Phrasal verbs: myths and realities

Last year I was lucky enough to attend the PASE conference in Warsaw, where I saw a locally based teacher, Jonathan Marks, give a thought-provoking talk on phrasal verbs. Having long believed that this is one area of the language that’s incredibly badly presented in most coursebooks, and that subsequently is often poorly handled in class, I was pleased to see someone tackle the whole area from a more linguistic perspective. Whilst I didn’t agree with every point Jonathan made, it was good to see a conference session so focused on language and so full of meat. Jonathan has been kind enough to summarise his thoughts for us – and you can read them below. Look forward to seeing your reactions to the piece in the comments section. Over to Jonathan . . .


Consider these lexical items:

get the hang of something

go bananas

have a look

lay claim to something

make do

pull somebody’s leg

show somebody the ropes

stand the test of time

get married

In all of them, a verbal meaning is expressed by a phrase, a sequence of two or more words. Given this, it’d be handy to call them ‘phrasal verbs’, or ‘multi-word verbs’, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, those terms are already used for a more restricted set of more-than-single-word-verbs such as hold up, look forward to – verbs followed by one or two prepositional or adverbial particles.

Here, I’ll use different terminology. In hold up, hold is the base (B) and up is a particle (P), so hold up is a BP verb. Advantages of this terminology include:

(1) B and P are reversible, so there can also be PB verbs – eg uphold. While PB verbs are inseparable and written as a single word, BP verbs are written as two words, and some are separable: hold the traffic up. When they aren’t separated – hold up the traffic – the division into two words isn’t apparent in speech; it’s a written convention. I’ll sometimes use a vertical stroke to highlight the division between particle and base: up|hold.

(2) P can be doubled – look forward to, for example, is a BPP verb. For the sake of economy, I’ll sometimes use ‘BP’ to include PB and BPP.

(3) ‘Base’ isn’t restricted to verbs; there are BP nouns, adjectives and adverbs, too.

Myth 1: ‘Phrasalness’ or ‘multi-wordfulness’ only shows up in verbs.

A lot of attention is devoted to ‘phrasal verbs’, while other BP/PB items get neglected.

Here are examples of the full range:

BP verbs: hand out, hold up, make up, speak out

PB verbs: downgrade, input, overwhelm, uphold

BP nouns: handout, hold-up, shake-up, showoff

PB nouns: bystander, downgrading, input, onset

BP adjectives: blanked-out, jazzed-up, made-up, watered-down

PB adjectives: downtrodden, off-putting, ongoing, outspoken

PB adverbs: off-puttingly, outstandingly, overwhelmingly

Here are two BP/PB ‘families’:

(1) verbs: sell out /  outsell

nouns: sell-out

adjective: sold out

(2) verbs: set up / upset

nouns: set-up / upset

adjectives: set up / upset / upsetting

adverb: upsettingly

Within each family there’s a wide range of meanings; the BP principle is an economical way for a language to build its vocabulary.

Reality 1: The BP/PB principle is instantiated in verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs.

Myth 2: BPs are of Germanic origin.

The most frequent ones do consist of ‘Germanic’ components inherited from Old English, but there are also Latinate bases with Germanic particles:

allude to

concentrate on

edit out

embark on

interfere with

(Verbs such as ad|mit and al|lude are themselves PB verbs (see below), so admit of, allude to etc. are actually PBP verbs.)

Next, there are innumerable PBs formed from Latin bases and particles (some imported from Latin, some via French and some constructed in English from Latin elements). For example, from the noun gradus (step) and the verb gradī (walk, step, go) and its past participle gressus:

ag|gressive (ad- = towards, adg- > agg- by assimilation)

con|gress (con- = with, together)

e|gress (e- = out)

di|gress (di- = aside)

pro|gress (pro- = forward)

trans|gress (trans- = across)

de|grade de|gree (de- = down)

in|gredient in|gressive (in- = in)

re|gress retro|grade (re-, retro- = back)

Some of these also form PB families. The infinitive pōnere (put) and its past participle stem posit- yields the following in combination with con- (> com- by assimilation):

compose composer composition composure component compote compost (n/v)

compound (n/v/adj) composed composite

These cover a range of meanings, all clustering around the basic idea of ‘putting together’.

Sometimes, BP/PBs of Germanic and Latin origin form synonymic pairs:

Germanic Latin meanings of Latin elements

fore|runner pre|cursor before + run

fore|tell pre|dict before + say

gain|say contra|dict against + say

root out e|radicate out + root

drive out ex|pel out + drive

down|cast de|jected down + throw

look down on de|spise down + look

put forward pro|pose forward + put

lead-in intro|duction into + lead

Reality 2: Many BP verbs use Germanic components, but some contain Latin/French bases. There are also vast numbers of PB items of Latin origin (plus a few from Greek).

