For example, English uses phrases like to look for and to look at, which (I believe) are considered phrasal verbs. Spanish, however, would under normal circumstances use some derivation of buscar and mirar, respectively, instead of a prepositional modifier.

Spanish does, however, use verbs that are partially comprised of a preposition, e.g. soñar con or llevar a cabo, as does Italian, e.g. andare giù and andare via. These are a type of phrasal verb, I believe, yet the primary root of the verb is different, unlike to look for and to look at.

Does this difference derive from the differing influences in the languages that influenced modern languages, e.g. Spanish has many Arabic influences, while English, perhaps fewer Arabic influences but more Germanic sources?

  • Nice question, and I think the upvotes prove that. :)
    – Alenanno
    Aug 5, 2012 at 11:03
  • 1
    @Alenanno I need to ask more questions on here. I've learned quite a bit just from these answers. Aug 5, 2012 at 12:46

2 Answers 2


Just a brief comment on the more Englishy aspect of the question.

The difference between Spanish and English in this regard is not connected to Arabic. Rather it’s a Germanic versus Romance feature: Germanic languages as a whole have phrasal verbs (in which a particle, frequently homophonous with a preposition, is syntactically separable from the verb, as in look it up), Romance languages do not (such “preposition”+verb combinations as they have are not syntactically separable; this inseparability survives in Germanic borrowings, like commit, remit, admit, permit, resulting in roots, such as mit do not occur without a prefix).

Within English, you need to distinguish between look for and look up type verbs. In the former case, for is the preposition used if there is an object; in the latter, up is always present, as a necessary part of the meaning. Hence, the following is possible (no object, no for):

A: Did you look for them?

B: Yes, I looked all morning / Yes, I spent the whole morning looking

In contrast to:

A: Did you look them up?

B: ??Yes, I looked all morning / ??Yes, I spent the whole morning looking

There are also syntactic differences. A object can intervene between verb and particle, or it can follow the particle:

I looked them up

I looked up the answers

This variation is unavailable for verbs that select a prepositional, rather than a nominal, complement:

I looked for the answers

* I looked them for

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    +1 for stating that these particles are not always prepositions despite what many people incorrectly believe. Aug 5, 2012 at 12:04

Languages like Spanish and Italian exhibit verb-framing behaviour, meaning that the manner of the action (e.g. scendere, cadere) is encoded in the lexical item. On the other hand, English exhibits satellite-framing behaviour, since for many verbs, the same kind of information (motion from where? to where?) is encoded in particles which "orbit" the verb. It's true that neither is English entirely satellite-framing (through its Romance-derived verbal lexicon), nor Italian entirely verb-framing (with giù and ).

As for the diachronic reasons, I think that all the Romance languages are largely verb-framing because Latin was strongly verb-framing (its rich set of preposition-like prefixes including ob-, ab-, trans-, sub- serving the same purpose as verb particles like against, across, under).

Daniel Harbour's answer has an important point, though. The verbs which he calls "look up type verbs" are instances of the English verb particle construction, which yields the verb/satellite-framing variation previously discussed. The "look for type verbs" are typically analysed as verbs which subcategorise for a PP (prepositional phrase), which explains why they cleave tight to the verb.

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    Incidentally, "look for" and "look at" can be converted to verb-framed versions "seek" and "view" (both without prepositions), respectively. However the result, though not ungrammatical, does sound quite strange to native speakers. (perhaps unrelated but "view" and "seek" both seem to be, at least partly, of PIE origin where as "look" seems to be Germanic)
    – acattle
    Aug 5, 2012 at 2:41
  • @acattle: seek doesn't seem to have a clear PIE cognate.
    – jogloran
    Aug 5, 2012 at 4:01
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    My source says it's influenced by both Germanic and PIE words. I'm not particularly confident in that source, nor am I particularly familiar with historical linguistics but I thought it was an interesting coincidence that the verbs compatible with verb-framing may come from the same source as modern Romance Languages (which exhibit verb-framing). It needs a lot more research but I thought it was worth sharing.
    – acattle
    Aug 5, 2012 at 4:40

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