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Author Topic: Lesson #10 – Dealing with the Prepositional Idioms  (Read 33124 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: July 03, 2009, 10:55:47 PM »

The Prepositional Idioms

A prepositional idiom consists of a verb followed by a preposition, but unlike an ordinary prepositional phrase, it forms an expression with a nonliteral or idiomatic meaning. Some grammarians consider the prepositional idiom a type of a phrasal verb, others call it the phrasal verb itself, and still others call it a verb phrase. Anyway we call it, however, the distinguishing characteristic of a prepositional idiom is that its meaning is largely determined by the preposition that comes after the verb; in fact, a single verb can yield as many as five or many more meanings depending on the preposition that comes after it.

For example, the verb “back,” which literally means “to support by material or moral assistance” or “to cause to go back or in reverse,” yields at least nine different meanings when followed by different prepositions, as follows:

back down – cease defending one’s position in a debate or argument.
Example: He’s not the type who’ll back down from a fight because of veiled threats.

back away – get out from a previous commitment.
Example: The consortium partner backed away from the deal for undisclosed reasons.

back out – renege from a promise or deal.
Example: The boxer backed out from the title fight due to disagreements over the prize money.
back up (1) – provide support to someone or something.
Example:  The reporter was asked to back up his exposé with documentary evidence.

back up (2) – move backwards or in reverse.
Example: She backed up the car so fast that it hit the lamppost.

back out of – not keep a promise or deal.
Example:  His lawyer backed out of the case the day before the trial.

back into – hit something while moving backwards.
Example: She backed into a lamppost while getting out of the parking slot. 

back off – escape or run away from something.
Example: The police told the demonstrators to back off or face dispersal.

back of – unspoken self-knowledge about the outcome of something
Example: He decided to fight, but back of his mind he knew that it was a losing battle.   

The verb “shut,” on the other hand, forms the six prepositional idioms when paired off with different prepositions: “shut off” (to close), “shut down” (to close permanently), “shut in” (to confine), “shut up” (to stop talking), “shut out” (to prevent participation), and “shut off” (to cut off the flow).

The prepositional idioms or phrasal verbs are much more vulnerable to misuse than ordinary prepositional phrases because the specific preposition to use for each of them isn’t intuitive and doesn’t always follow a definite logic; in fact, their nonliteral meanings can be learned only after one gets adequate immersion in the language. They should therefore be used with caution—and only when the writer or speaker has sufficiently internalized their meaning and the situations or occasions for which they are appropriate. 

The English language actually has thousands of prepositional idioms or phrasal verbs and there’s really no way for us to know all of them all at once. Indeed, to be able to use them with confidence in our writing or speech, we have no choice but to seriously study them and commit them to memory.

A good rule to follow when about to use a prepositional idiom is this: When in doubt, don’t.


act up – malfunction or misbehave
Example: The car acted up right after he drove it out of the repair shop.

add up – make sense   
Example: The investigators concluded that the suspect’s declarations didn’t add up.

ask (someone) out – invite on a date   
Example: She wondered when her crush would finally ask her out.

ask (someone) over - invite to one’s home   
Example: Let’s ask Thelma over for lunch on Sunday..

bawl (someone) out – criticize or reprimand very strongly
Example: The police officer bawled the cab driver out for ignoring his signals to stop.

bear down on – take strong measures against
Example: The Iranian government has been bearing down on the post-election protesters.

bear with – be patient   
Example: Please bear with us while we fix the beddings in the room.

blow in – visit unexpectedly
Example: We were caught unprepared when my in-laws blew in from the province yesterday.

break down – to weep uncontrollably   
Example: The bride broke down when she learned that the broom won’t come to their wedding. 

bring (something) about – cause to happen   
Example: The mayor couldn’t understand what brought the city’s bankruptcy about.

get (something) across – make something understood   
Example: When the boss is in a bad mood, it’s difficult to get things across to him.

get along with – have a good relationship
Example: Roger finds it difficult to get along with his business partners.

get around – avoid someone or something   
Example: She flew to Europe to get around the political controversy.

keep at  – persevere
Example: The indigent high school student kept at her studies until she graduated valedictorian.

keep off – avoid stepping on something   
Example: As they promised, the rallyists kept off the grass during their demonstration at the park.

keep back – maintain a safe distance
Example: The police told the crowd to keep back from the burning truck.

make out – succeed   
Example: The actress made out spectacularly in Hollywood despite her scandalous life.

make (something) up – concoct a story   
Example: She had to make things up to explain her prolonged absence.

make up for – compensate for   
Example: Gina made up for her weakness in algebra by taking remedial classes. 

pan out – to turn out well
Example: The novelist tried his very best on his new book but it just didn’t pan out.

pass (something or someone) off – present something as real   
Example: In the film My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins tried to pass Eliza Doolittle off as royalty and succeeded magnificently.

pass out – become unconscious   
Example: Just when the runner was approaching the finish line, she passed out and fell.

pass (something) up – refuse to take advantage (of an opportunity)   
Example: True to his word, the governor passed up the opportunity to get himself reelected

run across – find something or meet someone unexpectedly   
Example: It never occurred to Jimmy that he would run across a former girlfriend of his at his wedding.

run into (someone) – meet unexpectedly   
Example: Would you believe that I ran into my English professor while she was browsing the romance novels at the bookstore last night?

run out of (something) – not to have anything left of something   
Example: Anita’s parents ran out of patience when they discovered that she had flunked her math for the second time.

take after (someone) – resemble a parent or relative   
Example: She resents people who tell her that she had taken after her father in looks.

take (someone) for – consider someone as   
Example: The company took Gloria for a novice when she applied for the job—and she proved them wrong.

Next: The Importance of Parallelism


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« Reply #1 on: July 25, 2012, 04:50:27 PM »

thank you for the information..very useful site for learning and improving our english Smiley

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« Reply #2 on: September 03, 2012, 12:42:00 PM »

im just new in this forum and i think for the first time i viewed your website, its really great and useful. Surely, i will come back to this website to correct my english.. Thanks Grin

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« Reply #3 on: November 28, 2012, 02:47:43 AM »

Usefull information, thank you very much!

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