Myth 3: BPs have illogical and unpredictable meanings.

Some BPs are easily interpretable:

She bent down and picked up a scrap of paper.

The key to understanding many of the others is that they often embody metaphorical extensions of literal meanings:

Stand up for yourself – don’t let them walk all over you.

The theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – it can easily be knocked down.

Look at how these BP verbs extend the physical meaning of take metaphorically in conjunction with various particles:

I’ve taken up jogging.

It was a bit shop-soiled, so I persuaded them to take £50 off.

I take back everything I said about Jim being lazy.

She nodded, not taking in much of what he said.

We sat there taking in the scenery.

Her business has really taken off.

I can’t take on any more work at the moment.

You can also see the same principle at work in the language used to talk about particular topics – for example, the way we talk about conversations and discussions.

You can talk about some situations or abstract concepts as if they were physical places; just as you can get into – or out ofa cave or a ditch or a forest, you can get into – or out ofdifficulty, debt, a habit or a routine. You can also get into a discussion or conversation. And once you’re in there, the discussion or conversation is like a space to move around in, with tracks, junctions, obstacles, detours and destinations. Just as you can go back to a place you were in earlier, you can go back to something you said previously. You can also stop to take stock of where you are, you can get lost, wander off the track or lose sight of your destination. Here are a few more examples of how this conceptual metaphor is exploited:

The conversation took an unexpected turn/direction.
Our discussion has covered a lot of ground.
I was just coming to that.
We eventually arrived at a conclusion.
It’s a roundabout way of saying she’s refusing our offer.
We wandered off the topic.
The conversation drifted along rather aimlessly.
We’re just going round and round in circles.
Allow me to digress for a moment.
Yes, that’s true, but we’re getting away from the point.
But you can’t get away from the fact that …
Can we go over that again?
He suddenly veers off and starts talking about something different.
We can discuss this further next week.
We had a rather meandering conversation.
Let’s not get bogged down in details.

This selection includes a number of BPs, and one PB, which are interpretable in the same way as the rest of the highlighted vocabulary, with reference to the underlying conceptual metaphor.

When we say that applications are pouring in, or flooding in, or have dried up, we’re using the conceptual metaphor ‘a large quantity of something is like a large amount of water’, which also generates:
a deluge of phone calls
a torrent of abuse
a trickle of interest

When we say that a search operation has been scaled down, or that the government has played down a threat to public health, we’re using the conceptual metaphor ‘more is up, less is down’, which also generates:
Prices soared after the strike.
The population peaked at 5.5 million.
The economy is in free fall.

When we tell someone to cheer up, we’re using the conceptual metaphor ‘happy is up, sad is down’, which also generates:
things are looking up
on top of the world

Reality 3: There are some BPs whose meanings are hard, or even impossible, to account for, but in most cases it’s possible to recognise, or at least surmise, how the meanings of BPs have developed; their meanings are motivated, ie based on conceptual parallels.

Myth 4: BPs only turn up in informal speech and writing, and have more formal single-word synonyms.

Myth 4a: BPs aren’t really proper English. (They’re colloquial, casual, lazy, sloppy, uneducated etc. They’re second-rate alternatives to proper, single-word verbs.)

Some BPs are informal: palm off, screw up, shut up, skive off, swan around ….. but this is unsurprising, since it’s true of English vocabulary in general: bloke, quid, flat broke, flat out …..

Conversely, some BPs are decidedly formal: ascribe to, cast down, complain of, consign to, impinge on, prevail (up)on, renege on …..

Many BPs are neutral in style:

Possible alternatives

I’ve got to get up early tomorrow. – rise?

What time shall we set off? – depart?

You’re speaking too fast – slow down. – decelerate?

I’m looking for my glasses. – seeking?

Put your hat on. – don?

The versions on the left are the usual, neutral ways of expressing these meanings; the possible alternatives are too formal.

And some BPs (or PBPs, strictly speaking) are neutral although Latinate: ap|ply for, de|pend on, inter|fere with, in|volve in, re|fer to …..

Reality 4: Like English vocabulary in general, some BPs are informal, some are formal, and a lot are neutral in style. They don’t all have usable single-word equivalents. They’re an essential component of English vocabulary; you can’t get by without them.

Myth 5: They’re a recent phenomenon.

Myth 5a: They’re evidence that modern English is going to the dogs.

Old English (c. 450 – 1150) has PB verbs, nouns and adjectives:

fore|scēawian (before + look at) = foresee, pre-ordain, provide

tō|cyme (to + coming) = arrival, advent

ær|be|þoht (before + thought) = premeditated

BPs become increasingly common through the Middle Ages. Shakespeare (late 16th / early 17th century) uses them extensively. Samuel Johnson includes many in his Dictionary (1755) and, in his preface, comments on them as a significant feature of English.

