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Metaphor and phrasal verbs
by Dr Rosamund Moon

• What is a metaphor?
• Adverbs, prepositions, and metaphor?
• Conceptual metaphors
• Metaphor in English and other languages
• Explaining the metaphors
• Sets of metaphors
    1 Increasing and decreasing: down, out, up
    2 Excitement, interest, and happiness: down, up
    3 Completeness: up
    4 Ending: away, down, off, out
    5 Time – past and future: ahead, back, behind, forward
    6 Progress: ahead, along, behind, on, through
    7 Getting involved in an activity: away, in, into, out
    8 Problems: around, aside, off, over, round
    9 Power and weakness: down, over, under, up
   10 Relationships: apart, off, together, up
   11 Communication: across, between, forth, in, into, out, over, through
   12 Information and knowledge: into, out, up
• Further reading

The meanings of phrasal verbs are often difficult to remember, because they seem to have no connection with the words that they consist of (the verb and the particle). In fact many phrasal verbs are metaphorical, and if you understand the metaphors they use, it will be easier to understand and remember their meanings. This article looks at ways in which different phrasal verbs share similar metaphors.

What is a metaphor?

Look at these pairs of sentences: the phrasal verbs are shown in bold type.
The dog dug up an old bone.
We dug up some interesting facts.

Two planes were shot down.
Each proposal was shot down.

Burglars had broken into their house while they were away.
She broke into his conversation.

In each pair, the first phrasal verb has a literal meaning and refers to a physical action, while the second is metaphorical and describes an action that is similar in some way to the first. For example, when someone digs up information, they discover it, and the process seems similar to the way in which dogs find bones that have been buried in the ground.

Some phrasal verbs only have metaphorical meanings. For example, to breeze in means to enter a place confidently, without seeming to care what other people think: perhaps the attitude and action reminds us of the movement of a breeze (= a light wind). Similarly, to rope someone in means to persuade someone to do something that they do not really want to do: perhaps it reminds us of the way in which people use ropes to catch animals or to collect them together.


Adverbs, prepositions, and metaphor

A phrasal verb consists of a verb (like dig, shoot, or break) and a particle (an adverb like down or up, or a preposition like into). When the verb part of a phrasal verb is used in a metaphorical way, this is usually quite obvious. But the particles may be used metaphorically too. This is less easy to recognize, but in fact there is often a clear connection between the literal meanings of the particle and its metaphorical uses. The sections below explain some of these connections. In English, like many other languages, the basic, literal meanings of adverbs and prepositions refer to direction, position in space, distance, or extent, for example:
up literally describes movement towards a higher position
down literally describes movement towards a lower position
ahead literally describes a position in front of you (the house is directly ahead).

The metaphorical uses of these particles develop from these literal ones:
up has metaphorical meanings to do with increases in size, number, or strength (prices went up)
down has metaphorical meanings to do with decreases in size, number, or strength (the children quietened down)
ahead metaphorically describes a point in the future (many problems lies ahead of us).

The new dictionary Macmillan Phrasal Verbs Plus has special pages on common particles (see the Contents page in the dictionary and Michael Rundell's article in the May issue of MED Magazine) that explain the meanings they have in phrasal verbs, including their metaphorical meanings.


Conceptual metaphors

Very often, the same metaphorical idea occurs in many different words and phrases, not just in phrasal verbs. For example, the idea of moving upwards or of being in a high position is found in many words that metaphorically describe increases in quantity (go up, rise, climb, soar, peak etc), and similarly with the opposite ideas (go down, fall, drop, slump, dive). These are called 'conceptual' metaphors, and they are the subject of Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. In this book, they demonstrate the importance of metaphor in relation to how we think and how we choose words to express our thoughts.

Sections 1 to 12 below explain some of the main conceptual metaphors that occur in groups of phrasal verbs.


Metaphor in English and other languages

Very few languages have phrasal verbs like English, but the same conceptual metaphors can be found in the vocabulary of other languages. In fact, some metaphors seem to occur in nearly all languages. One universal metaphor is the idea of 'up/high' and 'down/low' referring to quantities. Another conceptual metaphor that occurs with 'up/high' and 'down/low' refers to power and status: powerful, important people are thought of as being 'at the top' of an organization or society, while ordinary people without any power are 'at the bottom'. This idea also seems to occur in most languages.

