to the Editor
on Phrasal Verbs:
Pronunciation and stress pattern
of phrasal verbs
word of the month
of lexical camouflage
Spoken language and the BNC
Some facts and figures
Phrasal verbs in
Phrasal verbs in
A word of warning
or sum up
Next in the series
Widespread popular wisdom about phrasal verbs among learners
and teachers is that they are:
||characteristic of speech rather than writing
... and perhaps even:
||a bit sloppy or slovenly
||not quite proper
Although there is some basis for at least the first four
of these beliefs, the reality is more complicated.
|Some phrasal verbs are markedly informal, for example:
bum around, palm off, rat on, swan around
|But some phrasal verbs, conversely, are decidedly
formal and/or literary, for example: ascribe to, cast down,
complain of, consign to, impinge on, renege
Note that in many, but not all, of these, the verb is of Latin origin.
On the other hand, some 'Latin' verbs form register-neutral phrasal
verbs, e.g. depend on, involve in.
|The majority of phrasal verbs are neutral, with no
particular stylistic marking. "What time shall we set off?"
is neutral in conversation, while "What time shall we depart?"
is unusually formal.
| Phrasal verbs are common in many types of writing
though not all as well as in speech. More about this
|Phrasal verbs aren't the product of laziness or lack
of education. In many cases they're simply the most common way of
expressing a certain meaning, and when people choose non-phrasal alternatives,
they do so:
||to create a deliberate stylistic incongruity
for humorous effect, e.g. "What time did you rise
this morning?" rather than "What time did you get
up this morning?
||to specify a meaning more precisely. Dress
up and disguise are approximate synonyms, but "I
disguised myself as a monk" suggests an intention
to deceive; this isn't necessarily implied in "I dressed
myself up as a monk", which could refer to a fancy-dress
party. The phrasal verb sail through something means,
more or less, to succeed easily, but "You'll sail through
your exams" seems to have a nuance of effortlessness that
"You'll pass your exams easily" lacks.
According to one source, the Longman Grammar of Spoken
and Written English, 'phrasal verbs' (verb + adverb, e.g. I put
my shoes on) occur:
||1900 times per million words in
||1800 times per million words in
||1400 times per million words in
||800 times per million words in
The proportions are similar to those for lexical verbs
in general, except that the figure for academic writing is disproportionately
low. In other words, the distribution of phrasal verbs across these four
genres is roughly the same as the distribution of verbs in general, but
they are especially rare in academic writing.
However, individual phrasal verbs can have distributions
that go against the grain of this generalisation. For example, carry
out is equally common in newspapers and academic writing, but rare
in conversation and fiction, and point out is more common in academic
writing than in the other three genres.
According to the same source, 'prepositional verbs' (verb
+ preposition, e.g. I put my shoes on the floor) are significantly
more common, occurring:
||6200 times per million words in
||4800 times per million words in
||4400 times per million words in
||4200 times per million words in
Note that they are proportionately much more common than
'phrasal verbs' in academic writing.
'Phrasal-prepositional verbs' (e.g. verb + adverb + preposition,
e.g. look forward to) are comparatively rare, but they are also
most common in fiction (400 occurrences per million words) and least common
in academic writing (only 50 occurrences per million words.)
In academic writing, there are typically quite long stretches
of text devoid of phrasal verbs. Here is a short example from a linguistics
textbook (William Croft's Typology and Universals, Cambridge University
Diachronic typology, like synchronic
typology, involves not just putting constraints on logically possible
types but also discovering relationships among otherwise independent
grammatical parameters. The major type of constraints found on diachronic
language processes are twofold. First, sequences of language states
have been found to represent a step-by-step language process (e.g. adjective
order change > genitive order change > adposition change). Unattested
synchronic states are excluded because they do not adhere to
the sequence of changes entailed by the step-by-step process.
But notice that there is actually one phrasal verb in
this extract: "... they do not adhere to the sequence of changes
...". This is a formal phrasal verb, and so its appearance in such
a formal text is unsurprising – or, to put it another way, it contributes
towards the formality of the text. (In the Macmillan
Phrasal Verbs Plus dictionary, adhere to is a 'two-star'
verb – i.e. 'very common' – and labelled 'formal'.) And more everyday
phrasal verbs do also occur in this type of writing, although not frequently
(e.g. apply to, base on, hang together, turn out).
The fiction component of the corpus on which the Longman
Grammar of Spoken and Written English was based consists mainly of
fiction published after 1950. But phrasal verbs tend to be much less well
represented in earlier fiction. Consider this extract from Emily Brontë's
Wuthering Heights, published in 1847:
- Before I recovered sufficiently
to see and hear, it began to be dawn; and Nelly, I'll tell you what
I thought, and what has kept recurring and recurring till I feared
for my reason – I thought as I lay there, with my head against that
table leg, and my eyes dimly discerning the grey square of the window,
that I was enclosed in the oak-panelled bed at home; and my heart ached
with some great grief which, just waking, I could not recollect – I
pondered, and worried myself to discover what it could be; and most
strangely, the whole last seven years of my life grew a blank! I did
not recall that they had been there at all. I was a child; my father
was just buried, and my misery arose from the separation that Hindley
had ordered between me, and Heathcliff – I was laid alone, for the first
time, and, rousing from a dismal dose after a night of weeping – I lifted
my hand to push the panels aside, it struck the tabletop!
