Looking over pronouns

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Henry Thompson wonders (by email) whether something is changing in English syntax:

This from a 30ish native speaker of American English, with a PhD, definitely literate.

"I had a quick glance at sections of the [xxx], and it does have
some good tips, so I'd encourage you to look over it:"

The issue is whether  a verb-associated intransitive preposition goes before or after a direct object. The standard view is that either order is possible with full noun-phrase objects, while unstressed pronominal objects can only precede the preposition:

Kim pointed out the mistake.
Kim pointed the mistake out.
*Kim pointed out it.
Kim pointed it out.

Henry has noticed (he thinks) an increasing number of violations of this pattern:

I first noticed this is spoken English, e.g. ripped off them, fucked over me, picked up it, in the 1970s, and I feel like it's been steadily occurring in my hearing since then.

But something seems to special in this respect about look over. From an 1895 legal text:

A. I have seen him pick it up, and look over it.
Q. Look over it, for what purpose ?
A. 1 suppose, to see if there was any flaw or any break about it — cracks, or anything of that kind.

From the COCA corpus:

[look] it over 199
[look] over it  12
[pick] it up 3595
[pick] up it    5
[check] it out 1281
[check] out it    0

Note that only one of the "[pick] up it" examples is relevant:

A hundred grand, somebodys going to go to that phone and pick up it.

The other four are all things like

But when the recession ends, when economic activity picks up it will be because of housing.

In recent Google News stories, we find e.g.

How much did you dissect that game? Were you looking over it all Sunday night, Monday, did it go into Tuesday? And, what were you looking for?

But that's the same with any creative process; if you don't do it yourself or at least look over it, then you're not really in control.

It’s unreal when you go back and look over it, read the reports on that.

We've been working hard this week, have looked over it top to bottom and now we want to put it right on Saturday.

In contrast, I can't find any relevant examples of "pick|picked|picking up it" or "point|pointed|pointing out it".

One possibility is that "look over NP" is to some extent analyzed as structurally analogous to "look into NP", where the NP is apparently the object of the preposition:

Kim looked into the problem.
*Kim looked the problem into.
Kim looked into it.
*Kim looked it into.

This analysis of "look over NP" is a minority view — as the COCA counts indicate, [look] it over is more than 15 times commoner than [look] over it.

Another case where both options seem to exist is "run over". From the news:

A bicyclist riding to work in San Francisco found himself clinging like a Hollywood stuntman to the hood of a car he says tried to run him over.

A two-year-old tragically died when her father accidentally ran her over outside a bible convention.

A security guard fatally shot an alleged car thief who was attempting to run him over Tuesday night on the Northwest Side, police said.

A 2-year-old boy was killed Saturday in Franklin County when a vehicle driven by his mother accidentally ran over him, authorities said.

Arias was kneeling next to him and told police she had just run over him with her vehicle, according to the DA’s office.

Police say the 24-year-old woman is in hospital with serious leg injuries after the bus ran over her.

That's all I have time for this morning — but probably someone has looked this over in more detail, and I'll add an update if I find a reference.



  1. Jacob said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 8:11 am

    I know a few Norwegians who've spent 30 years alternating between "take on me" and "take me on"…

  2. David Denison said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 8:36 am

    I've got something on the largely mid-20C transition from the prepositional verb run over (as in 'ran over them') to the phrasal verb run over (as in 'ran them over'), though the OED manages to find examples of the phrasal verb as early as 1860. I merely mention other combinations like look over, pass by, read through which can have either prepositional or phrasal verb syntax; the particle always seems to have a 'path' meaning in such cases.

    The discussion is in §5.2 of my forthcoming paper 'Ambiguity and vagueness in historical change'. A pdf is available from a link at the top of http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/david.denison/downloads – actually it takes a couple of clicks.


  3. FM said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 8:37 am

    I subscribe to the minority analysis, apparently. To me "look over it" and "run him over" sound natural, while "look it over" sounds weirdly folksy.

  4. ajay said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 8:50 am

    "Run X over" is more limited in meaning than "ran over X", though, I would argue. The first really only relates to knocking someone down with a vehicle (though in the case of most pedestrians it would be more accurate to say that they were run under: you don't normally pass under the car that hits you, it knocks your legs from under you and flips you over its top, with the worst injuries normally coming when you hit the road behind it, head first. BUT I DIGRESS).
    The second could mean all sorts of things. "He stood under the hose and the water ran over him." "The railway runs over the Canadian prairie." "The mouse leaped from the cage and ran over her." Even "the car ran over his foot."

