Consider the following sentences

  1. He pushed open the door.
  2. He pushed the door open.

Are the two ‘pushed open’ phrasal verbs and have ‘the door’ as their objects?

  • 4
    Easy to tell. Substitute a pronoun for the door. *He pushed open it. ~ He pushed it open. Particle shift (which applies only to phrasal verbs) is obligatory with a pronoun object.
    – jlawler
    Feb 11, 2013 at 0:27
  • From your words, “pry open are phrasal verbs,” ; “pry open it” doesn’t seem to be possible. So I’m very confused why you called this phrasal verbs? link
    – Listenever
    Feb 11, 2013 at 0:49
  • 2
    If it is a phrasal verb, like pry open, then *pry open it should be impossible, and pry it open should be OK. If it's not a phrasal verb (like look at), then look at it is OK, but *look it at is not.
    – jlawler
    Feb 11, 2013 at 1:37
  • 1
    More phrasal verb puzzles (for native speakers -- if you're not one, find one to use as an informant) here.
    – jlawler
    Feb 11, 2013 at 2:09
  • 1
    @jlawler So you're saying it is a phrasal verb? I was not aware of the test... I thought it worked for transitive verbs only.
    – Alenanno
    Feb 11, 2013 at 9:51

1 Answer 1


Yes, push open is a phrasal verb and in both examples in the question, the door is the direct object, not an object of a preposition. The test mentioned in Jlawler's comment is indeed an easy way to identify the particle of phrasal verbs. One substitutes a definite pronoun in for the NP. If the pronoun must precede the particle, one knows that it is indeed a particle and not a preposition. Here are more examples of how the test works:

 a.  He walked over the mess.
 b.  He walked over it. 
 c. *He walked it over. - "over" in this case is a preposition, not a particle

 a.  We talked over the issue.
 b. *We talked over it.
 c.  We talked it over. - "over" in this case is a particle, not a preposition

These examples demonstrate that over in walk over is a preposition, and over in talk over is a particle, which means talk over is a phrasal verb. The pronoun diagnostic with further examples is used in the Wikipedia article on phrasal verbs here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrasal_verb.

A related question concerns the phenomenon of shifting that occurs with phrasal verbs. What is it about the syntactic structure that allows shifting to occur with phrasal verbs? The relevant difference across the particle of phrasal verbs and standard prepositions is that the particle and the NP object are sister constituents in the structure, whereas when a preposition is present, the NP is the dependent of the preposition. In other words, the structure is flat with phrasal verbs, whereas it is more layered when the preposition is present. Shifting is discussed in Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shifting_%28linguistics%29. The article includes examples involving phrasal verbs.

  • 1
    The alternation test only works on transitive phrasal verbs, though, for obvious reasons. That makes identifying and classifying intransitive phrasal verbs more troublesome. (Bitransitive phrasal verbs are already troublesome, since particle shift interacts with dative shift: Pick me up another six-pack vs *Pick it me up/Pick me up it.)
    – jlawler
    Mar 27, 2014 at 23:56
  • The test also works for intransitive phrasal verbs insofar as the object of any preposition that appears with the intransitive phrasal verb will fail the test. I agree that there is a problem when a ditransitive phrasal verb is involved, but such cases are really rare. Mar 28, 2014 at 17:11

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