Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

How Do Phrasal Verbs "Pencil Out"?

I heard an interview on the radio the other day with Dan Price, CEO of Seattle-based credit card processing firm Gravity Payments. He's been in the news because of his decision to set the minimum salary for his employees at $70,000. What interested me in the interview was his use of pencil out, a phrasal verb that was new to me. Lexicographers are to words like birders are to birds: when we spot one that's not on our life list we get very excited, even as others' eyes may glaze over.

Though I'd never heard pencil out before, I had no difficulty in inferring its meaning: the words that make up the phrasal verb, combined with the context, suggest that the meaning is something like "add up" or "make economic sense". A bit of poking around online revealed that I was behind the game on this one: pencil out has been around for a while; it's defined in a few online business glossaries and Mark Liberman wrote about it on Language Log in 2012. Most people would still regard it as business jargon, and it may well never leave the confines of that register, but it has found a place in the lexicon of business and financial types. I found another example in an NPR news story, where the writer Scott Horsley poses the question: "Do the Republicans' simpler tax plans pencil out?"

Having understood the verb, I also knew immediately that you didn't actually need a pencil to pencil something out, though a calculator might be useful. I was also not troubled by the fact that out did not express any of its headline dictionary meanings when used as a particle with the verb. As Samuel Johnson noted in the preface of his 1755 dictionary of English, "We modify the signification of many verbs by a particle subjoined," and "innumerable expressions of [this] kind, of which some appear wildly irregular, [are] so far distant from the sense of the simple words." Johnson also noted that for these phrasal verbs, "no sagacity will be able to trace the steps by which they arrived at the present use." There he is probably also right: it isn't sagacity that enables a native speaker to infer the meaning of a phrasal verb never before encountered, it's Sprachgefühl, an intuitive feeling for the natural idiom of a language.

A similar case involving less contemporary language occurred for me, and perhaps for many other readers, in the novel Jane Eyre (1847). At one point Jane, the narrator, reports on the activities of herself and her companions thus: "While Mary drew, Diana pursued a course of encyclopaedic reading she had (to my awe and amazement) undertaken, and I fagged away at German." Fagged away? Americans don't use fag as a verb but from other reading I had a general idea of the British meaning "work hard" and it seemed likely that away was departing from its most frequent spatial dictionary senses to mean something else; approximately the same thing it means in ask away, fire away, hammer away; in other words, uninterruptedly, incessantly.

It's probably not the case that Dan Price coined pencil out or that Charlotte Brontë coined fag away, but I expect that they each used their delightful phrasal verbs without any sense that they needed to gloss them, because both verbs are instinctively graspable even for those not familiar with them—they are not exactly the sum of their parts, but perhaps the sum of their parts' parts. This all points to the fact that phrasal verbs in English are productive.

We usually think of language features like suffixes being productive: like the –gate in Watergate that gave us Contragate, Climategate, Koreagate, Lawyergate, Sewergate, and surely many more to come. But constructions can be productive as well, and native speakers can coin and comprehend novel combinations of verb + particle, even when both the verbs and the particles may be vastly more polysemous than a suffix like ­–gate, -ize, or –ify is. How does that actually work? To bring that question down to earth, how do we know what the up means in a phrasal verb like lawyer up when the adverb up may have anywhere from five to 50 senses, depending on which dictionary you consult?

An idea popular with linguists is that we examine possible meanings of phrasal verbs with reference to conceptual metaphors. The idea is that speakers—particularly native speakers—have semantic mappings from common verb particles (e.g., up, down, in, out, on, off, away, around) to a range of possible metaphoric meanings that arise by association with other expressions. Ben Zimmer examined some common expressions using up as the particle in a Word Routes column from 2010. Of the figurative expressions he examines there, only stand up and straighten up have an easily traceable connection with the canonical meaning of up—that is, into a higher place—but the other expressions, in which up has an extended meaning, are not singletons in the language by any means. It is surely the case that we would not be able to say man up, lawyer up, or cowboy up with any confidence of being understood if these expressions did not build on earlier examples such as finish up, toughen up, set up, end up, and many others in which up has a resultative or completive sense. The metaphor in use is roughly "UP is FINISHED, COMPLETE, READY".

Native speakers are likely to be able to arrive at the correct interpretation of an unfamiliar phrasal verb automatically and unconsciously by process of elimination: by rejecting of the mappings to meanings that would be incompatible with the verb part of the phrasal verb. The task is much more difficult for English learners, however, as fellow columnist Fitch O'Connell discusses in a 2010 Teachers at Work column. English learners will not have nearly as replete a set of mappings between word and metaphor as native speakers have, and thus they may be unable to make the needed connection. A blog post for English learners explains some of the common meanings of off as a verb particle, in which numbers 3 and 4 are probably the most metaphorically distant from canonical off. But which of the meanings given there would help a learner interpret a verb like goof off? None of them looks very promising, but I don't think that this should be discouragement for English learners, and I don't agree with Fitch that "each [verb] has to be individually committed to memory for there is no easy trick to learn or formula to follow." Tricks, no: formulae, yes! Any given phrasal verb conforms to a pattern exemplified in some other phrasal verb where the particle has an identifiable meaning, and learners undoubtedly absorb these, along with other parts of the language that they internalize.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.