I suppose it might be seen as strange to have a favourite aspect of a language. But, for me, all languages have quirks and idiosyncrasies that non native speakers should be jealous of. With French, I’m envious of the seemingly endless freedom to turn adjectives into nouns (like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables); with German, I can only gaze on greenly at its snaking compound nouns (like ‘Geschwindigkeitsbeschränkungen’). But, in English, it’s the humble phrasal verb that I love the best. From ‘give up’ to ‘take down’, they are the one aspect of my mother tongue that I would hold on to before any other. Because, when it comes to linguistic creativity, phrasal verbs have got it all sewn up.
Phrasal verbs have been a part of English since around about the Norman invasion, although they only really began to get fashionable in the 15th Century. Shakespeare, for example, dabbled in them a bit (Blake, 2002). In Much Ado About Nothing (III.1), for example, Beatrice declares to an absent Benedick:
‘If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band.’
By the 18th Century, they were more common. In 1775, in the preface to his Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson makes a point of mentioning a ‘kind of composition more frequent in our language than perhaps any other’ (McArthur, 1989). Today, you can hear these ‘kinds of composition’ everywhere – from the minute you ‘wake up’ to the moment you ‘drop off’ to sleep.
Try on a few pop songs for size. How about ‘I Get Around’ by The Beach Boys, or ‘Wake Me Up (Before You Go-Go)’ by Wham!, or even ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ by The Beatles? That’s not to forget, of course, A-Ha’s phrasal-verbed classic, even if it does take a syntactic liberty in the refrain:
‘Take on me… Take me on.’
At the top of the charts, there’s Bob Dylan – surely one of the most frequent users of phrasal verbs in popular music. The classic ‘Tangled up in Blue’, from the album ‘Blood on the Tracks’, includes 13 phrasal verbs, not including the one in the refrain. One of them, ‘started into’, feels like a particularly Dylan-esque invention:
‘Tangled up in Blue’
‘Heading out for the East Coast, Lord knows I’ve paid some dues, Getting through…
‘Split up on a dark sad night, both agreeing it was best’
‘She was workin’ in a topless place, And I stopped in for a beer’
‘And later on as the crowd thinned out, I was just about to do the same’
‘I must admit I felt a little uneasy, When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe’
‘Then she opened up a book of poems, And handed it to me’
‘Pourin’ off of every page, Like it was written in my soul’
‘Then he started into dealing with slaves, And something inside of him died’
‘She had to sell everything she owned, And froze up inside’
‘And when finally the bottom fell out, I became withdrawn’
‘The only thing I knew how to do, was to keep on keepin’ on’
‘So now I’m going back again, I got to get to her somehow’
‘But me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint’
At the heart of every phrasal verb is a very simple combination. In each one, a (typically) monosyllabic verb is combined with (depending on the context in which they appear) an adverbial particle or preposition. The most common of these propositions in phrasal verbs are ‘down’, ‘in’, ‘off’, ‘on’, ‘out’ and ‘up’. The most common verbs include ‘be’, ‘come’, ‘go’, ‘have’, ‘let’, ‘make’, ‘give’ and ‘get’.
Combining these two sets of words in English is extremely productive. ‘Get’, for example, loves to be paired up in phrasal verbs. It will cheerfully combine with all six of the propositions above to form ‘get in’, ‘get off’, ‘get on’, ‘get out’ and ‘get up’. (And that’s not to mention it’s other phrasal partnerships: ‘get down’, ‘get around’, ‘get through’, ‘get across’, ‘get ahead’, ‘get along’…)
Phrasal verbs can be transitive (‘I took off my hat’) or intransitive (‘I took off in my car’). In practice, their grammar can be a little nuanced – complicated enough for one linguist to have devoted 42 pages to it (Dixon, 1982). However, although there is some variation in where they sit next to object nouns and pronouns, syntactically phrasal verbs often look quite similar to (non-phrasal) verb-preposition combinations:
(1) He ran over the road (on his way to the gym)
(2) He ran over the boy (in his silver Mercedes)
One good way of differentiating a true phrasal verb from an impostor is to look at the sentence stress. Try saying the two sentences above out loud and you might notice that you put more of a stress on the word ‘over’ in sentence (2) compared to the non-phrasal sentence (1).
But the key thing that sets phrasal verbs apart is that they are, to a greater or lesser extent, idiomatic: that is, the meaning of a phrasal verb is more than the sum of its two component parts. In psycholinguistic terms, this means phrasal verbs must have their own entry in the mental lexicon, separate to that for its component words (Matlock and Heredia, 2002).
Although you do get phrasal verbs in other languages, they are most pervasive in English. And, because they are a ready made template for linguistic innovation, from the middle of the 19th Century they have only been getting more common (McArthur, 1989): ‘bottle out’, ‘man up’ or ‘slag off’, anyone? One newfangled phrasal verb was even nominated Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2003: the media favourite, ‘sex up’.
However, phrasal verbs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Because of their Germanic routes, they are mostly used colloquially. Since Dylan’s lyrics are at least 95% Germanic (Khalifa, 2007) it’s perhaps not surprising that he’s happy using them. But anyone who has ever written a formal document or letter in English will have found themselves eschewing the humble phrasal verb in favour of a less-familiar Latinate equivalent: ‘extinguishing’ a fire rather than ‘putting it out’, ‘continuing’ rather than ‘carrying on’, and so on. For no reason other than a desire to be a bit more like the Romans, phrasal verbs just don’t seem to be part of formal English style.
But to me, that’s a shame. Phrasal verbs shouldn’t be shunned, they should be embraced. For where would we be without the endless creative potential of the phrasal verb?
Without phrasal verbs, I would argue, English would be watered down, thinned out, dried up – certainly in need of jazzing up.
Blake, N. F. (2002) Phrasal verbs and associated forms in Shakespeare. Atlantis, 24, 25-39.
Dixon, R. M. W. (1982) The grammar of English phrasal verbs. Australian Journal of Linguistics, 1, 1-42.
Khalifa, J.-C. (2007) A Semantic and Syntactic Journey Through the Dylan Corpus. Oral Tradition, 22, 162-174.
Matlock, T. and Heredia, R. R. (2002). Understanding Phrasal Verbs in Monolinguals and Bilinguals. In Roberto R. Heredia and J. Altarriba (eds.), Bilingual Sentence Processing (pp. 251-274: Elsevier Science.
Mcarthur, T. (1989) The long-neglected phrasal verb. English Today, 5, 38-44.