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Preposition or Adverb? How to Tell the Difference

October 24, 2022

In, out, up, down, on, off. Everyone knows words like these can be prepositions. But did you know these words can sometimes function as adverbs instead? How can you tell the difference? And what about phrasal verbs like “turn off” or expressions like “push down”? 

This last question came up at Ellii when a customer mentioned that in the phrase “push the switch down,” “down” is an adverb, not a preposition. 

Let’s review the basic rules, discuss the trickier cases, and decide if it’s worth teaching the difference between prepositions and adverbs to our students.

What is a preposition?

A preposition takes an object. If there’s a noun following the term, it usually indicates the term is a preposition, not an adverb. 

Of course, not all prepositions are so straightforward, which is why it’s also important to learn about the trickier cases before teaching them to your students (should you so choose).

Examples of prepositions

  • He ran down the stairs.
  • Maria looked out the window.
  • They talked in circles and couldn’t reach a decision.

Try our Prepositions lesson for practice.

What is an adverb?

An adverb doesn’t take an object. Adverbs such as these usually appear at the end of the clause or sentence. 

Keep in mind that not all adverbs are created equal and that there are a few exceptions to be aware of.

Examples of adverbs

  • She sat down.
  • We’re going out at 7:00 pm tonight.
  • When you arrive at the hotel, make sure you check in.

For general adverb practice, try our Adverbs of Manner lesson.

Example of a preposition and adverb: A girl climbing up the wall and another girl sitting down.

Tricky cases: Is it a preposition or an adverb?

When it comes to teaching about prepositions and adverbs, it's also important to be aware of the tricker cases.

What happens when a word appears to have an object, and therefore looks like a preposition, but is actually functioning as an adverb? 

Tricky cases like this include phrasal verbs.

Phrasal verbs are two or more words (usually a verb and a preposition) that work together to create a new word with a completely different meaning from the original words.

call (verb) = to dial someone’s phone number

off (preposition) = from a place or position

call off (phrasal verb) = to cancel

When it comes to phrasal verbs, the adverb is defining or describing the verb, not the object.

Examples of phrasal verbs

  • He looked up her number. (up = adverb)
  • The class president called off the meeting. (off = adverb)
  • You should check the schedule out. (out = adverb)

How to determine if the term before an object is an adverb

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, a good test for determining whether the term before an object is an adverb is to detach the term + object and see if it makes sense. 

They give this example: “I looked up his biography.” Detaching “up his biography” doesn’t make sense, and therefore “up” is an adverb in this case.

How to decipher other tricky verb expressions

What about other verb expressions (also called collocations) like “push down” (that our customer asked about earlier)? 

You can say “push down the switch” or “push the switch down.” Is “down” defining the verb “push,” or is it part of the prepositional phrase “down the switch”? 

Does Chicago’s test help us here? 

Is “down the stairs” in the sentence “He ran down the stairs,” which is clearly a preposition, similar to “down the switch” in the sentence “He pushed down the switch,” and therefore also a preposition?

We can turn to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary for help with these expressions. 

Under the adverb entry for “down,” they give the following examples:

  • They set the cake down on the table.
  • Lay down your book for a minute.

Clearly, Merriam-Webster classifies the terms in these types of verb expressions as adverbs, not prepositions. 

I must admit, I’m still a bit puzzled by cases like this. Can we say the rule is that if you’re able to move the object, it’s always an adverb (as in turn on the light / turn the light on)? Do you agree that the previous two bullet examples are adverbs, not prepositions? 

I’ll accept it, but I’m not 100% convinced. I don’t see a whole lot of difference between “go down the stairs” (preposition) and “lay down your book” (adverb).

Should we teach this to our students?

In my experience, most textbooks don’t get into the difference in parts of speech for words like "down," "on," "off," etc. The many textbooks that I’ve seen during my teaching career simply call these terms prepositions

I believe that, in general, students are capable of learning and understanding the sentence positions and meanings while grouping these words under the “preposition” umbrella. 

This could be a discussion you could have with higher-level students, but for lower-level students, it would only create unnecessary chaos and confusion.

What do you think?

Should we be teaching the difference between prepositions and adverbs to our English language learners? Why or why not? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

Sources

  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, section 5.180.
  • Collins Cobuild English Grammar, section 6.82–6.87.
  • Merriam‑Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, entries such as “down.”

Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 2013 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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Comments (53)

Sandy (Guest)

Thank you for posting this. I've been tearing my hair out trying to make sense of conflicting information on other websites. Just when I think I've understood the difference between an adverb and a preposition, I read something like the examples you cited from Merriam-Webster and start doubting my grasp of the subject all over again.

I'd say that the first example is an adverb (because you could omit 'on the table' without changing the meaning) and the second is a preposition (because the object 'your book' is essential for the meaning - if you said 'lay down for a minute' without mentioning the book', the sense is completely altered).

I guess the lesson is that even the authorities can get confused by these grey areas of grammar.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Sandy,

Tearing out your hair...yep, I've been there! Thanks for letting us know what you think.

In that first example ('They set the cake down on the table'), you mentioned that we can remove 'on the table' with no difference to meaning. I agree with that, but can we remove 'the cake'? In this case, 'they set down' doesn't make sense alone, so I think it's similar to 'lay down', which does make sense but only because it's a whole other meaning, in the second example ('Lay down your book for a minute'). Because we need the objects to make the meaning clear, I'd argue that 'down' is a preposition in both cases, and not an adverb as Merriam-Webster suggested. Yep, still confused! ;)

Reply to Comment

Zyan (Guest)

With the Merriam-Webster’s definition and taking the two examples you compared at the end:
1)Go down the stairs. (preposition)
2)Lay down your book. (adverb)

I think that at least in this case we can actually say that the rule IS that as long as we can move the object, it is always an adverb.
On the first example the subject is the one who is moving 'I go down the stairs' and NOT the stairs, that is why it is taken as a preposition. And on the second example it is the book that is moving, and not the subject.

Still, I may be wrong. I'm also confused, and your post helped me a lot with the project I had to work in for college. Thank you!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Zyan,

That's an interesting point! 'If there's an object that moves, it's an adverb'---I wonder if this works most of the time. It still doesn't help us with sentences without objects such as 'She sat down' (adverb), but it would be nice to have a 'rule' for the cases with objects!

I wrote this almost a year ago, and it still makes my head spin! Thanks for your input. :)

Madam.ph (Guest)

Thank you so much. I'm teaching my Thai students about adverbs and they ask me how they can differenciate prepositional phrase of place with adverb of place. They are just beginners. So your suggestion helps me to decide if I should focus on the differences or not.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks for sharing!

Vicki (Guest)

Thank you so much; you've helped me a lot. So to make sure I have understood the difference,in the following sentence 'up' is an adverb, isn't it?'I'm sure I could turn something up to satisfy the basic condition.'

Reply to Comment

Baby (Guest)

Hi Tanya,

So far as I know turn up also means to arrive. In that sense we might use it with a person as a subject.e.g. He turned up late for the party.

Regards

Muazzam Shah(Guest)

Your explanation has been very helpful. Kindly explain the definite article THE. To the best of my knowledge, THE is partly dependent and partly independent. 'He lives in the United States of America.' We must use it here as it is Dependent. 'I have bought a book.' or the book. It is up to us what we want to say. If the object is a common noun, 'a book' is correct. If we want to show that the object is a particular noun, 'the book' is correct. Kindly guide me and correct me if I have understood it correctly. Thanks for your precious time.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Muazzam,

A good guideline is to think of 'the' as specific (definite) and 'a/an' as general (indefinite). (Note that we don't usually use the terms independent/dependent for articles.) We use 'the' when there is only one of the noun (the sun) or when it's defined (you can see it or everyone knows which one it is; e.g., the United States / the movie that I told you about / not the red pen but the blue pen). We use 'a/an' when there are many of the noun and it doesn't matter which one (I need a pen) or when it's the first mention (I bought a bike. The bike was green.).

So in your example, 'I have bought a book.' is much more common because it's the first mention. Only if you were pointing to it specifically, where we both could see it, would you possibly say something like 'The book (on the table over there) is really good. I just bought it yesterday.' or 'I have bought the book that you told me about.' There is usually a clue in the sentence/context that it is specific (definite).

