Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

She Ran Him Over

Posted by Neal on September 7, 2007

Last time I wrote about the difference between prepositions and particles, noting that the phrasal verbs whack off and listen in contained particles. But those were some simple examples, where all we had was a verb and the particle. What happens when you have a verb that is followed by a preposition-or-particle and a noun phrase, like this one?

My dad can beat up your dad.

The preposition-or-particle up is followed by the your dad, so two parses are possible. One: up is a preposition, and your dad is the object of the preposition. (In other words, up your dad is a prepositional phrase, or if you’re mature enough to overlook the potty humor, a PP.) The other: up is a particle, and your dad is the object of the verb. So which parse is the right one?

As it happens, there is a simple test that can distinguish prepositions from particles in these situations. Particles have the property that they have to come before the object of a verb, if that object is an unstressed pronoun. (For ordinary noun phrases that aren’t too long, and for stressed pronouns, particles can come before or after.) Prepositions, on the other hand, always come before their objects, whether they’re ordinary noun phrases or unstressed pronouns. So if we replace your dad with an unstressed (h)im and try putting it before and after the up, we should get a clear answer. Here goes:

*My dad can beat up ‘im.
My dad can beat ‘im up.

Since *beat up ‘im is not grammatical, and since beat ‘im up is grammatical, up is clearly a particle. Before moving on, though, why did we have to replace your dad with a pronoun? Can’t you also say beat your dad up, which proves that up is a particle? Yes, you can, but depending on the verbs they’re with, particles don’t always behave this way; for example, you can’t say *take smoking up. But with an unstressed pronoun, all particles do behave the same way, so the test is more informative: The grammaticality of take it up shows that up is a particle here.

But even this nifty test fails sometimes. Here’s a sentence with a phrasal verb that’s been on my mind for a few years:

Clara Harris repeatedly ran over David Harris, 44, with her Mercedes-Benz. (link)

Is over a particle or a preposition? Let’s try the test, replacing David Harris with ‘im and trying it before and and after the over:

Clara Harris repeatedly ran over ‘im.
Clara Harris repeatedly ran him over.

Well, shoot! They both sound OK! And it’s not just my judgment: Here are two sentences from some of the articles about this case available online:

Harris allegedly killed her husband in a Texas hotel parking lot by running him over three times with her silver Mercedes-Benz.

“She jumped the median and ran over him three times,” Nassau Bay police Lieutenant Joe Cashiola told the Houston Chronicle.

OK, what about the fact that sometimes particles can come before or after an ordinary noun phrase? Let’s see what happens if we take the original sentence and put David Haris before over:

*Clara Harris repeatedly ran David Harris over.

That one sounds bad to me, but it’s still consistent with over being a particle: It could just be that run over is a phrasal verb like take up, with a particle that has to come before any noun phrase except for unstressed pronouns.

My hypothesis? Run over, like many phrasal verbs, started out as part of a compositional verb+PP combination, just like walk/crawl/drive over [someone] still is. For that reason, run over him has been and continues to be OK. In fact, it’s the preferred order for some speakers, including me and my mom, as I learned when she complained about all the newscasters saying that Clara Harris “ran him over” instead of “ran over him”. However, it is in the process of changing to a verb+particle phrasal verb, as evidenced by the widespread grammaticality of run [unstressed pronoun] over. I don’t know whether we can expect it to become a phrasal verb with a fully separable particle, such that ran David Harris over would be grammatical, since I don’t know if phrasal verbs with nonseparable particles tend to evolve into phrasal verbs with separable particles, or vice versa, or neither.

A lot has been written on phrasal verbs over the years, but a couple of sources I’ve been reading are Patrick Farrell’s article in the March 2005 issue of Language, and Chapter 4, section 6 of CGEL. There’s also a fun and useful resource I found while writing these posts, the Phrasal Verb Demon.

I’m not done with phrasal verbs yet. I’ve talked about the preposition over becoming a particle; next time it will be a strange case of the particle over becoming a preposition. And there’s still a post from the Tensor from last November that prompted me to think about this topic in the first place.

8 Responses to “She Ran Him Over”

  1. […] Literal-Minded Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally « She Ran Him Over […]

  2. Blanca said

    Re: “My dad can beat up your dad.” What do you think about “can beat” as the verb, “up” as an adverb, and “your dad” as the direct object. Because a physical difference exists between beating someone “up” and beating someone “down”.

  3. Neal said

    I’d say that in beat down, the down is an adverb, used as a resultative (i.e., something that shows how the direct object ends up, in this case, down). In other words, the phrase beat someone down contains the verb beat. But in beat up, I still call up a particle, unless when you say that your dad can beat up my dad, you mean that my dad will end up on a rooftop or in a tree or something, in the same way as prop something up means to take an action that results in something being upright. So the phrase beat someone up, unlike beat someone down, contains not the simple verb beat, but the complex verb beat up (which of course is related to beat).

  4. […] (not “look down their nose”) at things they disapprove of. It reminded me of my own posts about particles, prepositions, and phrasal verbs. Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  5. Alacritas said

    Wow, it looks like we’re speaking totally different languages! Haha…

    “He ran over him” — I would *never* say this, and it sounds exquisitely strange to me…if I saw this written down I would assume a non-native speaker wrote it. I guess I have to change that judgment of mine haha

    On the other hand, “He ran David Harris over” sounds totally normal. “He ran over David Harris” sounds OK, I guess, but isn’t how I would say it.

  6. Lin Simpson said

    The difference I immediately noticed between “ran him over” and “ran over him” (as a native English speaker who is not a linguist) is the intent of the “runner.” To me, “ran him over” sounds definitely intentional, while “ran over him” could be either intentional or accidental. So if I were using the latter, I would add a qualifier, i.e., “intentionally ran over him” or “accidentally ran over him,” while “accidentally ran him over” sounds like something a non-native speaker would write. But I suspect this also might depend on which side of the pond you’re from. In my case I’m from the left side.

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