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
have a look
lay claim to something
pull somebody’s leg
show somebody the ropes
stand the test of time
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
adjective: sold out
(2) verbs: set up / upset
nouns: set-up / upset
adjectives: set up / upset / upsetting
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:
(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 of – a cave or a ditch or a forest, you can get into – or out of – difficulty, 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:
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:
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
ut|veckla (out + fold) develop
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 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 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.