Recent decades have seen a huge expansion of English vocabulary. This has included some PBs – eg outperform, upload – but the BP pattern is much more productive, especially since some particles – particularly out and up – are often used in conjunction with ‘verbing’; you can sometimes hear conference delegates complaining that they’re conferenced out or sessioned out.

Reality 5: Many BPs are recent, but BPs were in common use centuries ago, and PBs date all the way back to Old English and beyond.

Myth 6: BPs are unique to English.

A quick tour of some representative European languages …..

Swedish (North Germanic)

Swedish has BP and BPP verbs, and (single-word, inseparable) PB verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs:

components meaning

fylla i (fill + in) fill in/up

längta efter (long + after) long for

se upp till (look + up + to) look up to, respect

se upp för (look + up + for) look/watch out for

inne|hålla (in + hold) contain

inne|håll content(s)

ut|veckla (out + fold) develop

ut|veckling development

Similar examples could be adduced from Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic.

German (West Germanic)

German has BP and PBP verbs, and PB verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs:

bitten um ask for

Bitte um request for

glauben an believe in

Glaube an belief in

aus|füllen (1) (out + fill) fill out/in

ent|wickeln (2)(dis- + wind/wrap) develop

(1) is separable; the order of the components depends on tense and clause type.

(2) is inseparable.

ankommen auf (to + come + on) depend on

eingehen auf (in + go + onto) go into (eg discuss)

Similar examples could be adduced from Dutch.

French (Romance)

French has PB verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs:





pré|vu (before + seen) intended, appropriate

It also has BP and PBP verbs:

compter sur count on

croire à believe in

ap|partenir à belong to

dé|pendre de depend on

Similar examples could be adduced from other Romance languages: Catalan, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish.

Polish (Slavonic)

Polish has PB verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs:

od|ciąć (from + cut) cut off (verb)

prze|rwać (through + tear) break, interrupt

od|cinek section, episode

prze|rwa break, interval

od|cięty cut off (adjective)

It also has BP and PBP verbs:

czekać na wait for

wierzyć w believe in

w|płynąć na (in + flow + on) influence

Similar examples could be adduced from other Slavonic languages: Belorussian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Macedonian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovene, Ukrainian.

Reality 6: BP/PBs are a fundamental component of the vocabularies of – at least – Germanic, Romance and Slavonic languages.

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6 Responses

  1. Anthony Ash says:

    I think this is the sort of nail-on-the-head language analysis stuff that is needed for a better and deeper understanding of English. I think a lot of more traditional grammarians might disagree with this stuff but it doesn’t matter because it does the trick: it helps a teacher understand this aspect of language better and, subsequently, they might be able to do a better job of teaching it in the classroom.

    Anthony Ash

    • Lexicallab says:

      Glad you found it useful Anthony.

      What I found most refreshing about it was that it was a talk first and foremost about language. Given that language teachers teach language, to rehash Michael Swan’s eternal truism, it’s depressing how little language itself is talked about, particularly beyond a basic grammatical level.

      Hopefully, it’ll help disabuse a few folk of some illusions they’d been clinging on to and make people think more before repeating the cliches about phrasal verbs that we all seem to end up having drilled into us!

      • Anthony Ash says:

        I hadn’t thought about that but now when I come to think of it, you’re right – there is very little discussion about language proper! Just about ever CPD session I ever attend is on classroom management or ideas for delivery but not on language itself.

        I have an approach to future forms which I am currently working on. When I’m finished, maybe Lexical Lab might find it interesting for its blog?

        • Lexicallab says:

          I fear that the fact you’d not thought about it before is indicative of what a fringe notion it’s become in ELT these days, Anthony. The vast majority of TD sessions are geared towards recipes and activities, and we’re left to develop whatever understanding of the way language works that we end up with more or less in a bubble.

          Just for the record, by the way, I’m not saying that a more complex, nuanced or sophisticated understanding of language should result in more complex classroom practice. If anything, the opposite is true.

          With phrasal verbs, for example, I’m basically in favour of not making a big deal out of it, and teaching them as “words which go together” from Elementary level upwards, simply incorporating them into semantic areas where appropriate. In the same way, with future forms, I tend towards very simple cover-all glosses for students: it’s the present continuous becuase it’s an arrangement with other people; it’s will because it’s a promise, etc.

          Anyway, yeah, if and when you write up your ideas, email them through to us at and we’ll have a good look at them.

  2. Paul Davis says:

    Yep. Thanks for the post

  3. […] 90 . Phrasal verbs: myths and realities | Lexical‏۲ days ago … Given this, it’d be handy to call them ‘phrasal verbs’, or ‘multi-word verbs’, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, those terms are already used for a more … […]

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