Prepositions that lose their identity: phrasal verbs as nouns (and adjectives)

Phrasal verbs as nouns

Prepositions are easy to identify when they are fulfilling their main function: connecting nouns. But their nature becomes less clear when they combine with verbs to form phrasal verbs, and even less clear when those verbs are used as nouns and adjectives. Just like many other verbs are used as nouns, phrasal verbs as also used as nouns. As I have discussed in an earlier blog, prepositions that are used to create phrasal verbs will sometimes change their identity and be called adverbs (by some people). But when a phrasal verb is used as noun, the preposition completely loses its identity and becomes, simply,  a noun. These nouns (are as other types of nouns made up from two or more words) as compound nouns.

The prepositions’ loss of identity can be seen in the way these nouns are written: while phrasal verbs are written as two words, when the same words are used as noun, they are written as one word, often with a hyphen. The prepositions become part of the noun.

  • to break down becomes a breakdown
  • to crack down becomes a crackdown
  • to drop out becomes a drop-out
  • to kick off becomes a kick-off.


  • After their break-up, she decided to have a complete makeover, starting with her make-up. (used as compound nouns)
  • After they had broken up, she to decided to make over her appearance, starting with the way she made up her face. (used as phrasal verbs)

Woman having make-up applied to her face

  • I had a meltdown when the confetti balloon burst before the guests were due to arrive, but a quick clean-up solved the problem. (used as compound nouns)
  • I melted down when the confetti balloon burst before the guests were due to arrive, but quickly cleaning up solved the problem. (used as phrasal verbs)A vacuum cleaner sucking up squares of confetti from a rug
  • After the Covid lockdowns, many people found they were suffering from burnout and needed health check-ups with their doctor. (used as compound nouns)
  • After being locked down for Covid, many people found they were burnt out and needed to check up their health with their doctor. (used as phrasal verbs)A woman having her blood pressure checked

Phrasal verbs as adjectives

And just to prove that you really can’t tell what part of speech an English word unless you see it in a full sentence, these preposition/adverb–verb combinations, which can be used as nouns and verbs, can also be used as adjectives. Generally, these compound adjectives are hyphenated when used before a noun, but not when separated from the noun.

  • He turned his worn-out boots into garden planters.
  • His boots were worn out.
  • Images of burnt-out medical staff became common during the pandemic.
  • Images of medical staff who had burnt out became common during the pandemic.
A pair of old boots with plants growing in them

Worn-out boots are boots that are worn out

Confused? Don’t be: just remember that, while prepositions can essentially lose their identity when becoming part of a verb, noun or adjective, their one clear function is to work by themselves to link nouns. That’s the main takeaway that you should take away from this blog.

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Images: boot plants by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash; woman having make-up applied by Chalo Garcia on Unsplash; vaccuuming by No Revisions on Unsplash; blood-pressure check by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Unsplash

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