Some dictionaries such as Cambridge Online Dictionary defines the word particle as

a word or a part of a word that has a grammatical purpose but often has little or no meaning: In the sentence "I tidied up the room", the adverb "up" is a particle.

I know there could be some argument over what to call up in the sentence, but what I don't understand is why up can't be classified as an adverb that means "completely" or something else listed in Merriam-Webster's definition as an adverb.

Some also might argue that up is a preposition, not a particle or an adverb. I am a native Korean speaker and fluent Japanese speaker and none of these languages uses the word particle for a word like up in English. In Korean and Japanese, particle is a function word which is attached to a word or phrase to show grammatical relationship and help clarify the meaning.

What is particle in English? What's the difference between particle and adverb (or preposition)?

  • If up meant "completely", it would make no sense to say "I tidied it up a little".
    – michau
    Nov 19, 2016 at 11:10
  • Distribution, for one thing. I hastily/completely tidied the room, but not #I up tidied the room. I ate up the food but not #I ate hastily the food. Gradability: I tidied my room more hastily than John but not #I tidied my room more up than John. Nov 19, 2016 at 14:25
  • My poor understanding was that particles were uninflected/uninflectable words, but it seems others have more rigid definitions.
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 19, 2016 at 16:24
  • Unless you come from a specific theoretical perspective, I don't think it's possible for particles to behave consistently across languages, since as Greg Lee said it's an ad hoc POS. However, in the Korean and Japanese cases, I don't speak these languages but do you think they could instead be characterised as clitics? (I'm asking because I've seen = signs used before Japanese case markers.) Nov 21, 2016 at 8:31
  • BTW, you might find Croft's brief treatment of verbs and satellites in Typology and Universals interesting. Nov 21, 2016 at 8:32

3 Answers 3


Things are called particles when they undergo the rule Particle Shift. "Particle" is an ad hoc POS made up to fill the need for a notation to use to describe when the rule works. It is not a happy event when a syntactician has to invent a new special category just to make his rules work, but what can one do? Anyone with a better idea should bring it forth -- the world will beat a path to your doorstep.

I like your idea of making particles verb modifiers (if that is indeed a proposal). In general, a modifier is added to a constituent of a given category to yield a new constituent of that category, so if "up" is added to the verb "tidy" to yield the verb "tidy up", that makes "up" a verb modifier, and a verb modifier is an adverb.

Furthermore, in McCawley's theory of English adverbs, "completely" and other degree adverbs are verb modifiers (as against V' or S modifiers). So maybe the semantics works, too.

Since writing the above, I looked online at McCawley's description of this construction in his book The Syntactic Phenomena of English. A tree structure for a particle construction is given on page 94, and you can find it by going to discontinuous references and clicking on "previous" to get to the 2nd reference. You will see that McCawley characterizes a shifted particle as a P (preposition) which modifies a preceding verb, and together with that verb makes up a discontinuous modified verb. I believe this makes it an adverb, as well as being a preposition.

  • Thanks for the answer. It makes sense. The one thing I don't understand is why English needs to call some words like "up" particle which has a complete different role in other languages that I know.
    – Rathony
    Nov 19, 2016 at 13:36
  • @Rathony, What would you like to call it?
    – Greg Lee
    Nov 19, 2016 at 13:46
  • I would call it an adverb or (very reluctantly) preposition.
    – Rathony
    Nov 19, 2016 at 13:46
  • 3
    Huddleston and Pullum call them "intransitive prepositions"; really what they are is separable suffixes, like German's separable prefixes.
    – jlawler
    Nov 20, 2016 at 1:02
  • 1
    @jlawler, None of these ideas about what to call them tells us anything about how they work. Now, here's what's really happening. They don't have a pos -- they are the second parts of discontinuous verbs. There is no shifting rule needed, since they start out "shifted". Instead, Heavy NP Shift may move a non-pronominal direct object to the end of the VP -- in effect that is an anti-Shift.
    – Greg Lee
    Nov 20, 2016 at 3:25

The following illustrates my second answer to this question, which is that "particles" have no part of speech.

Earlier descriptions of subcategorization

In that first generation of great young desriptivists from MIT, Robert Lees gave arbitrary and artificial category symbols to express restrictions that tree neighbors place on heads. I'm not sure I've got the following example exactly right, and I suspect Lees wrote it tongue-in-cheek:

  • Vt32 -> "give" (Robert Lees, Grammar of English nominalization)

Realizing that CFG places no restriction on the names of non-terminal symbols (after all he invented CFG), Chomsky proposed a more natural notation to say within the names of the categories of heads what near neighbors could be present:

  • V -> CS (Chomsky, Aspects of the theory of syntax)

means that the non-terminal "V" is replaced with a name made from a set of feature specifications saying what tree sisters could be present for the specific verb that replaced this non-terminal symbol.

However, this proposal of Chomsky's has an odd property that makes it seem to me to be artificial. A subcategorization restriction has to be said twice. You wind up with trees having, for instance, a transitive verb dominated by a symbol whose name says it's transitive and, also, a following NP object. We shouldn't have to do it twice.