    Is there a similar distinction between "look X over" and "look over X"?

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 9:01 am

    Ajay: Yes, "The fence was so tall I couldn't look over it."

    FM: "Run him over" and "run over him" seem to be about even at COCA: 84 for "[run] him/her over" and 100 for [run] over him/her, but as ajay says, some of the latter are a different meaning. "… Brian Bosworth knows what Bo's cleat feels like across his chest after Jackson ran over him during a 221-yard rushing game…"

  6. Victor Mair said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 9:04 am



    Listen to the alternation here:

    a-ha – "Take On Me"



  7. Ellen K. said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 9:07 am

    It seems to me in some cases both versions are grammatical but they have, or can have, different meanings. "Ran over him" gives me a mental picture of a runner stepping on someone as they run, a meaning not available with "ran him over". Think "ran over a bridge" verses *"ran a bridge over".

    "Look over a field" gives a picture of someone standing at the edge of a field gazing out. Whereas if the same person looks the field over, he will be walking through it being sure to look at all parts.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 9:47 am

    It seems to me intuitively that the same distinction pointed out by Ellen K. could be applied to a piece of writing — that is, I can imagine myself either looking it over and looking over it — but I have a hard time putting the distinction in concrete terms.Perhaps if I just glance at the title and summary I am looking over it, but to look it over I would have to read some of the text?

    [(myl) A recent relevant PhD Comic:


  9. Victor Mair said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 10:40 am

    @Coby Lubliner

    And you could also overlook it. And you could stop your car at an overlook.

  10. Jacob said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 10:53 am

    And you could look over a four leaf clover you've overlooked before.

  11. CaptainBringdown said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 10:57 am


    Curse you for sticking in my ear that!

  12. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 11:39 am

    "Run him over" has an alternate meaning as well, as in "Bobby is late for soccer practice; can you run him over?"

  13. languagehat said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 1:01 pm

    To me "look over it" and "run him over" sound natural, while "look it over" sounds weirdly folksy.

    I agree with the first part of this, though to me "look it over" sounds perfectly normal, not folksy. There's definitely something different about "over," because I would never say (or accept as standard) "point out it" or "pick up it."

  14. /ni:v/ said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

    As a native speaker of Irish English but having lived in the US for a number of years, my intuition is that this is at least partly a dialect difference. For me, "look over it" sounds completely natural for Irish English while "look it over" sounds distinctly American. Here in my opinion "look over it" is syntactically analogous to "look through it", while the version with "over" is not as thorough a "look" as the version with "through".

  15. JS said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 2:33 pm

    think it over
    *think over it
    talk it over
    *talk over it

    *get it over
    get over it

  16. Mr Punch said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 3:06 pm

    "Run over" and "drive over" (in the crushing sense) mean the same thing; while "run him over" sounds right to me, "drive him over" can't be used in this meaning. As for "look over it," I'm not sure the initial example and the legal one have quite the same meaning – the first seems to mean "take a glance at" and the second "examine for something specific."

  17. Charles Antaki said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

    @Jacob – nice one. But Swedish.

  18. Peter said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 3:46 pm

    Some builders are working on a bridge. You can oversee the work, overlook the dangers, look over the edge, look the work over, see a pensioner over the bridge, and see a bird over the lake, and all of these are different things.

  19. Danny M said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 6:56 pm

    Swapping out the pronouns, though, "look over the report" is much less remarkable to my ears than "look the report over." [Australian English speaker, 50]

    Is it the "the" that makes the difference?

  20. Chris Kern said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 7:07 pm

    To me (American, born and raised in the Midwest) both "look it over" and "look over it" are natural, but "pick up it" and "ripped off them" are impossible.

  21. Lazar said,

    October 5, 2015 @ 11:07 pm

    My feelings are the same as Chris's (20s, from Massachusetts). From reading the email snippet, I didn't even know what the issue was supposed to be – but "pick up it" and "ripped off them" are totally alien to me.

  22. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 12:17 am

    Chris Kern: Is "their clothes were ripped off them" impossible? The point is that "up" and "off" have only limited use as prepositions, while "over" can be so used with a great number of verbs.

  23. Derwin McGeary said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 5:11 am

    I like to come up with tests to see how things are analysed. So "____ who/what?"

    "I'm looking over it"
    "Over what?"

    Seems OK (or marginally so), but it's unambiguously bad with "thinking it over"

    See also:

    "She picked it up"
    *"Up what?"

    "He jumped off the stoop"
    "Off what?"


    "They rip off pensioners"
    *"Off who?"