There are a lot more tips and a useful chart in this blog post: http://bit.ly/ArticlesChart. I've also written a lesson on Articles (accessible if you're a subscriber): http://bit.ly/ArticlesLesson.

Hope that helps!
Tanya :)

nenny (Guest)

Dear Ms. Trusler,
I have been confused with the word 'to'. When is it a preposition that should be followed by a noun/gerund, like in 'I look forward to it/seeing you' and when is it part of an infinitive, like in ' I used to live there' ?
Would you please help me know the difference / how to identify it?
Thank you.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Nenny,

Great question. I teach it to my students this way:
1. When we want to indicate direction, 'to' should be followed by a noun.
- I went to the store.
- I gave a present to my friend.

  1. When we want to express two verbs together (with no meaning of direction), 'to' should be followed by a base verb (the infinitive form). For more help with gerunds and infinitives, see this post: https://blog.ellii.com/2013/02/21/gerunds-and-infinitives-helpful-teaching-tips/
  2. I want to buy a new car. (infinitive)
  3. She needs to study. (infinitive)
  4. She enjoys reading. (gerund)

  5. Certain expressions take a noun or a verb, depending on the expression. These should be memorized:
    a) look forward to + noun/gerund
    (see https://blog.ellii.com/2012/09/07/answering-students-grammar-questions-why-do-we-use-looking-forward-to-with-a-second-ing-verb/)
    b) used to + verb
    (see https://blog.ellii.com/2013/11/21/how-to-teach-used-to-in-6-easy-steps/ and https://blog.ellii.com/2013/11/28/used-to-get-used-to-and-be-used-to/)

Hope that helps! :)

wordy smith(Guest)

Thanks for the sharing very great information. I appreciate it.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks for your comment!

Carolina Cervantes(Guest)

Thank you so much, I am a intermediate English student, an it helped me so much!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

I'm happy to hear that, Carolina! :)

David (Guest)

Think of 'down the street' versus 'down the book'. Think in terms of whether your are answering the question 'where' or 'when' (since we use spatial metaphors to talk about time).

'down the street' and 'along the street' depend on the fact that the street is a place and thus mentioning answers the question when, as well as metaphorical thinking about my eyes being high and looking down along the street which gets narrower with perspective, as well as the the idea of the street being narrow and long.

'down the book' , 'down the weapon', 'down the receiver', and 'down the pill' don't have this 'when' type attribute and thus 'down' is adverbial in nature here, and without mention of the verb here even coerces the adverbial usage into having imperative verbal force. This is equivalent to including an implied verb 'put' in the first three cases, because we literally and commonly 'pick up' and 'put down' books and weapons, and somewhere between literally and metaphorically one player may 'put down' another player, and then his teammates may 'pick up' the player. The particle/adverb nature is indicated by the way pronouns get inserted when they pick him up or he picks himself up.

In the final example, the normal thing we do with pills is swallow them, so 'swallow down' is the expanded version making clear the implied verb and the action that we are commanding.

To give time based illustrations answering 'when', think of 'within the hour', 'in an hour', 'on the hour', 'at two o'clock', 'on time', 'in time', 'over time', 'under time'.

To give mixed space-time illustrations that answer both 'when' and 'where' note that 'at work' implies both the workplace, the working day, and the working activities/scenarios. The statements 'I'll ring you at work' or 'I'll ring you from work' could be as much about the time or task as the place (it's not appropriate to talk now or one of us doesn't have the documents to hand at the moment, so I'll ring you in working hours).

The time-space-relevance corresponds to a series of wh-word (when-where-how/why/whose) type attributes being supplied by an adverbial phrase, including prepositional phrases ('on Monday', 'down the corridor', 'on the document'; 'the author's works/correspondence' = '[works] of/by the author' resp. '[correspondence] to/with/by the author' ) and of course also noun phrases ('last week' or 'home' or 'today') that omit the preposition and act adverbially.

Technically even single words of other parts of speech acting as adverbs are still playing a standard role those for those other parts of speech with the same semantics but implied context in contexts where many would relabel them adverbs ('home' or 'today') and they represent and can be expanded or altered into the more complex prepositional phrases ('at home', 'at my home', 'in my home', 'in the home', 'this day', 'the other day', 'the next day').

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Excellent insights and examples, David! Thanks for sharing.

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