Lakoff and Johnson believe that many conceptual metaphors originally developed because of basic human experiences, and that is why they occur in so many languages, even when the languages are not related. For example, the idea 'up/high' refers to large quantities because when more things are added to a pile, it becomes higher; and the idea 'up/high' refers to being powerful because if two people fight and one of them is physically on top of the other, that person usually wins. Think whether your own language has words and expressions with similar metaphorical ideas to those that we describe in the following sections.


Explaining the metaphors

The metaphors in some phrasal verbs are difficult to explain, even when we know a lot about how these meanings have developed. But in many cases, the metaphors form part of a system that can be explained. And some phrasal verbs that seem to have illogical meanings do in fact make sense. The following pairs of phrasal verbs have opposite meanings, as you would expect:
dress up (= dress more formally than usual) / dress down (= dress more informally than usual)
pipe up (= start talking) / pipe down (= stop talking)

But the following pairs – although they look like opposites – mean almost the same thing:
break up / break down
wind up / wind down

In fact, different meanings of up and down – and different metaphors – are involved here. The 'opposite' meanings are described in sections 1, 2, and 9 below, and they relate to the opposite ideas 'high' and 'low'. But up has another meaning to do with 'completion' (see section 3), while down has a meaning to do with 'ending' (see section 4): the ideas of 'completion' and 'ending' are quite similar, and so phrasal verbs with up/down may have similar meanings. Use the sections listed below to see if you can explain other phrasal verb meanings.


Sets of metaphors

Each of the following sections deals with one common metaphorical idea, and the adverbs and prepositions that express this idea when they form part of a phrasal verb. There are other metaphors and other groups that we have not covered here. Use the special pages on common particles in Phrasal Verbs Plus to see if you can find others: for example, are there other metaphors in phrasal verbs with up and down, in and out, or on and off? Look, too, for further examples of phrasal verbs that fit in with the metaphors below.


1 Increasing and decreasing: down, out, up
Up expresses ideas of increases in size, strength, or importance, while down expresses ideas of something becoming smaller, weaker, or less important:
Fees have gone up again.
She's doing some teaching in the evenings to bump up her income.
The search operation has been scaled down.
The government played down the threat to public health.

Out expresses ideas of something becoming wider or fuller, covering a greater extent, or lasting for a longer time:
Officers fanned out across the field.
Her stories flesh out the world in which these historical characters lived.
They had to string things out until the Duke arrived.


2 Excitement, interest, and happiness: down, up
Some phrasal verbs with up refer to things becoming more exciting, lively, or interesting, or to people becoming happier. Phrasal verbs with down refer to things becoming quieter or calmer, or to people becoming more unhappy. For example:
Things are looking up.
Cheer up!
Their opponents said that they sexed up the report.
This place needs livening up.
Calm down!
You need to tone down your argument.
The endless wet weather was getting me down.


3 Completeness: up
Up expresses an idea of completeness. For example, to burn up means to burn completely, and to wind something up means to bring it to a complete end.
They gobbled up their dinner.
Don't use up all the paper.
The speaker had begun to sum up.
All the shops had closed up for the night.


4 Ending: away, down, off, out
When something ends, we can think of it as gradually going farther away until it completely disappears. In phrasal verbs, away, down, off, and out all express ideas of something gradually ending:
Her voice faded away.
I suddenly felt sorry for him and my anger melted away.
The wind died down during the night.
The meeting wound down.
The rain eased off.
The effects of the drug wore off.
The conversation soon petered out.
The custom has almost died out.


5 Time – past and future: ahead, back, behind, forward
Metaphors relating to time are often based on the idea that time is like a line that goes from the past to the future, with the past behind us and the future in front of us. Phrasal verbs with ahead and forward express ideas of the future, while phrasal verbs with back and behind express ideas of the past.
What lies ahead?
Let's think ahead to next season.
I'm looking forward to seeing them again.
I've put my watch forward one hour.
The house dates back to the 16th century.
Never look back, never have regrets.
She was trying to leave behind a difficult adolescence.
Put the whole episode behind you.


