English phrasal verbs
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In the traditional grammar of Modern English, a phrasal verb typically constitutes a single semantic unit composed of a verb as collocated with a particle (examples: turn down, run into or sit up), with a particle and a preposition (examples: get together with, run out of or feed off of), or with an adverbial prepositional phrase (examples: put in place or have in common). Phrasal verbs often occur with further adverbial characterization (examples: "see right through," "come on back," or "put back in").
Additionally, some archaic phrasal verbs, as preserved from Middle English, comprise a nominal word interposed between a verb and an adverb, for example: "do (someone) good", "serve (someone) right", or "fare thee well". Phrasal verbs ordinarily cannot be understood based upon the meanings of the individual parts alone but must be considered as a whole. In other words, the meaning is non-compositional and thus unpredictable.
Alternative terms for phrasal verb are verb-adverb combination, verb-particle construction, two-part word/verb or three-part word/verb (depending on the number of particles) and multi-word verb. Phrasal verbs that entail a preposition are known as prepositional verbs, and phrasal verbs that entail a particle are also known as particle verbs.
Phrasal verbs are differentiated from other classifications of multi-word verbs and free combinations by criteria based on idiomaticity, replacement by a single-word verb, wh-question formation and particle movement.
The category "phrasal verb" is mainly used in English as a second language teaching. Some textbooks restrict the term to verbs with particles in order to distinguish phrasal verbs from prepositional verbs. Others include verbs with prepositions under the same category and distinguish particle verbs and prepositional verbs as two types of phrasal verbs. Since a prepositional phrase can complement a particle verb, some explanations distinguish three types of phrasal verb constructions depending on whether the verb combines with a particle, a preposition phrase, or both, though the third type is not a distinct linguistic phenomenon.
Verb + particle (particle verbs)
Particle verbs are two-word verbs composed of a simple verb and a particle extension that modifies its meaning. The particle thus becomes integrally collocated with the verb. These verbs can be transitive or intransitive. If they are transitive, the particle may come either before or after the object of the verb. Although the particle may have the same form as a preposition, it cannot be construed as such because a particle cannot otherwise involve a nominal complement. In older grammars, the particle was usually analyzed as an adverb.
- a. They brought that up twice. – up is a particle, not a preposition.
- b. You should think it over. – over is a particle, not a preposition.
- c. Why does he always dress down? – down is a particle, not a preposition.
- d. You should not give in so quickly. – in is a particle, not a preposition.
- e. Where do they want to hang out? – out is a particle, not a preposition.
- f. She handed it in. – in is a particle, not a preposition.
Verb + preposition (prepositional verbs)
Many verbs can be complemented by a prepositional phrase that functions adverbially: "She ran up the stairs; don't stand on the table". This construction is taught as a phrasal verb only when the combination of verb and preposition is not intuitive to the learner: "She ran up a large bill; don't stand on ceremony."
- a. Who looks after the kids? – after is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase after the kids.
- b. They picked on nobody. – on is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase on nobody.
- c. I ran into an old friend. – into is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase into an old friend.
- d. She takes after her mother. – after is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase after her mother.
- e. Sam passes for a linguist. – for is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase for a linguist.
- f. You should stand by your friend. – by is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase by your friend
Verb + particle + preposition (particle-prepositional verbs)
Sometimes both phenomena can occur in the same context.
- a. Who can put up with that? – up is a particle and with is a preposition.
- b. She looks forward to a rest. – forward is a particle and to is a preposition.
- c. The other tanks bore down on my Panther. – down is a particle and on is a preposition.
- d. They really teed off on me. – off is a particle and on is a preposition.
- e. We loaded up on snacks. – up is a particle and on is a preposition
- f. Susan had to sit in for me. – in is a particle and for is a preposition.
In general, the discrete meanings associated with phrasal verbs cannot be readily understood solely by construing the sum of their respective parts: the meaning of pick up is distinct from the various meanings of pick and may acquire disparate meanings depending on its contextual usage. Similarly, the meaning of hang out is not conspicuously related to a particular definition of hang.
