MED Magazine - Issue 30 - May 2005

Understanding phrasal verbs: is there a system?
by Michael Rundell

Language and 'rules'

Nowadays, most people who are involved in describing the workings of the English language - and this applies especially to dictionary-writers - will have access to large volumes of corpus data. And what this data consistently shows us is the extent to which people's linguistic behaviour is 'rule-governed'. I use the word 'rule' here not in the sense of instructions and prohibitions which collectively define 'correct' language use, but rather to refer to common patterns of usage which we can observe in language data. Some of these patterns occur with such regularity that they can be regarded as norms which the majority of speakers and writers conform to most of the time. Some norms are obvious and well-known: the basic rules of morphology, for example, tell us that nouns usually add -s or -es in their plural form, and that most verbs form the simple past by adding -ed. Knowing rules of this type is extremely helpful when you are learning a language, because it reduces the load on your memory. There is no need to remember the plural form of every individual English noun you may want to use – you just have to know the singular form of the noun, and then apply a couple of simple rules in order to get its plural. Rules like this make for greater efficiency in the learning process, and large-scale corpus study is gradually revealing that there are a lot more rules and a lot more 'system' in the language than we had previously realised.

But what about phrasal verbs? Everyone knows that phrasal verbs are 'difficult', and this is partly because it is so hard to see any system in them. Phrasal verbs consist of a 'base verb' (such as go, put, or set) and a particle (a word such as down, back, or off). When a learner encounters an unfamiliar phrasal verb, s/he will often know what the base verb means and what the particle means – but put the two together and you get something completely different. Even beginners know what put means and what off means, but that won't help them to guess the various meanings of put off. There is plenty of teaching material that has tried to address this problem, but it usually focuses more on explaining how phrasal verbs work, rather than on why they behave in the way they do. The learner is still left with the feeling that it is all very arbitrary and random, and that – since there don't appear to be any obvious rules – phrasal verbs just have to be individually learned and remembered.

Several dictionaries of phrasal verbs have tried to tackle the problem by looking at the particles that regularly appear in phrasal verbs, and indicating what each of them 'means'. Many phrasal verbs dictionaries now have a 'particle index' that aims to show what semantic information a particle contributes to the phrasal verbs of which it is a component. This is fine as far as it goes, but what limits all these attempts is that they describe but they do not really explain. In the end, students are still left with a collection of different meaning areas which simply have to be memorised.

When we were planning Phrasal Verbs Plus – a new dictionary of phrasal verbs which has recently joined the Macmillan Dictionaries family – we decided to have another look at the common particles and see whether we could identify any systematic patterns in the way they are used. It is clear, as Sylvie de Cock points out in her article on 'Learners and Phrasal Verbs' (in the Language Study section of Phrasal Verbs Plus), that meaning is a major problem area for learners:

By far the most common type of error made by learners when using phrasal verbs are semantic errors, reflecting an incomplete understanding of the meaning of phrasal verbs.

De Cock's analysis of students' writing shows that they often use the right verb with the wrong particle, or the right particle with the wrong verb.

Conceptual metaphor, and its relevance to phrasal verbs

Is there a solution? If we believe – as I do – that the linguistic choices made by fluent speakers are not arbitrary, then it follows that we need to look harder at our corpus data in order to discover the 'rules' that underlie our choice of particles in phrasal verbs. In the Macmillan English Dictionary (MED), we have already shown that many of the (apparently unconnected) words and idioms used for describing a particular idea are in fact linked by an underlying 'conceptual metaphor'. For example, MED's 'Metaphor Box' at angry shows how expressions like 'a heated debate, 'a fiery temper', 'an inflammatory remark' and 'getting hot under the collar' are all connected by the fact that when English-speakers talk about anger, they unconsciously refer to a metaphor in which 'being angry is like getting hot or being on fire'. (See Issues 13 to 19 of this webzine for a short series on metaphor.)

