Which is correct - "look up words in the dictionary" or "look words up in the dictionary"?

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I teach a special ed. reading program.  I think one of the exercises in the workbook is wrong.  We are working with phrasal verbs - look up, throw away, turn over, etc.  The sentences in the exercise have the two parts separated. An example is: "Throw the trash out."  I think it should be "Throw out the trash."  Which is correct or does it matter?

asked Apr 25 '13 at 15:11 barrand New member

1 answer


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A phrasal verb consists of a verb and a particle – for example in the phrasal verb look up, the verb is look and the particle is up. There are a few phrasal verbs that have more than one particle, but most have only one.

(Some grammar references, stupidly, I think, call the particle a preposition because the word (such as up) can be used as a preposition in other contexts but it does not at all grammatically function as a preposition when it is part of a phrasal verb -- but I digress...)

There are two kinds of transitive phrasal verbs (transitive means the verb takes a direct object): separable and inseparable. 

The verb and the particle of a separable phrasal verb can be separated – in other words, the direct noun object can (but does not have to) be in between the verb and the particle.  He looked the word up in the dictionary is correct; He looked up the word in the dictionary is also correct.  The phrasal verb look up is separable.

One last point about separable phrasal verbs is that when the direct object is a pronoun object, the pronoun object MUST go between the verb and the particle.  It cannot go after the particle.  He looked it up in the dictionary is correct but He looked up it in the dictionary is a grammar error.

The verb and the particle of an inseparable phrasal verb cannot be separated: the direct object can’t be placed between the verb and the particle, and so must always go after the particle.  For example, the phrasal verb look for is inseparable.  He is looking for a new apartment is correct.  He is looking a new apartment for is a grammar error.

The verbs in your question – look up and throw out are both separable.

So, how do you know which transitive phrasal verbs are separable and which are inseparable?  It’s a good question.    Unfortunately you just have to study and memorize which is which – this website might be a good starting reference:  http://web2.uvcs.uvic.ca/courses/elc/Sample/Advanced/gs/gs_04.htm

I hope this helps.

link comment edited Apr 26 '13 at 00:48 Shawn Mooney Expert

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