6 Progress: ahead, along, behind, on, through
Making progress and achieving things is like being on a journey and moving towards your destination. Phrasal verbs with along describe the kind of progress that is being made, while phrasal verbs with ahead and behind express ideas of making good progress or poor progress.
The building work was coming along nicely.
They're content to just muddle along.
He needs to get ahead.
They are pressing ahead with the reforms.
I've fallen behind with my work.
We're lagging behind our competitors.

Phrasal verbs with through describe the process of achieving something or dealing with work.
He has no ability to carry through.
She sailed through her exams.
I ploughed through the work.

Phrasal verbs with on express the idea of continuing with an activity or task: on here has the same meaning as onwards.
I can't carry on.
They kept on until it was finished.


7 Getting involved in an activity: away, in, into, out
We think of activities as if they have physical dimensions, like areas or spaces. In phrasal verbs, in and into express the idea of getting involved, while away and out express the idea of avoiding or ending an involvement.
We joined in the fun.
You're always trying to muscle in.
I flung myself into my work.
They shied away from commitment.
You can't walk away from the relationship.
The British forces pulled out.
He bowed out gracefully.


8 Problems: around, aside, off, over, round
We think of problems and difficulties as if they are physical objects that get in our way. Some phrasal verbs have meanings to do with ignoring problems or behaving as if they do not exist. The metaphorical idea is that we go around or over the things that are in our way, or we push them farther away.
They skirted around/round the issue.
We'll work round the problem somehow.
He brushed aside my objections.
We need to put aside our differences.
I laughed off his criticisms.
He couldn't shake off the allegations.
They glossed over the question of who was going to pay for it.
I tried to smooth things over between them.


9 Power and weakness: down, over, under, up
When one person has power and controls another, we think of the first person as being in a higher position than the second. Some phrasal verbs with over and up express ideas of someone being in control, or becoming more powerful than someone else.

Phrasal verbs with down and under express ideas of someone being forced into a weaker position, or of being controlled or restricted.
He was lording it over me.
The Emperor ruled over a vast area.
They have come up in the world.
She's been moved up to a more responsible job.
The police clamped down on drinking in the streets.
The rebellion was swiftly put down.
Prisoners are kept under constant surveillance.
We had to knuckle under and do what we were told.


10 Relationships: apart, off, together, up
Relationships are like physical connections. Some phrasal verbs with together refer to a close relationship between two people or groups, while ones with apart refer to the ending of a relationship.
We got together in our first year at college.
The whole group clubbed together to buy him a present.
They drifted apart over the years.

Phrasal verbs with up refer to people forming a new relationship, or to a person joining a group.
Two students from each class pair up to produce a short play.
They feel that the international community is ganging up on them.
He has been accused of cosying up to the new US president.

However, some combinations with up and a verb meaning 'break' refer to the ending of a relationship.
He's just broken up with his girlfriend.
Her parents split up a few months ago.

A few phrasal verbs with off refer to a new relationship between two people. The metaphorical idea is that the two people come together and become separate from a larger group.
All our friends seemed to be pairing off.
They tried to marry their daughter off to a wealthy businessman.


11 Communication: across, between, forth, in, into, out, over, through
We think of communication between two people as a connection between them, with information passing from one to the other, often across a large space.
I don't know how to put it across.
I don't seem to be able to get through to them.
The message came over clearly.
Something passed between them.

When one person says something, their words seem to leave them physically. When they are told something, the message or information seems to enter them.
She poured out her problems.
I blurted out his name.
Dave was holding forth on the subject of politics.
She had to repeat her words several times before they finally sank in.
My parents drummed its importance into us.


12 Information and knowledge: into, out, up
We think of things that are not yet known, or that other people may not want us to know, as if they are in a container, or covered or buried. Phrasal verbs with into describe the process of trying to find information from someone or something.
I wrote a letter of complaint, and the airline has promised to look into the matter.
She delved into his past.
You don't want them nosing into your finances.

Some phrasal verbs with out and up express ideas of revealing secrets or finding information, as if they are uncovered or brought to the surface.
She tried not to tell them, but in the end she let it out.
I wormed the information out of him.
We dug up some interesting facts.
They raked up some scandal from his university days.


Further reading

Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Chicago University Press, 1980)
Macmillan Phrasal Verbs Plus, published by Macmillan Publishers Limited. Text © Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2005.