In this Issue
Letters to the Editor
Write to Us
Spread the Word
Metaphor and phrasal verbs
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.
Look at these pairs of sentences: the phrasal verbs are
shown in bold type.
Two planes were shot down.
Burglars had broken into their
house while they were away.
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.
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,
The metaphorical uses of these particles develop
from these literal ones:
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.
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.
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.
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:
But the following pairs although they look like
opposites mean almost the same thing:
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.
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
Out expresses ideas of something becoming wider
or fuller, covering a greater extent, or lasting for a longer time:
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
Phrasal verbs with through describe the process
of achieving something or dealing with work.
Phrasal verbs with on express the idea of continuing
with an activity or task: on here has the same meaning as onwards.
7 Getting involved
in an activity: away, in, into, out
8 Problems: around,
aside, off, over, round
Phrasal verbs with down and under express
ideas of someone being forced into a weaker position, or of being controlled
apart, off, together, up
Phrasal verbs with up refer to people forming a
new relationship, or to a person joining a group.
However, some combinations with up and a verb meaning
'break' refer to the ending of a relationship.
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.
across, between, forth, in, into, out,
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.
and knowledge: into, out, up
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.