikely because objective case is expected in this position, as in:

(22) Her out is a problem.

(23) * She out is a problem.

As for the thematic properties to these constructions, the matrix clause predicate does not assign a - role to the subject of the small clause, but to the small clause as a whole. As in standard analyses, the predicate of the clause, in this case the particle, is instrumental in assigning a - role to the small clause subject.

*As a third argument in favor of distinguishing A- verbs from B- verbs, consider (24) - (26) below. These indicate that the [ NP + particle] strings of A- verb constructions can also occur on their own.

(24) The room was extremely noisy:

Children shouting, the tv on, and the record player on.

(25) Hands up.

(26) The criminal, while out, swore never to end up in jail again.

The examples (24) and (25) pose no case- theoretical problems. In both these sentences the small clauses, contain an abstract prepositional complementiser in clause which assigns case to the small clause subject, as in (21). In (26) the small clause has an empty pronoun subject. While is positioned in clause, and, as it is not a possible governor, does not govern the pronoun subject of the small clause, as required by Chomsky's PRO- theorem (Chomsky, 1981: 60).

Unlike the most of the small clauses discussed so far, the small clauses in (24) - (26) are not in complement positions. The [ Np + particle] strings which are part of B- verb constructions do not occur on their own.

3. The Analysis

The semantic and syntactic evidence which has been accumulated in favor of drawing a distinction between A- verbs suggests the following syntactic structures for the relevant VPs

(27) A- verbs I [ VP [ IP NP PP]]


V IP (= Small clause)


(28) B- verbs : [ VP NP PP]



Following Emonds (1972, 1976) the particles here are analysed as intransitive prepositions heading a prepositional phrase (pp).

In (27) and (28) we see that A- verbs subcategorize for small clauses, which have been analyzed as IPs, whereas B- verbs subcategorize for NP and a PP. the structure of the small clause could also be taken to be [pp NP [ pp P]] as in Chomsky (1986 b: 20-21). In that analysis the small clause is a projection of the lower prepositional phrase. If this analysis is correct, A-verb constructions are subset of cases such as:

(29) I expect that sailor off my ship, which also involve a prepositional small clause (Stowell, 1981: 257).

However, as we saw in connexion with (21) and (24)-(26) above, the categorical status of the small clause could be argued to be CP rather than XP for small clauses which are not in subcategorized positions. In (27), the head verb Θ - marks the small clause, but not the subject of the small clause.

It is the predicate of the clause, in this case the prepositional phrase, which assigns a Θ- role to the subject NP. In (28) the V- node assigns a Θ- role to the NP, and to the prepositional phrase. We can view this prepositional phrase as what has been called a quasi- argument' (Chomsky, 1981: 37,325).

Such arguments occur in Θ- positions and, because of their idiomatic status, receive dummy Θ- roles. In both (27) and (28) case is assigned to the NP by the adjacent verb.

It can be said that the researchers do not agree with Stowell (1981) and Radford (1988: 90). The reason for this is that Stowell and Radford claim that the analysis of A and B- verb constructions involve some sort of complex verb which can be rejected here because in such structures the PP may be preceded by a modifier as in (30) and (31) below.

(30) I cut the branch right off,

(31) I switched the radio completely off.

The fact that (30) and (31) are well- formed constitutes empirical support for the claim that the element off in these sentences is an independent maximal projection.

Right and Completely are P´- specifies in the structure [ pp Spec [p P]]. It might be objected that although modification of the prepositional phrase is possible in [ V NP PP] configurations, it is not possible in [ V NP PP] sequences, as is shown in sentences (32) and (33)

(32) * I cut right off the branch

(33) * I switched completely off the radio.

These sentences suggest in these configurations the preposition cannot be a maximal projection. Radford has taken the data such as these to be evidence for his claim that the preposition is incorporated in the verb, thus forming a complex verb through reanalysis.

It seems that some notion of heaviness is indeed involved in accounting for verb- preposition constructions. This becomes clear if we consider the behavior of pronouns. As is well- known, in the unmarked cases pronouns cannot appear to the right of a preposition in English. Thus we cannot have (34) and (35):

(34)* I switched off it.

(35)* I looked up it.

It is to be expected that certain processes affect the weight of the pronoun. If the pronoun is appropriately stressed, it can occur in final position, as in (36) below:

(36) Why did you throw out HIM?

Because the pronoun carries heavy stress in this sentence its weight has increased.

It showed be noted that light pronominal NPs also increase in weight when they take pre modifying or post modifying elements. Thus (37) and (38) are well- formed because the pronominal NPs, now heavier because of the added post modifiers, appear to the right of a light intransitive PP after movement:

(37) I'll phone up you lot when I get home.

(38) She'll phone up them in the corner on Monday.

Considering now the following examples:

(39)* I cut right off the branch.

(40)* I switched completely off the radio.

(41)* I cut right off all the branches that were keeping out the light.

(42)* He switched completely off the radio that had been making funny noises all the time.

The grammaticality judgments of these sentences can be explained as follows:

In (39) and (40) the PP is no longer a light phrase because the elements right and completely occur in the specific position. (41) and (42), by contrast, are fine because a heavy NP may appear to the right of a lighter regular PP.

Sentences (41) and (42) are evidence against a reanalysis rule. If a rule of this type existed, it would reanalyze strings like cut right off and switched completely off in (41) and (42) as complex verbs. This is undesirable for obvious reasons.

The present analysis has the added advantage that it can also account for other types of Heavy-NP-Shift. Consider the following examples:

(43) I consider a fool any man who drinks wine.

(44) He claims he can make very happy the woman who refused to marry him.

In these cases the Small Clause subject has moved to the right and has been adjoined to VP, leaving behind a Case-marked, Θ-marked trace. Now consider the following examples:

(43)* I declared winner the student.

(44) They looked up idioms.

In (43) the NP the student is syntactically heavier than the NP winner. In (44) it should not be possible for the light NP idioms to appear to the right of the equally light PP up. It would seem that the 'bare NP's winner and idioms in these sentences are weighed like regular NPs.

If this is indeed the case (43) is ruled out, as it should be, and (44) is correctly not ruled out. It is not entirely clear what should make these NPs heavier, but a plausible possibility is that the NPs winner and idioms in (43) and (44) carry extra ' informational weight'. Their natural position is then at the end of the sentence.


In this study it has been shown that there is semantic as well as syntactic evidence for making a distinction between two types of verb- preposition construction. It has been distinguished between A- verbs, which subcategorise for small clauses, and B- verbs, which subcategorise for an NP and a PP complement. We can view B- verbs as transitive prepositional verbs, the intransitive class comprising verbs of the type encountered in (3) above. So- called phrasal verbs do not exist. The analysis presented here, which posits rightward movement of the NP and Adjunction to VP in accounting for the alternations in (1)\ (38) and (2)\ (39), in conjunction with the condition on derivations provides a principled account of verb- preposition construction in English.