Distinguishing phrasal verb types
When a particle verb is transitive, it may have the same form as a prepositional verb. This similarity may be a source of confusion since it tends to obscure the difference between prepositional and particle verbs. A simple diagnostic distinguishes between a prepositional verb and the inseparable phrasal verb, however. When the object of a particle verb is a definite pronoun, it usually precedes the particle despite idiomatic exceptions such as come off it. In contrast, the object of a preposition can never precede the preposition.
- a. You can bank on Susan. – on is a preposition.
- b. *You can bank Susan on. – The object of the preposition cannot precede the preposition.
- a. You can take on Susan. – on is a particle.
- b. You can take Susan on. – The object of the particle verb can precede the particle.
- a. He got over the situation. – over is a preposition.
- b. *He got the situation over. – The object of the preposition cannot precede the preposition in the phrasal verb.
- a. He thought over the situation. – over is a particle.
- b. He thought the situation over. – The object of the particle verb can precede the particle
Thus, the distinctions between particles and prepositions are context dependent because instances of those categories, as exemplified above, may function either as a particle or as a preposition.
The terminology of phrasal verbs is inconsistent. Modern theories of syntax tend to use the term phrasal verb to denote particle verbs only; they do not view prepositional verbs as phrasal verbs. In contrast, literature in English as a second or foreign language ESL/EFL, tends to employ the term phrasal verb to encompass both prepositional and particle verbs.
Note that prepositions and adverbs can have a literal meaning that may be spatial or orientational. Many English verbs interact with a preposition or an adverb to yield a meaning that can be readily understood from the constituent elements.
- He talked up the proposal.
- She opened the shutters and looked outside.
These more readily understandable combinations are not phrasal verbs, although EFL/ESL books and dictionaries may include them in lists of phrasal verbs.[verification needed] [failed verification]
Furthermore, the same words that occur as a genuine phrasal verb can also appear in other contexts, as in:
- 1(a) She looked up his address. Phrasal verb.
- 1(b) She looked his address up. Phrasal verb.
- 2(a) When he heard the crash, he looked up. Not a phrasal verb.
- 2(b) When he heard the crash, he looked up at the sky. Not a phrasal verb.
The terminology used to denote the particle is also inconsistent. Sometimes it is called an adverb and at other times an intransitive prepositional phrase. The inconsistent use of terminology in these areas may be a source of confusion regarding what qualifies as a phrasal verb and the status of the particle or a preposition.
The value of this choice and its alternatives (including separable verb for Germanic languages) is debatable. In origin the concept is based on translation linguistics; as many single-word English and Latinate words are translatable by a phrasal verb complex in English, therefore the logic is that the phrasal verb complex must be a complete semantic unit in itself. One should consider in this regard that the actual term phrasal verb suggests that such constructions should form phrases. In most cases however, they clearly do not form phrases. Hence the very term phrasal verb is misleading and a source of confusion, which has motivated some to reject the term outright.
A complex aspect of phrasal verbs concerns the syntax of particle verbs that are transitive (as discussed and illustrated above). These allow some variability, depending on the relative weight of the constituents involved. Shifting often occurs when the object is very light, e.g.
- a. Fred chatted up the girl with red hair. – Canonical word order
- b. Fred chatted her up. – Shifting occurs because the definite pronoun her is very light.
- c. Fred chatted the girl up. - The girl is also very light.
- d. ?Fred chatted the redhead up. - A three-syllable object can appear in either position for many speakers.
- e. ??Fred chatted the girl with red hair up. – Shifting is unlikely unless it is sufficiently motivated by the weight of the constituents involved.
- a. They dropped off the kids from that war zone. – Canonical word order
- b. They dropped them off. – Shifting occurs because the definite pronoun them is very light.
- c. ??They dropped the kids from that war zone off. – Shifting is unlikely unless it is sufficiently motivated by the weight of the constituents involved.
- a. Mary made up a really entertaining story. – Canonical word order
- b. Mary made it up. – Shifting occurs because the definite pronoun it is very light.
- c. ??Mary made a really entertaining story up. – Shifting is unlikely unless it is sufficiently motivated by the weight of the constituents involved.
