Preposition or Adverb?

I’m going out (adv) — out (prep) of my mind!

In, out, up, down, on, off. Everyone knows words like these can be prepositions. But did you know some words like these can also be adverbs? How can you tell the difference? And what about phrasal verbs or expressions like “turn off”? This question recently came up at ESL-Library when a customer mentioned that in the phrase “push the switch down”, “down” is an adverb, not a preposition. Let’s review the basic rules, discuss the trickier cases, and decide if it’s worth teaching this difference to our students.

Prepositions

A preposition takes an object. If there is a noun following the term, it usually indicates the term is a preposition, not an adverb (but see the “Tricky Cases” section below).

Examples:

  • He ran down the stairs.
  • Maria looked out the window.
  • They talked in circles and couldn’t reach a decision.

For practice, try our Prepositions lesson.

Adverbs

An adverb doesn’t take an object (but see the “Tricky Cases” section below). Adverbs such as these usually appear at the end of the clause or sentence.

Examples:

  • She sat down.
  • We’re going out at 7:00 tonight.
  • When you arrive at the hotel, make sure you check in.

For general adverb practice, try our Adverbs of Manner lesson.

Tricky Cases

What happens when a word appears to have an object, and therefore looks like a preposition, but is actually functioning as an adverb? Cases like this include phrasal verbs. In these cases, the adverb is defining or describing the verb, not the object.

Examples:

  • He looked up her number. (up = adverb)
  • The class president called off the meeting. (off = adverb)
  • You should check the schedule out. (out = adverb)

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, a good test for determining whether the term before an object is an adverb is to detach the term + object and see if it makes sense. They give the example “I looked up his biography”. Detaching “up his biography” doesn’t make sense, and therefore “up” is an adverb in this case.

However, what about other verb expressions like “push down” (that our customer asked about)? You can say “push down the switch” or “push the switch down”. Is “down” defining the verb “push”, or is it part of the prepositional phrase “down the switch”? Does Chicago’s test help us here? Is “down the stairs” in the sentence “He ran down the stairs”, which is clearly a preposition, similar to “down the switch” in the sentence “He pushed down the switch”, and therefore also a preposition?

We can turn to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary for help with these expressions. Under the adverb entry for “down”, they give the following examples:

  • They set the cake down on the table.
  • Lay down your book for a minute.

Clearly, Merriam-Webster’s classifies the terms in these types of verb expressions as adverbs, not prepositions. I must admit, I’m still a bit puzzled by cases like this. Can we say that the rule is that if you’re able to move the object, it is always an adverb (as in turn on the light / turn the light on)? Do you agree that the last two bullet examples are adverbs, not prepositions? I’ll accept it, but I’m not 100% convinced. I don’t see a whole lot of difference between go down the stairs (preposition) and lay down your book (adverb).

Should we teach this to our students?

In my experience, most textbooks don’t get into the difference in parts of speech for words like down, on, off, etc. The many textbooks that I’ve seen during my teaching career simply called these terms prepositions. I believe that, in general, students are capable of learning and understanding the sentence positions and meanings while grouping these words under the “preposition” umbrella. My feeling is that this could be a discussion you could have with higher-level students, but for lower-level students, it would only create unnecessary chaos and confusion. What do you think?

I hope everyone is down with this info! ;)

Tanya

Sources:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, section 5.180.
  • Collins Cobuild English Grammar, section 6.82–6.87.
  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, entries such as “down”.

8 comments

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  1. avicki@in.gr'

    Vicki says:

    Apr 4, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    Thank you so much; you’ve helped me a lot. So to make sure I have understood the difference,in the following sentence “up” is an adverb, isn’t it?”I’m sure I could turn something up to satisfy the basic condition.”

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Apr 4, 2014 at 8:36 pm

      I’m glad this post helped you, Vicki! In your sentence, you’re correct that “up” is an adverb because it’s part of the phrasal verb “turn up”. However, I’ve never heard the phrasal verb “turn up” used with a subject that’s a person. It’s much more common with an subject that’s an object, as in “Something will turn up.” It’s not correct to say “I could turn something up”, so be careful how you use it. (Your sentence could be rewritten as “I’m sure something will turn up to satisfy the basic conditions.”)

      If you use the verb “turn” plus the preposition “up”, then you could have a subject that’s a person, as in “She turned up the radio.” But, of course, the meaning here is different than the phrasal verb “turn up”.

      Reply

  2. madam.ph@gmail.com'

    Madam.ph says:

    Mar 3, 2014 at 3:51 am

    Thank you so much. I’m teaching my Thai students about adverbs and they ask me how they can differenciate prepositional phrase of place with adverb of place. They are just beginners. So your suggestion helps me to decide if I should focus on the differences or not.

    Reply

  3. zmendez@uabc.edu.mx'

    Zyan says:

    Mar 3, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    With the Merriam-Webster’s definition and taking the two examples you compared at the end:
    1)Go down the stairs. (preposition)
    2)Lay down your book. (adverb)

    I think that at least in this case we can actually say that the rule IS that as long as we can move the object, it is always an adverb.
    On the first example the subject is the one who is moving “I go down the stairs” and NOT the stairs, that is why it is taken as a preposition. And on the second example it is the book that is moving, and not the subject.

    Still, I may be wrong. I’m also confused, and your post helped me a lot with the project I had to work in for college. Thank you!

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Mar 3, 2014 at 6:38 pm

      Hi Zyan,

      That’s an interesting point! “If there’s an object that moves, it’s an adverb”—I wonder if this works most of the time. It still doesn’t help us with sentences without objects such as “She sat down” (adverb), but it would be nice to have a “rule” for the cases with objects!

      I wrote this almost a year ago, and it still makes my head spin! Thanks for your input. :)

      Reply

  4. Tanya Trusler says:

    Aug 8, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Hi Sandy,

    Tearing out your hair…yep, I’ve been there! Thanks for letting us know what you think.

    In that first example (“They set the cake down on the table”), you mentioned that we can remove “on the table” with no difference to meaning. I agree with that, but can we remove “the cake”? In this case, “they set down” doesn’t make sense alone, so I think it’s similar to “lay down”, which does make sense but only because it’s a whole other meaning, in the second example (“Lay down your book for a minute”). Because we need the objects to make the meaning clear, I’d argue that “down” is a preposition in both cases, and not an adverb as Merriam-Webster suggested. Yep, still confused! ;)

    Reply

  5. sandy.anthony87@gmail.com'

    Sandy says:

    Aug 8, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve been tearing my hair out trying to make sense of conflicting information on other websites. Just when I think I’ve understood the difference between an adverb and a preposition, I read something like the examples you cited from Merriam-Webster and start doubting my grasp of the subject all over again.

    I’d say that the first example is an adverb (because you could omit ‘on the table’ without changing the meaning) and the second is a preposition (because the object ‘your book’ is essential for the meaning – if you said ‘lay down for a minute’ without mentioning the book’, the sense is completely altered).

    I guess the lesson is that even the authorities can get confused by these grey areas of grammar.

    Reply

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