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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.

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Tuesday December 1st 2015, 1:19 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Having had an opportunity or two to try to learn the idiosyncratic pairings of verbs with prepositions in a couple of languages (besides English), I'd have to say that learning the ins and outs of phrasal verbs is in a space somewhere between pure memorization and semantic mapping. A classic example for Spanish learners is to try to sort out when to use "por" and when to use "para." No amount of explanation about the nominal definitions of each term is adequate, since they both mean "for." In the end, one does get a kind of Gefühl for the legal combinations, but it seems to be a process that speaks as much to the unconscious as to trying to get the semantics of the two prepositions. I can only imagine how hard it must be for English learners to sort out "get up," "eat up," "put up [with]," "step up," and "lawyer up," gah.
Tuesday December 1st 2015, 5:23 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
For many years - 60 or more - I had been accustomed to the use of "pencil out" as meaning "strike through . ." - or "strike out, using a pencil". Is that usage no longer in vogue? I remember the prices in January sales used to be "pencilled out" or "crayonned out" to be replaced with a more attractive figure. (My spelling is East Atlantic!)
Tuesday December 1st 2015, 7:45 AM
Comment by: Cheryl H.
Thank you for an interesting article, and for your labors in the fascinating field of language. So, I understand that "Will this pencil out?" is another way of asking, "Will this add up, when I put my pencil to it?" But with connotations, of course. Back in the eighties Metaphors We Live By, by Lakoff and Johnson, helped change my understanding of how we use language. The book is old, but I cannot bring myself to purge it from my shelves.

Cheryl Hilderbrand
Tuesday December 1st 2015, 10:06 AM
Comment by: David F.
The first time I ever heard the phrase was long enough ago that people were still keeping paper day-planners. The phrase "pencil in" was well-accepted jargon for a "tentative" entry (as opposed to using ink, which would give it permanence). "Pencil out" became the phrase used to designate erasing (undoing) that which had been "penciled in." If someone notified you that they could no longer make a "penciled in" appointment, then you (or your secretary) would "pencil it out." I thought the expression had died with the ubiquitous use of electronic calendars. Although some electronic datebooks still have a function for "pencilling in" an appointment, I haven't heard the phrase "pencil out" used again until I saw your article.
Wednesday December 2nd 2015, 8:30 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, all, for interesting comments. Agreed, Mike, that there has to be a brute force aspect to these things for learners. Geoffrey and David, I was aware of the older meaning of pencil out as the opposite of pencil in, but I hadn't heard it for years and so didn't talk about it. Cheryl: yes, hats off to Lakoff and Johnson! They were strongly in my mind in the mention of conceptual metaphors.
Wednesday December 2nd 2015, 9:18 PM
Comment by: Ron
I had a flash on something about phrasal verbs, some years ago. This occurred to me as I was typing up a little dictionary list of common phrasal verbs for use in ESL teaching.

(Side note: As I'm describing this list, it will likely occur to you that it'd be useless for ESL pedagogy... and you'd be right. I was a newbie, and though my exertions were well-intentioned, I've since come to see that all I was really doing was excavating my own lexical mental map.)

Anyway, one the the things I wound up with was a mapping of phrasal verbs to individual verbs. (e.g., "put off" --> procrastinate). And what I discovered was very interesting; that the single-word verbs thus mapped out referred to highly refined, sophisticated concepts. In fact, I seem to recall that many phrasal verbs don't have so clear a mapping, and stand alone.

Then, it hit me. It reminded me of Chomsky saying that his own studies always reinforced, for him, the capacity of a common person to negotiate stunningly sophisticated conceptual terrain. A survey of phrasal verbs, such as the one I was doing, serves to narrow the presumed gap between highly educated ("book-learned") folks, and those who haven't had access to that particular type of acculturation. The former might use those more "sophisticated" usages, but the latter aren't in the least crippled in expressive power, merely by dint of not knowing those particular usages.

Phrasal verbs are one (of many) expressive/intellectual "levellers".
Thursday December 3rd 2015, 7:04 AM
Comment by: WordyGerty's girl
I love this column, though I am feeling dinosaurish at reading David F's comment re "long enough ago when people keep day planners", having just gotten mine from my partner.

My recent replacement of an electric toothbrush came with a separate timer to plug into my computer to make a bar graph of a mnnth's brushing: this was the ultimate for me: i had just pointed to one online and it came equipped with travel case (which requires disassembling the toothbrush) and those components. With all my busy retirement life holds, why on earth would I want 12 bar graphs of toothbrushing? Pencil that out or use it in or donate parts to h.s. art class and write about it in my other passion, wry poetry.

That would really have been an ESL lesson in the 40 years I tutored! No electronic datebooks for me, following the example of my bestie afar who responded to new folk asking her what she did,that she got charitable contributions from people with short arms and deep pockets. This was a tricky balance game with many meetings and much entertainment, usually dinners at her home.

I was in awe that she used only the tiny card shop give-away calendar @ 3x3 inches to pencil in all her activities. Much too busy to have electronics clogging the multi-million$ Luddite she extracts annually. She has no time to bother with email and its kin. I am beginning to understand this as I go through the medical world and autograph consent forms every time I come to a new desk, though in the 1980s we believed that computers would replace paperwork, now tripled. My IT nieces and nephews are buried in paper!
Thursday December 3rd 2015, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Ron: related to your comment, a pattern I notice is that many phrasal verbs consist of monosyllabic Germanic root + particle, while their single-word near synonyms are Latinate polysyllables. It would be interesting to see exact numbers on this, but I don't know of a study that's been done. It suggests to me that phrasal verbs are a "native" form of expression, and that may contribute to their being so productive.
Saturday December 5th 2015, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Lisa S.
This seems to replace a phrase my mom was fond of using. She would advise that "you can always work it out with a pencil." This was unfortunately her advice when one was facing constipation. Sorry to move that from my brain to yours, I've lived with it for decades and it still induces shudders. She would usually preface it by saying, "I hope everything comes out all right in the end. If not, you can always . . ."

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