Shifting occurs between two (or more) sister constituents that appear on the same side of their head. The lighter constituent shifts leftward and the heavier constituent shifts rightward, and this happens to accommodate the relative weight of the two. Dependency grammar trees are again used to illustrate the point:
The trees illustrate when shifting can occur. English sentence structures that grow down and to the right are easier to process. There is a consistent tendency to place heavier constituents to the right, as is evident in the a-trees. Shifting is possible when the resulting structure does not contradict this tendency, as is evident in the b-trees. Note again that the particle verb constructions (in orange) qualify as catenae in both the a- and b-trees. Shifting does not alter this fact.
Similar structures in other languages
Prepositional verbs are very common in many languages, though they would not necessarily be analyzed as a distinct verb type: they are simply verbs followed by prepositional phrases.
By contrast, particle verbs are much rarer. Middle English particle verbs developed from Old English prefixed verbs: OE inngan > English go in. They are related to the separable verbs in other Germanic languages, which can be seen historically as a parallel, though independent development. For example, in Dutch, de lamp aansteken (to light the lamp) becomes ik steek de lamp aan (I light the lamp on) in a principal clause.
A number of particle verbs exist in some Romance languages such as Lombard, spoken in Northern Italy, due to the influence of ancient Lombardic: Fa foeura (to do in: to eat up; to squander); Dà denter (to trade in; to bump into); Borlà giò (to fall down); Lavà sü (to wash up, as in English); Trà sü (to throw up, as in English); Trà vìa (to throw away, as in English); Serà sü (to lock up, as in English); Dà vià (to give away, as in English), and more.
Some of these made their way into Italian, for instance far fuori (to get rid of); mangiare fuori (to eat out); andare d'accordo con (to get on/along with); buttare via (throw away).
- standby: We are keeping the old equipment on standby, in case of emergency.
- back-up: Neil can provide technical backup if you need it.
- onset: The match was halted by the onset of rain.
- input: Try to come to the meeting – we'd value your input.
If the particle antecedes the verb, then the compounded noun is never written with a hyphen, if the particle succeeds the verb, then there may be a hyphen between the two parts of the compounded noun.
The two categories have different values. Particle-verb compounds in English are of ancient development, and are common to all Germanic languages, as well as to Indo-European languages in general. Those such as onset tend to retain older uses of the particles; in Old English on/an had a wider domain, which included areas now covered by at and in in English. Some such compound nouns have a corresponding phrasal verb but some do not, partly because of historical developments. The modern English verb+particle complex set on exists, but it means "start to attack" (set itself means start a process). Modern English has no exact verbal phrase equivalent to the older set on, but rather various combinations that apply different nuances to the idea of starting a process—such as winter has set in, set off on a journey, set up the stand, set out on a day trip, etc. Verb-particle compounds are a more modern development in English, and focus more on the action expressed by the compound. That is to say, they are more overtly verbal.
- That unpredictability of meaning is the defining trait of phrasal verb constructions is widely assumed. See for instance Huddleston and Pullum (2002:273) and Allerton (2006:166).
- McArthur 1992, p. 72ff..
- Quirk 1985.
- Biber 2012.
- Lamont 2005.
- Sinclair 1995, p. 162.
- Declerck 1991, p. 45.
- Fowler 1926.
- For a list of the particles that occur with particle phrasal verbs, see Jurafsky and Martin (2000:319).
- Ron Cowan – The Teacher's Grammar of English: A Course Book and Reference 2008 Page 176
"The Adverb Insertion Test – Earlier, we saw that intransitive phrasal verbs usually do not permit the insertion of an adverb between the verb and the particle, and the same is true of transitive phrasal verbs, as (25a) and (25b) show. In contrast, prepositional verbs do permit adverb insertion, as (25c) demonstrates.
(25) a. He turned quickly out the light. = separable phrasal verb.
b. He ran unexpectedly into his cousin = inseparable phrasal verb.
c. He stared intently at the target = prepositional verb.
The Relative Clause Test Relative clauses in which the relative pronoun is the object of a preposition permit the two patterns shown in (26).
(26) a. The man [that they were waiting for] was late b. The man [ for whom they were waiting] was late. In (26a), the preposition for is at the end of the relative clause enclosed by square brackets, but (26b) shows that this preposition can also occur at the beginning of the clause before the relative pronoun whom."
