Category: English P-words, English Verbs|June 2, 2013 6:30 am

English Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are a common verb form in the English language. Also called verb-particle constructions, the simplest definition of phrasal verbs is a verb plus one or more p-words. Other common definitions of the English phrasal verb include the following descriptions:

  • an English verb followed by one or more particles where the combination behaves as a syntactic and semantic unit
  • a verb and one or more additional words, having the function of a verb
  • a verb plus a preposition or adverb which creates a meaning different from the original verb
  • idiomatic expressions, combining verbs and prepositions to make new verbs whose meaning is often not obvious from the dictionary definitions of the individual words
  • formed by a verb phrase followed by a marooned preposition, the phrasal verb forms a semantic constituent whose meaning is not determined by the verb phrase or preposition as individual parts but rather by the whole phrasal verb as a single lexical item

English phrasal verbs additionally fall into four different categories based on transitivity and separability:

  1. Intransitive
  2. Nonseparable transitive
  3. Optionally separable transitive
  4. Obligatorily separable transitive

The following sections discuss the form and origin of phrasal verbs in the English language as well as the differences between the four types of phrasal verbs.

Form

Formed by a verb plus one or more p-words, phrasal verbs are a periphrastic verb form. Periphrasis means that a phrase of two or more words express a grammatical relationship that could otherwise be expressed through the inflection of a single word. For example, the comparative adjective more interesting is an example of periphrasis as opposed to the comparative adjective cuter, which is not an example of periphrasis. The meaning of any periphrastic form cannot be determined by combining the meanings of the individual words but rather must be derived by the meaning of the words as a unit. Due to the periphrasis of the form, phrasal are idiomatic, meaning that the meaning of a phrasal verb cannot be determined by combining the meanings of the verb and preposition but must be learned as a single lexical item.

Phrasal verbs are formed by a verb followed by one or more p-words (sometimes called prepositions). The p-word in a phrasal verb functions as a particle. Phrasal verbs are examples of periphrasis because the meaning of the phrasal verb can only be determined by the verb and preposition as a unit, not by combining the meanings of the verb and the p-word alone. For example, the meaning of the phrasal verb wake up “awake” cannot be determined by combining the meaning of the verb wake “rise from sleep” and the meaning of the preposition, or p-word, up “at a higher point.” Phrasal verbs often have single-word synonyms as in wake up and awake.

Origin

Phrasal verbs in Modern English developed from verbs with separable preposition prefixes in Old English. Verbs with separable preposition prefixes still exist in Modern German and Modern Dutch. For example, the Modern German verb aufwachen “to wake up” consists of the verb wachen and the preposition prefix auf. When the verb is conjugated, the preposition prefix moves to the end of the predicate phrase as in ich wache auf “I wake up.” Old English verbs with separable preposition prefixes evolved into phrasal verbs in which the preposition follows the verb in Middle English. Phrasal verbs are a periphrastic verb form unique to Germanic languages including Modern English.

Intransitive Phrasal Verbs

The first type of phrasal verb in English is the intransitive phrasal verb. An intransitive phrasal verb is as defined as a phrasal verb that cannot or does not take an object. Examples of intransitive phrasal verbs include:

  • break down (malfunction)
  • die down (subside)
  • get up (arise)
  • let up (diminish, lessen)
  • run away (escape)
  • show up (arrive)
  • throw up (vomit)

For example:

  • My car broke down on the way to work. (malfunction)
  • What time did you get up this morning? (arise)
  • The storm finally let up enough for the snowplows to get out. (lessen)
  • His great aunt recently passed away. (die)

The p-word functioning as a particle must directly follow the verb of an intransitive phrasal verb. For example:

  • The dog threw up on the carpet. (correct)
  • *The dog threw on the carpet up. (incorrect)
  • My classmate nodded off during the lecture. (correct)
  • My classmate nodded during the lecture off. (incorrect)

Nonseparable Transitive Phrasal Verbs

The second type of phrasal verb in English is the nonseparable transitive phrasal verb. A nonseparable transitive phrasal verb is defined as a phrasal verb that takes an object but in which the p-word functioning as a particle must directly follow the verb. Examples of nonseparable transitive phrasal verbs include:

  • come across (discover)
  • get in (enter)
  • get on (mount)
  • keep at (persevere)
  • lay in on (criticize)
  • run into (encounter)
  • settle on (decide)

For example:

  • The cowgirl got on her horse. (mount)
  • Most children look forward to Christmas morning. (anticipate)
  • The class boned up on grammar. (review)
  • She ran into an old friend. (encounter)

The p-word functioning as a particle must directly follow the verb of a nonseparable transitive phrasal verb. For example:

  • The librarian came across the missing book. (correct)
  • *The librarian came the missing book across. (incorrect)
  • The manager really laid in on the lazy employee. (correct)
  • *The manager really laid the lazy employee in on. (incorrect)
  • *The manager really laid in the lazy employee on. (incorrect)
  • The painter settled on the large canvas. (correct)
  • *The painted settled the large canvas on. (incorrect)

Optionally Separable Transitive Phrasal Verbs

The third type of phrasal verb in English is the optionally separable transitive phrasal verb. An optionally separable transitive phrasal verb is defined as a phrasal verb that takes an object and in which the p-word function as a particle can follow either the verb or the object. Examples of optionally separable transitive phrasal verbs include:

  • call off (cancel)
  • feel up (grope)
  • hand in (submit)
  • jack up (raise)
  • pass on (transmit)
  • rule out (eliminate)
  • work out (solve)

For example:

  • The child handed in the assignment. (submit)
  • The writer looked up the word in the dictionary. (research)
  • The Dean called the meeting off due to the weather. (cancel)
  • I need to take my wet socks off. (remove)

The p-word functioning as a particle may follow the verb or the object of an optionally separable transitive phrasal verb. For example:

  • The boss called off the meeting. (correct)
  • The boss called the meeting off. (correct)
  • All students must hand in their essays. (correct)
  • All students must hand their essays in. (correct)
  • The actress ruled out both movies. (correct)
  • The actress ruled both movies out. (correct)

Obligatorily Separable Transitive Phrasal Verbs

The fourth type of phrasal verb in English is the obligatorily separable transitive phrasal verb. An obligatorily separable transitive phrasal verb is defined as a phrasal verb that takes an object and in which the p-word function as a particle must directly follow the object. When the direct object is in the form of a pronoun, the p-word must follow the pronoun, not the verb. In other words, optionally separable transitive phrasal verbs become obligatorily separable when a pronoun functions as the object. Examples of obligatorily separable transitive phrasal verbs include:

  • The student looked up the word. (correct)
  • The student looked the word up. (correct)
  • *The student looked up it. (incorrect)
  • The student looked it up. (correct)
  • The patron checked out the book. (correct)
  • The patron checked the book out. (correct)
  • *The patron checked out it. (incorrect)
  • The patron checked it out. (correct)
  • The children wore out the toy. (correct)
  • The children wore the toy out. (correct)
  • *The children wore out it. (incorrect)
  • The children wore it out. (correct)

Phrasal verbs are a common verb form in the English language. Also called verb-particle constructions, the simplest definition of phrasal verbs is a verb plus one or more p-words. English phrasal verbs additionally fall into four different categories based on transitivity and separability: intransitive, nonseparable transitive, optionally separable transitive, and obligatorily separable transitive.

References

DeCarrico, Jeanette S. 2000. The structure of English: Studies in form and function for language teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
Jacobs, Roderick A. 1995. English syntax: A grammar for English language professionals. New York: Oxford University Press.


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