A better way to simply not use special categories like "V", "N", "P" for heads. There is no syntactic language evidence I know of for their existence (though there may be morphological evidence). Their only purpose is to let us keep rules concerning words separate from rules that describe phrase structure. I guess the reason for this is that dictionaries are customarily different books from grammars. But this is not evidence from language.

Categorial Grammar (CG) does not require category symbols for heads comparable to "V", "N", "P" and so on. This lets us avoid the issue of how to handle the subcategorization of "V", ...

Illustration of Categorial Grammar

Logicians concerned with the logic of natural language have a fondness for CG, invented by the logician Ajdukiewicz, because the grammatical structure of expressions corresponds in a straightforward way to their semantic structure. Grammatical categories are structures built up with the slash connective, which gives the category of a syntactic function after the slash and the category of the function value before the slash:

"I tidied up the room", S  
    /            \  
"I", NP    "tidied up the room", S/NP  
                    /               \  
         "tidied up", (S/NP)/NP    "the room", NP 

Each node of the CG tree for a syntactic structure consists of a constituent and its category. In place of a "V" for the category of "tidied up", we get the category "(S/NP)/NP", which can be read as meaning that this constituent has two NP dependencies which, when satisfied, will yield a constituent of category S. There is no "V" or "VP". In defense of the CG version of grammatical structure, notice that it correctly predicts that "and" cannot be used to conjoin a transitive verb with category (S/NP)/NP with an intransitive verb, which would have a different category: S/NP, because only expressions of the same category can be conjoined.

This illustration I have given does not get right the linear order of a grammatical function expression and its argument expression. More careful formulations of CG can deal with that detail. Emmon Bach proposed a special version of the slash operation, "right wrap", that we could appeal to get the NP "the room" to the left of the the "up" when "tidy up" combines with "the room".

I find the slash operators that are required to make CG work to be artificial, but there is a way to adapt CFG to get the advantages of CG. Noticing some similarity between the information provided at each node of a CG tree and that provided in a rewrite rule of PSG, let us redo the CG tree above with PS rules at each node:

Categorial Grammar partially converted to PSG

S -> "I tidied up the room"  
    /            \  
NP -> "I"    S -> NP "tidied up the room"  
                    /                \  
         S -> NP "tidied up" NP    NP -> "the room"

In this form, what would be a derivation in a CFG has been expressed in tree form, with each non-leaf node produced by applying one daughter rewrite rule to the other daughter rewrite rule. Since what were the constituent and category at each node in the CG tree are no longer in two separate parts, if we still wish to refer to constituent and category, we must define those to be the pronunciation part and the non-pronunciation part of a PS rule, respectively.

This revision is unlike a real CG derivation tree in two respects. (1) There is no way to pick out which non-terminal in a PS rule represents the argument. (2) The rewrite operation of CFG is not technically a function, since applying it can give ambiguous results.

As for (1), in an earlier post, How can we describe the vertical dimension ..., I argued that the non-terminals of CFG do have a place along a height scale, and when information about grammatical relations is added, we can pick out the argument of a PS rule as being a lowest or most oblique non-terminal. In the above illustration, we now have

S1 -> NP1 "tidied up" NP2

where the NP2 is the lowest point and consequently the non-terminal representing the argument. As for (2), in that post I also described how the rewrite operation of CFG can be reinterpreted as a substitution function. So now we have a full reconstruction of CG.

Representation of discontinuous constituents

As a side benefit of this reworking of CG, it becomes possible to describe discontinuous constituents without making any special assumptions:

S1-> NP1 "tidied" NP2 "up"

Note that "up" is given no category here. There is no longer anything corresponding to the "P" of CFG, nor does "up" have any category in the above suggested sense of "category" as meaning the non-pronunciation part of a CFG rule.


There’s no difference, as you put it, since particles are mainly prepositions. "Particle" is not a distinct word category (part of speech) as such, but a term used for certain words that have the distinctive property of being able to be positioned between the verb and its direct object.

Huddleston & Pullum describe particles as complements which can freely come between the verb and an NP object, adding that they are mainly short words (one or two syllables) that with just a few exceptions are all prepositions unaccompanied by any complement of their own (i.e. intransitive). Examples are "off", "up" "down", "by", "over" and so on.

A typical example is "She took the suitcase down" where "down" can follow the object or occur between the verb and object, "She took down the suitcase". And in your example "up" is a particle because it can occur between the verb and its object. The few exceptions to prepositions are some adjectives and verbs, though they are restricted to a small number of idioms e.g., "He made clear his intentions", "They cut short their holiday".

  • Thanks for your answer. Now I fully understand the function of particle in English. You think "up" in the example is a preposition, right?
    – Rathony
    Nov 19, 2016 at 15:44
  • @Rathony Yes, definitely.
    – BillJ
    Nov 19, 2016 at 17:09

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