- Jeanette S. DeCarrico The structure of English: studies in form and function – Volume 1 – Page 80 – 2000 "4.6.3 Prepositional Phrasal Verbs – It is also possible to find phrasal verbs that are themselves followed by a preposition. These structures are called prepositional phrasal verbs or multiword verbs. Examples are put up with (e.g., I can't put up with) "
- Farrell, Patrick (2005). "English Verb-Preposition Constructions: Constituency and Order". Language. 81 (1): 96–137. doi:10.1353/lan.2005.0017. ISSN 1535-0665. S2CID 119715102.
- For an example of the shifting diagnostic used to distinguish particle verbs from prepositional verbs, see Tallerman (1998:129).
- Concerning the difference between particles and prepositions with phrasal verbs, see Jurafsky and Martin (2000:318).
- For examples of accounts that use the term phrasal verb to denote particle verbs only (not prepositional verbs), see for instance Tallerman (1998:130), Adger (2003:99f.) and Haiden (2006).
- For example, the series 'English File' uses phrasal verbs in this way. This exercise on the English File website features both types of verbs under the term "phrasal verbs". elt.oup.com
- Oxford Phrasal Verbs Dictionary.
- "English File Upper Intermediate Phrasal Verbs in Context".
- Huddleston and Pullum (2002:273), for instance, also use intransitive preposition to describe a particle.
- Smith 1925, p. 172.
- Huddleston and Pullum (2002:274) reject the term phrasal verb because the relevant word combinations often do not form phrases.
- Ogura 1995.
- Biber, Douglas (2012). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Longman. ISBN 978-0-582-23725-4. OCLC 809001730.
- Declerck, Renaat (1991). A comprehensive descriptive grammar of English. Tokyo.
- Fowler, Henry Watson (1926). "Preposition at end". A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. OUP. p. 457. (Cited from the revised ed. 1940).
- Huddleston, Rodney; Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; Svartvik, Jan (June 1988). "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language". Language. 64 (2): 345. doi:10.2307/415437. ISSN 0097-8507. JSTOR 415437.
- Lamont, George (2005). "The Historical Rise of the English Phrasal Verb". Retrieved 2022-05-06.
- McArthur, Tom (1992). The Oxford companion to the English language. Oxford University Press.
- Ogura, Michiko (1995). "The interchangeability of Old English verbal prefixes". Anglo-Saxon England . 24: 67–93.
- Quirk, Randolph (1985). A Comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman. ISBN 0-582-51734-6. OCLC 11533395.
- Sinclair, John (1995). Collins Cobuild English Grammar. London: Harper Collins.
- Smith, Logan P. (1925). Words and Idioms. Boston etc.
- Adger, D. 2003. Core syntax: A minimalist approach. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Allerton, D. 2006. “Verbs and their satellites”, in The Handbook of Linguistics. Eds. B. Aarts & A. McMahaon. Malden, M.: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 126–49.
- Farrell, P. 2005. “English verb-preposition constructions: Constituency and order”, Language, 81(1): 96-137. doi:10.1353/lan.2005.0017
- Haiden, M. 2006. “Verb particle constructions”, in The Blackwell companion to syntax, vol. 5. Eds. M. Everaert & H. van Riemsdijk. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 344–75.
- Juraffsky, D. and J. Martin. 2000. Speech and language processing. Dorling Kindersley, India: Pearson Education.
- Huddleston, R. and G. Pullum 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Knowles, M. and R Moon. 2006. Introducing metaphor. London: Routledge, 2006.
- Long, T. (ed.). 1979. Longman dictionary of English idioms. Longman Group Limited.
- Macmillan phrasal verbs plus dictionary. 2005 Oxford: Macmillan Education 2005.
- McCarthy M. and F. O'dell. 2007. English phrasal verbs in use. Cambridge University Press.
- Osborne, T. and T. Groß 2012. “Constructions are catenae: Construction Grammar meets Dependency Grammar”, Cognitive Linguistics 23, 1: 163–214.
- Oxford phrasal verbs dictionary. 2001.
- Tallerman, M. 1998. Understanding syntax. London: Arnold.