I’m going out (adv) — out (prep) of my mind!
In, out, up, down, on, off. Everyone knows words like these can be prepositions. But did you know some words like these can also be adverbs? How can you tell the difference? And what about phrasal verbs or expressions like “turn off”? This question recently came up at ESL Library 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 this difference to our students.
A preposition takes an object. If there is a noun following the term, it usually indicates the term is a preposition, not an adverb (but see the “Tricky Cases” section below).
- He ran down the stairs.
- Maria looked out the window.
- They talked in circles and couldn’t reach a decision.
For practice, try our Prepositions lesson.
An adverb doesn’t take an object (but see the “Tricky Cases” section below). Adverbs such as these usually appear at the end of the clause or sentence.
- She sat down.
- We’re going out at 7:00 tonight.
- When you arrive at the hotel, make sure you check in.
For general adverb practice, try our Adverbs of Manner lesson.
What happens when a word appears to have an object, and therefore looks like a preposition, but is actually functioning as an adverb? Cases like this include phrasal verbs. In these cases, the adverb is defining or describing the verb, not the object.
- He looked up her number. (up = adverb)
- The class president called off the meeting. (off = adverb)
- You should check the schedule out. (out = 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 the example “I looked up his biography.” Detaching “up his biography” doesn’t make sense, and therefore “up” is an adverb in this case.
However, what about other verb expressions like “push down” (that our customer asked about)? 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 Collegiate 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’s 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 that the rule is that if you’re able to move the object, it is always an adverb (as in turn on the light / turn the light on)? Do you agree that the last 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 called 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. My feeling is that 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?
I hope everyone is down with this info! ;)
- 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.”