Grammar Understanding Verb Particles |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Understanding Verb Particles

As noted in a recent GrammarBook e-newsletter article, verbs form both the engine and the steering wheel driving our language. They determine the direction and speed of a sentence.

Sometimes, we’ll spot other words riding with them in the passenger seat. They’re not verbs, but they still attach themselves with seat belts secured. We accept and use those words because we know the main verb needs them for where we want to go in expressing ourselves.

These verb-car passengers are referred to as verb particles. Verb particles are the add-ons in verb phrases with idiomatic meanings—i.e., their definition is not obvious from the words creating the phrase.

Consider a sentence such as “She looked up the number in her cell phone’s contact list.” The verb is “looked.” The verb particle is “up.” A literal, non-idiomatic reading of the words alone would lead us to think she was physically looking up, perhaps toward the sky or a ceiling. Idiomatically, however, we understand she is retrieving the number from her phone.

Some other common verb particles are “in,” “off,” “down,” “over,” and “out,” as used in the following examples:

Facing constituent pressure, the governor gave in to the Senate’s proposed legislation.
Would you please break off a piece of that chocolate bar for me?
Analysts agree the company’s bold marketing campaign will beat down the competition.
That’s a tough question. Let me mull over my answer for a while.
Will you be checking out of your room soon?

Here are several more verbs that include particles to achieve their meaning:

bog down shape up
break away single out
burn down sleep in
flip out sum up
head out wind up
hold up wrap up

As shown here, the verb particle is often needed to convey the right idea. At the same time, we need to watch for particles that seem like they belong but make the phrase a tautology—e.g., continue on, close down. These examples would not lose meaning or clarity without the particle and thus are not idiomatic.

In certain other cases, a particle might create a tautology, but we still need it for proper writing and speech. One such instance involves the verb “sit,” which by definition does not need the particle “down” for clarity. However, imagine using “sit” instead of “sit down” when addressing a person instead of a dog.

It’s always easier to use and ride with a particle in your verb car when you know what it is, why it’s there, and, equally important, if it belongs. Just determine if together the verb and particle are idiomatic and not tautological. If so, leave them connected and keep your content cruising along.

If not, pull over, let the passenger out, and wish it the best in finding another good sentence.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

9 responses to “Understanding Verb Particles”

  1. Katherine Swailes says:

    This topic on adding a sidecar to verbs to modify their meaning never occurred to me before. However, it immediately became apparent with your examples when I considered that changing the verb particle often changed the meaning. Based on your examples such as ‘breaking off a piece of chocolate’ easily modifies to ‘breaking up with your partner’ or ‘checking out the room’ can also mean ‘checking out [from living]’ or changing the verb particle to ‘checking up on your child’s activities’.

  2. GraphicsKat says:

    How would verb particles be diagrammed?

    • The subject and the verb + verb particle would be placed on the diagram’s main horizontal line. The subject would be separated from the verb + verb particle by a vertical line.

  3. Oliver M. says:

    Enjoy them all, but this one was especially informative … to which I say, “Right On!”

  4. Arghya says:

    The article is an interesting read. The role of verb particles in phrasal verbs is clearly analysed. It’s very helpful to non-native learners. Thanks a lot.

  5. Christopher Hayes says:

    Do you have a preference for placement of the particle? For instance, in most cases, which of these two phrasings is preferable: [1] “She made up her mind this morning” or [2] “She made her mind up this morning”? Does the placement even matter? I’ve always preferred [1] to [2] so that the direct object follows the verb+particle.

    • says:

      In American English, the answer will often depend on how one is using the idiom in a colloquial context according to one’s preference. This is particularly true about spoken English, in which one might informally express the verb and particle as “make up one’s mind” or “make one’s mind up.” In daily formal writing, however, the more-precise usage would be to keep the verb and particle together: “make up one’s mind,” “She made up her mind this morning.”

  6. Marcelo Meireles says:

    How can non-native English speakers make sense of all the particles and when to use them correctly without just memorizing all phrasal verbs? Is there a pattern or logic that can be taught?

    • says:

      Understanding verb particles as idiomatic to English can sometimes be elusive when learning the language. One way to help identify verb particles is to determine if the particle changes the verb’s meaning and thereby becomes important to it. This would make the particle part of the verb as opposed to another part of speech such as an adverb or a preposition.

      For example:
      Why would you try to bring ice to an Eskimo? (bring = to carry, convey)
      Why would you try to bring up ice to an Eskimo? (bring up = verb with particle: “to start talking about”; ice is the direct object)

      Robin looks up to the sky. (up = adverb, to the sky = adverbial prepositional phrase; both modify the verb looks)
      Robin looks up to her father as her role model. (looks up to = verb with particles: “to respect”; father is the direct object)

      You can continue your review of verb particles with our article Phrasal Verbs.

Leave a Comment or Question:

Please ensure that your question or comment relates to the topic of the blog post. Unrelated comments may be deleted. If necessary, use the "Search" box on the right side of the page to find a post closely related to your question or comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *