A particle is a word that does not have semantic meaning on its own, but instead relies on the word it is paired with to have meaning. A particle cannot inflect—that is, its form does not change to reflect grammatical person, number, case, gender, tense, mood, aspect, or voice.
A particle is very similar to a preposition—in fact, they are almost always identical in appearance. However, prepositions are used to establish a relationship between their objects and another part of a sentence, and so they have a unique lexical meaning of their own. Particles, on the other hand, are only used to create infinitives and to form phrasal verbs.
The particle to is the only particle in English that can be used to create the infinitive form of a verb.
To is paired with the base form (uninflected form) of a verb to create the infinitive, which can function as a noun, adjective, or adverb. For example:
- “To love another person is a wonderful thing.” (noun—subject)
- “I would like to be alone.” (noun—direct object)
- “I’m going to the store to buy milk.” (adverb—modifies the verb going)
- “This is a good place to start reading.” (adjective—modifies the noun place)
A phrasal verb consists of a verb followed by either a preposition or a particle to create a unique, idiomatic meaning. Since particles and prepositions look identical, it can be tricky to know when a phrasal verb is using one or the other.
However, particles are used more like adverbs, modifying and uniquely expanding the meaning of the verbs they are paired with. For this reason, particles are sometimes referred to as adverbial particles, or even just adverbs. The key difference between particles and prepositions is that particles do not (and cannot) introduce a prepositional phrase, while the preposition in a phrasal verb always will.
Take the following sentence, for example:
- “My table takes up too much room.” (The table occupies too much space.)
Takes up is made up of the verb take + up. Up changes the meaning of the verb, but it does not introduce a prepositional phrase expressing direction, location, time, or possession—therefore, it is functioning as a particle.
Let’s look at another example:
- “Please look over the proposal and let me know what you think.” (Please quickly examine the proposal.)
Once again, the particle (over) is changing the meaning of the verb (look), but it is not introducing a prepositional phrase.
Here are some other examples of phrasal verbs formed with particles:
- “I can’t believe that you’re giving up!” (I’m surprised that you’re going to stop trying.)
- “We have to wait for the fire to die down before we can enter the building.” (We have to wait for the fire to become less intense.)
- “The plane took off an hour late.” (The plane began its flight later than scheduled.)
- “She is always making up excuses.” (She is always inventing excuses that are not true.)
Now let’s look at some examples of phrasal verbs made with prepositions so we can see the difference more clearly:
- “He has been looking after his mother.” (He has been caring for his mother.)
- “I came across that old watch of mine when I was cleaning out the drawers.” (I found my old watch unexpectedly.)
- “Stop picking on your brother like that!” (Stop teasing or harassing your brother in that way.)
We can see that the phrasal verb in each of the above examples is formed using a preposition rather than a particle, because the information that comes immediately after the phrasal verb completes a prepositional phrase (in italics). Without these prepositional phrases, the sentences would be incomplete.