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Two-Stroke Engines: Pair a Verb with a Particle, and Presto!

We're pleased to present another excerpt from Constance Hale's entertaining new book, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing. Here she focuses on phrasal verbs, "the verbal combos that join an action word with a tiny preposition or particle to make a whole new meaning."

Consider the verb: to make out. We might ask, "Can you make out those people sitting on the pier?" Then we get closer, and the question changes: "Oh... are they making out?"

Welcome to the verbal combos that join an action word with a tiny preposition or particle to make a whole new meaning. The verb give gives us give up, give in, give out, give way, give in to, give off, give over,and give away. We can "turn on, tune in, drop out" along with Timothy Leary. Or we can "get up, stand up" with Bob Marley. We can even "tweet out" like Ivanka Trump. (The New York Times tells us this, in an article on efforts by Donald Trump's daughter to connect with hotel guests.)

Unpacking phrasal verbs

As our review of the English language has shown, bards, barristers, and brand-namemakers have been coining new words for centuries. We've added prefixes and suffixes, smashed words together, turned nouns into verbs, and created new words out of whole cloth. And then we started to mint phrasal verbs, like make out.

Before the arrival of the Danes, Old English, like most European languages, was strongly inflected, meaning that words had many possible permutations. Slowly, though, the language simplified, with two significant results. First, the word order in a sentence became more important: We came to favor sentences that started with a subject, quickly followed by a verb and maybe a direct object. And then the verbs themselves started coupling with adverbs or prepositions.

We call these two-stroke creatures phrasal verbs. The earliest known example of one is to give up (meaning "to surrender"), which appeared in 1154. Such compounds — which make a neat semantic unit — multiplied in Late Middle English.

"Some appear wildly irregular"

By the eighteenth century, these compounds were so common that Samuel Johnson tried to get a handle on them in the preface to his 1755 dictionary:

There is another kind of composition more frequent in our language than perhaps in any other, from which arises to foreigners the greatest difficulty. We modify the signification of many verbs by a particle subjoined; as to come off, to escape by a fetch; to fall on, to attack; to fall off, to apostatize; to break off, to stop abruptly; to bear out, to justify; to fall in, to comply; . . . of which some appear wildly irregular, being so far distant from the sense of the simple words, that no sagacity will be able to trace the steps by which they arrived at the present use.

This "wildly irregular" form didn't have a formal name until the mid-1920s, when Logan Pearsall Smith, in the book Words and Idioms, dubbed it a "phrasal verb," a term he credited to the lexicographer and OED editor Henry Bradley.

Phrasal verbs often arise from casual talk and then insinuate themselves into the mainstream. Maybe this is why they've found such a home in change-happy America.

Tweet is a perfect example. The word (referring to text-based posts of up to 140 characters) was coined by users of Twitter, the online social networking service that launched in 2006 with, if not a bang, something louder than a twitter. As usual in English, the word was quickly adapted; microbloggers using the service soon coined newer terms the usual ways: by adding prefixes (retweet)and suffixes(tweeted) and by compounding (tweetup).

Tweetup is one of those "kinds of composition," to use Johnson's words, made up of a verb and "a particle subjoined." That up is the particle subjoined. As is the out in tweet out.

Particle physics

If we are literal-minded, we might take "phrasal verb" to mean a phrase that operates as a verb and contains — of course — a verb and something else.

But if we want to get more technical (and, actually, we do), we need to look closely at those verbs that combine with adverbs and prepositions, or particles. If we want to split hairs, we can differentiate between a phrasal verb, like call up, and a prepositional verb, like call on. What's the difference, you ask, besides that the first means to summon and the second to visit?

Well, in call up, that up functions as a particle,as a part of the verb itself, whereas on is just a regular old preposition. Hunh? you ask. OK, try inserting an object between the verb and the up or the on: you can "call the troops up," say, but you can't "call Eloise on." (But you could egg or spur her on!)

Let's put that another way. Particles in phrasal verbs often look exactly like prepositions, but they act differently: they can jump on either side of the direct object. Prepositions can't.

Let's take another example, the word down. Acting as a particle, down can sit next to the verb:

The impresario tracked down the hip-hop wonder.

But down can also move to a spot after the direct object:

The impresario tracked the hip-hop wonder down.

By contrast, down acting as a preposition cannot follow the direct object. We can say:

He sprinted down a dark alley.

but we don't say:

He sprinted a dark alley down.

The particle can jump around, but not the preposition. (And copy editors, take note: we capitalize particles in headlines, but not equally short prepositions.)

The two-part phrasal verb amounts to an all new verb, with its own meaning. By contrast, a verb followed by a prepositional phrase is just an action plus an adverbial phrase telling when, where, or how the action occurred.

Phrasal verbs can be transitive or intransitive, fun or functional, plain Jane or piquant. In the transitive camp we have:

  • build up (as in "build up a clientele," where clientele is the direct object)
  • call off (as in "call off the hounds," or "call the hounds off")
  • hold down (as in "hold down the fort")
  • look up (as in "look up an old love")
  • put off (as in "put off the party")
  • shrug off (as in "shrug off our troubles")
  • start up (as in "start up your MacBook," or "start me up," for Windows 95 fans)

In the intransitive camp we have:

  • break down ("he broke down and tried")
  • butt in ("don't butt in, just let him be")
  • come to ("she came to quickly")
  • give way ("the door gave way")
  • hold up ("how is she holding up?")
  • ice up ("the wings of the AirBus iced up")
  • push off ("let's push off without fanfare")
  • sit around ("they sat around and moped")

Stay tuned next week for another excerpt, in which Hale explains why phrasal verbs are so fertile, "like arugula, tasting like a vegetable but acting like a weed, regenerating like mad in the garden."

Reprinted from Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing by Constance Hale. Copyright © 2012 by Constance Hale. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 21st 2012, 5:05 PM
Comment by: mac
for the intransitive "broke down" is the example, "he broke down and cried"?
Wednesday November 21st 2012, 5:15 PM
Comment by: mac
re the intransitive, "come to". i tend to hear things in my brain as i read them. i hear the sound and the meter of the words. in this case i heard she came too quickly. whereas i had to edit and re-hear, she came-to, quickly.
if i were the author of this sentence, i would work around this. perhaps she was quick to come around but then, the sentence as an example would be meaningless. it's really a hard world.

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Our first excerpt from Constance Hale's new book.