P is for Phrasal Verb

29 08 2010

Quiz: which of these are phrasal verbs?

Who let the dogs out?

a. go in (as in She went in the office)
b. take turns (as in We took turns minding the baby)
c. approve of (as in My mother doesn’t approve of him)
d. sit down (as in, erm, Sit down!)
e. let out (as in Who let the dogs out?)

Now read on.

A good while back an ELT author advised me: “If you want to make a few quid, write a book on phrasal verbs”. I never did, but at the time the advice was probably sound. Nowadays, the same advice might be couched: ”If you want to attract punters to your website, provide stuff on phrasal verbs”. A quick check for “phrasal verbs” using Google (never reliable, I know) logged 673,000 results, compared to 322,000 for “present continuous”.

The typical phrasal verb site will offer some kind of definition and categorisation of types, a list of phrasal verbs (seldom if ever selected and organized in terms of frequency), and some rudimentary exercises, almost always of the gap-fill type. Sadly, the explanations are seldom reliable, or even (for a learner) intelligible. As often as not, a phrasal verb is defined as “a verb plus preposition, whose meaning is idiomatic”, theoretically excluding combinations of the type sit down and let out (as in Who let the dogs out?) where down and out are not – technically – prepositions (more on that below), and nor are the meanings idiomatic. And when exactly does an idiom become an idiom: is let out in I let the dress out a phrasal verb, but in Who let the dogs out not?

On the other hand, the lists of examples often include items that, however you stretch the definiton, can hardly be classified as phrasal verbs. Two websites consulted more or less at random supplied go in (example: She went in the office), make room for, and take turns as all being phrasal verbs. This suggests that any verb followed by a prepositional phrase (like look out (the window)), or any idiomatic expression that contains a verb (like make do with something) qualifies as a phrasal verb. That – it seems to me – is stretching the category to breaking point.

This is not to underestimate the problems of definition. About the only thing grammars agree on is that phrasal verbs consist of more than one part. What the ‘other’ part is – or should be called – is still somewhat disputed. Most grammars now hide behind the somewhat meaningless term ‘particle’ but there’s no escaping the fact that many (most?) particles can behave like prepositions, in some contexts, and like adverbs, in others. When they behave like adverbs – i.e. when they don’t have any noun phrase complementation – they’re said to be phrasal verbs. Hence, the difference between:

a. She looked up the chimney.
b. She looked up the word. (Or: She looked the word up.)

In the case of (b) look up passes all the tests, both syntactic and prosodic, of ‘phrasal verb-ness’. The problem (or one of them) comes with particles with no complementation but which nevertheless have prepositional meaning:

c. She looked up.

And then, what about those particles that are only ever prepositions, but which seem somehow more attached to the verb than a simple prepositional phrase? So, take after is considered a phrasal verb:

d. She takes after her father.

But not run after:

e. She ran after her father.

And where does that leave verbs with dependent prepositions? Such as

f. She depends on her father.

The Cambridge Grammar of English (Carter and McCarthy, 2006) is happy to include approve of , depend on and cope with in its (prepositional) phrasal verbs, but I’m not so sure.

Well, you can read more about this in An A-Z of ELT. But what I’m particularly interested in is the ‘rule’ whereby separable phrasal verbs don’t allow a choice if the object is a pronoun. So:

g. She put up the picture.
h. She put the picture up.
i. She put it up.

But not

j. She put up it.

I’d often wondered why this was the case, and whether, as stated in the Cambridge Grammar, this is always the case. Then, when I was researching the notion of end-weight – i.e. the principle that new information goes at the end of the clause (see P is for Passive) – I understood why. The pronoun – because it usually has back-reference – seldom ever encodes new information, hence it feels uncomfortable stranded at the end of a sentence. But there are sometimes contexts when the pronoun does introduce new – or at least contrasting – information. Take this (invented) example:

k. Kim can pick up Chris, but who will pick up me?

Because of the principle of end-weight, this sounds just as natural as

l. Kim can pick up Chris, but who will pick me up?

Some examples I found in the the Corpus of Contemporary American English include:

1. you know, I didn’t pick out the leaders. They picked out me.
2. a process of elimination that weeds out all but the best drivers. It won’t weed out me, however

And these examples, because the object is a compound, are easily explainable:

3. Those pillars couldn’t hold up me or you, ” the contractor had told her
4. suddenly, I let out a huge fart, which woke up me, my boyfriend, and his mom.
5. Scandinavian airline SAS bought out him and some associates for $ 30 million.

These are less easily explained, however:

6. The crowd applauds. I pick up him by the throat with one hand, grab the stake with the other,
7. And I think it’s a worthy debate to have, but a lot of people want to put down him for saying that.
8. And someone had somehow found out that he was gay and broke into his apartment, beat up him, stole all his money
9. ROS: We cheer up him –; find out what’s the matter GUIL: Exactly…
(That last one comes from the British National Corpus and is from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead)
10. Sylvia had rung up me about booking for a meal (also from the BNC)

Any theories?