    Incidentally, I just heard "After they made over it" (meaning renovated) from my brother (BrE speaker). Possibly because of the common noun "makeover".

  24. JS said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 8:58 am

    The suggestion in the OP looks solid — phrasal verb + O vs. verb + PP analyses. The former lexicalized combinations naturally feel like they contain more idiosyncratic senses of "over": talk it over / think it over // knock it over / bowl me over // fork it over / hand it over // start it over // screw me over // do it over // take it over… while the latter with the PP "over O" feel like canonical "over," whether literal (tape over it / step over it) or metaphorical (talk over her / gloss over it / get over it). Then a gray area or a process by which stuff in the second category moves toward the first…

  25. Haamu said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 10:27 am


    In my idiolect (50s, Midwest AmE), "get it over" is acceptable. It means to put something behind you chronologically. (About to head into an unpleasant meeting: "OK, let's just get this over.") Some would append with to that sentence, but to me it's optional.

    "Get over it," of course, means to put something behind you emotionally.

  26. Alec said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 11:05 am

    Takes me back to a classroom in Northern Ireland 50 years ago.
    Fearsome Latin teacher (to a small boy unable to conjugate some verb that had been assigned as homework): “Tell me boy, did ye study this at all?”
    Small boy (stammering): “Well sir, I … I … looked it over.”
    Fearsome Latin teacher (thundering) “Ye looked it over, did ye? Ye mean ye overlooked it.”

  27. John Walden said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 3:37 pm

    The TEFL teacher would say that "You'll get over it" contains a prepositional particle and tells you where you will get to: metaphorically on the other side of something.

    "You'll get it over" contains a particle that is adverbial in the moment that you stop saying over what exactly. "Put your hat on your head" (preposition) "Put your hat on" (adverb although we know what the on is on).

    I would say that if you "ran over an old lady" and the "ran" is not "moved quickly with your legs" because you were in a car say, then you could say "ran an old lady over" and really should say "ran her over". But if the old lady can be compared to a bridge and you were running and at some point there was an old lady under you then you "ran over her". It's what you did and where you did it. I don't see the difficulty in the case of "run over" while "look over" does seem to be particularly susceptible to being either prepositional or adverbial.

  28. John Lawler said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 6:52 pm

    Nobody's mentioned Claudia Brugman's The Story of Over, nor this paper by Brugman and Lakoff on over.

  29. DaveK said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 8:05 pm

    JS–does it seem like most phrasal verbs can go either as one unit or separated by the object and PP's must go before the object?

    "The boss wrote me up for being late. In fact he wrote up everybody."
    "He started at the bottom margin and wrote up the page to the top".

  30. John Walden said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 1:28 am

    There's a clue in the word "preposition". The waters are muddied a bit by the dangling ones, though you can see where they're coming from (from whence they are coming), and a lot by post-position prepositions like "ago".

    I would even venture to say that when it's hard to depend on intonation to break the suggestion of a prepositional connection is when the more elastic PV particle gets moved:

    "I turned on/theTV" is not "I turned/on the tv" and you can hear it. But if it gets any shorter then "I turned it on" avoids any suggestion that you might be saying where you were turning.

  31. Hans Adler said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 3:17 pm

    I am genuinely puzzled that anyone would find "look over it" any more remarkable than "look it over", let alone suggest that this could somehow be related to the clearly ungrammatical "pick up it" or "check out it". (I doubt that this is related to my native German, as it handles this quite differently — with "darüber".) Dictionaries list "look over something" as a variant of "look something over" without any indication of usage restrictions or differences in meaning.

    The Google n-gram statistics for the two versions (and various corpora) suggest the following to me:

    – "Look over it" has been declining compared to "look it over" since a peak that occurred around the second half of the 19th century (though it's not really clear what happened before). During the peak, the two versions were about equally common overall.

    – The relative frequency of "look over it" has gone down to currently around 10% in US English and 50% in British English. (The typical effect of totalitarian American copy-editing?)

    – During the 19th century, the relative frequencies sometimes varied wildly for different tenses.

  32. Hans Adler said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 3:32 pm

    I went through a list of phrasal verbs that I found here: https://www.englishclub.com/vocabulary/phrasal-verbs-list.htm

    Among all the verbs listed in the form "[verb] something [preposition]", there are only two for which "[verb] [preposition] it" sounds correct to me. One is "look over", and the other is "think over", which has similar Google statistics. I tested a few of the others, with consistent results: The alternative version isn't just ungrammatical to me, it practically doesn't occur in writing.

    It seems to me that this post is a nice illustration of the recency illusion at work.

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