Conceptual metaphor is clearly a powerful tool for helping us to understand a great deal of idiomatic language, so it is reasonable to believe that it may also help us to unravel the mysteries of phrasal verbs and their particles. In her article on 'Metaphor and Phrasal Verbs' (in the Language Study section of Phrasal Verbs Plus), Rosamund Moon admits that the meanings of phrasal verbs often 'seem to have no connection with the words that they consist of'. But she goes on to show that the way in which common particles combine with verbs to create new meanings can often be explained in terms of conceptual metaphors.

Most of the common phrasal verb particles are – in their basic meanings – words which describe positions in space: up, down, in, out, on and off all have literal uses that relate to 'spatial orientation'. Many of these concepts also have figurative uses which are found in many languages: for example, the ideas of being 'up' or 'down' are often equated metaphorically with quantities and with power. If an amount goes up it becomes larger, if it goes down it becomes smaller. Similarly, people in powerful positions are thought of as being 'high up', whereas the weak and powerless are 'down at the bottom'. As Moon explains, these progressions from literal to metaphorical are by no means arbitrary, but are rooted in our physical experiences in life:

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.

We can see here the beginnings of a fairly systematic process, in which the basic, 'spatial' particles develop new and more abstract meanings. As these particles combine with common verbs to form phrasal verbs, the metaphorical meanings of the particles contribute to our understanding of the whole phrasal verb. Thus, when someone leaves a powerful position, we say they step down, or if a dictator is removed from office he is brought down. In each case, we can see that the choice of particle is not at all arbitrary: it is the particle down – with its association with loss of power – which gives us the best clue to the meanings of the phrasal verb.

Common Particles in Phrasal Verbs Plus

In Phrasal Verbs Plus, we have started from the principle that it is possible to observe the process by which a simple spatial particle gradually acquires new meanings. The result is a set of 12 'Common Particle' sections, which – for the first time – really explain the connections between the various meanings that the major particles take on. Each particle section has three components:

a diagram showing how the particle's meanings can be traced from small number of literal senses to a large number of more abstract ideas
a table showing each of these meanings, and giving examples of how they are used in phrasal verbs
a list of phrasal verbs whose meanings illustrate the influence of the particle in one of its main senses

A case study: the particle back

To give a better idea of how the Common Particle sections work, let's look at the section which explains back (see this pdf for this section in the dictionary). Having analyzed thousands of contexts in which back is used in combination with a verb, we have identified three basic, literal meanings:

returning to a place you were in before: She left the room and came back ten minutes later.
moving backwards, away from the front: Please stand back to let the doctor through.
preventing someone from moving forward: Armed police kept the crowd back.

From each of these literal senses, a number of other meanings have arisen. One of these is the idea of 'returning to an earlier time', exemplified in expressions like:

In the story, an elderly lady looks back to her childhood in pre-war Vienna.
Think back to the moment when you first saw her.

We know that the abstract notion of time is often conceptualised in terms of space: we talk about past events being 'behind us', and we think of the future as being 'ahead of us'. Following this common metaphor, back's basic 'returning' meaning is easily extended to include the idea of returning to an earlier time. From here, there is a simple progression to the ideas of returning to a previous point in a discussion (I'd like to go back to a point you made in your introduction), or to a previous condition (He soon bounced back after his illness). This in turn leads us to the notion of giving someone something that they had before (I'll pay back the money as soon as I can). And finally, we can see a link between this last meaning and the idea of doing something as a reaction to what someone else has done (She hit back at her critics, Don't talk back to the teacher).

This shows how one of back's three basic meanings acquires a series of more abstract uses, through a process which may look complicated at first, but which is in fact quite systematic and easy to understand. For each of the three basic meanings of back, this process is illustrated graphically in the diagram, then explained with real examples.

Over 80% of the verbs in Phrasal Verbs Plus include one of the 12 major particles whose networks of meaning are explained in these special sections. We can't claim to have completely solved the mystery of phrasal verbs. But we believe we have made a useful contribution to discovering some underlying 'rules' that will help language learners to remember the meanings of phrasal verbs and to feel more confident about using them.


Macmillan English Dictionary, published by Macmillan Publishers Limited. Text © Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2002.
Macmillan Phrasal Verbs Plus, published by Macmillan Publishers Limited. Text © Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2005.

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