I swept it along the carpet, and then, memory burst in – my late
anguish was swallowed in a paroxysm of despair –
Even though this passage is presented as direct speech
– a long conversational turn – and contains moments of informality such
as "I'll tell you what I thought", the verbs are predominantly
single-word ones, many of them of Latinate origin and some of them rather
Nevertheless, phrasal verbs do occur as well:
Elsewhere in the novel, in dialogue representing more
humdrum interactions, there are short sections where phrasal verbs help
to create a tone that wouldn't be out of place in a modern novel:
... I got up, and walked from the room.
... but I wouldn't turn back ...
But it was so miserable going to bed, and getting up ...
'Sit down and take your hat off, Catherine,' he answered.
It may be instructive to compare this writing from the
Victorian era with a modern work of fiction. The following extract from
David Lodge's Changing Places (1975) describes a character in a
curiously similar situation. Here, the vocabulary in general is mainly
Germanic and the verbs (shown in bold) are mainly idiomatic phrasal and
A searing pain bored into
his hand and shot up his arm. He scrambled out from under
the table, cracking his head on the underside in his haste. He stumbled
round the room, cursing breathlessly, squeezing his right hand under
his left armpit and clasping his right temple with his left hand. With
one eye he was vaguely aware of the fur-coated woman backing away
from him and asking what was the matter.
The following page or so of the novel includes:
'I'll come back another time,' said the
The fur coat loomed over him, ...
He went over to the desk ...
... a little quip about getting your nerve back ...
... but when he turned round ...
The woman ... backed slowly out from under the table and
... stripping off a glove and holding out her hand.
Won't you take off your coat?
I'm sorry to barge in on you like this, ...
I've got to send it on to him.
There are also a few more learned, single-word verbs:
... his hand was firmly removed from his
He withdrew his injured hand ...
... looking rather like a brown bear emerging from hibernation
He smiled and extended his hand.
A more thorough exegesis of this text would doubtless
refer to the humorous effect arising from the juxtaposition of an elevated
style on the one hand, to describe how the man, whose position at this
juncture is anything but elevated, extended his hand, with a neutral
style on the other hand, to describe the woman merely holding out
This kind of stylistic disjuncture is a resource available
to all users of the language, of course, not just novelists. An invocation
such as "Enter, and divest yourself of those
humid garments" can have a humorous and ice-breaking effect not achievable
through the more obvious "Come in, and take those wet
clothes off" – though only between members of a speech community
who appreciate that kind of language play; otherwise, it can come across
as pretentious, patronising and divisive. Speakers need to beware of misjudging
their interlocutor, and to bear in mind that the ability to use words
like divest isn't universally appreciated and admired; sometimes
phrasal verbs like take off are a better tool for the job.
The contemporary novelist Kazuo Ishiguro is castigated
by Philip Hensher (in a review of When We Were Orphans, The
March 2000) for not using the right tools for the job in hand:
His voice is studiedly anonymous, unfailingly
formal and polite [...] There is something troubling about Ishiguro's
prose style that took me a while to pin down, and it's this – he hardly
ever uses a phrasal verb. He is a writer who always prefers to say depart
rather than set off, discover rather than find out.
Ishiguro's avoidance of phrasal
verbs is a major problem [in this novel] – it gives his narrator a circumlocutious,
cautious air which isn't really very helpful. More than that, it gives
him a particular tone of voice which is not that of his social setting.
It is bizarrely unconvincing as an idea of upper-middle-class London in
the 1930s – I think Ishiguro will find that society beauties did not say
'pardon' then and do not now – and the inadequacy can be pinned down to
the narrator's voice, and his choice of verbs, as much as the details.
Here he is on his new digs:
'Although at that point I had
yet to receive a single visitor in my rooms, I issued my invitation
with confidence, having chosen the premises with some care. The rent
was not high, but my landlady had furnished the place in a tasteful
manner that evoked an unhurried Victorian past.'
It may or may not be significant that Ishiguro was born
in Japan, and came to Britain at the age of five. Perhaps he still retains
something of an outsider's attitude to the English language. In any case,
like it or not, his idiosyncratic choice of verbs certainly helps to emphasise
the dissociation of his characters from the surrounding reality. Still,
even he can't avoid phrasal verbs entirely:
As I uttered these last words, the
jazz orchestra suddenly started up within the ballroom. I have
no idea if this was simply a coincidence, but in any case the effect
was to round off my statement rather nicely.
||Some phrasal verbs are informal, and some are formal,
but most are neutral; in this respect they are no different from other
categories of vocabulary. A phrasal verb is often the neutral choice,
and when people avoid using phrasal verbs in such situations, it's
as a display of linguistic versatility, often with a humorous intention,
but this always entails a risk of misjudging the situation and alienating
||Phrasal verbs are widespread in written language
as well as spoken language.
||Phrasal verbs are relatively uncommon in academic
writing, but by no means entirely absent.
||Phrasal verbs are widespread in modern fiction –
apparently more so than in conversation. They are less common in Victorian
and earlier literature, but by no means entirely absent.
||Widespread use of phrasal verbs is not evidence of
lack of education or lack of linguistic competence.
Phrasal Verbs Plus dictionary labels phrasal verbs, where appropriate,
It also labels verbs which are used particularly in the
You can read more about 'Register and Phrasal Verbs'
in Bryan Fletcher's article in the September
issue of MED Magazine.
The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999) contains
a wealth of statistical information and analysis of the use of phrasal
Luke Prodromou alluded to the Ishiguro review in a talk
at an IATEFL Poland conference, and I'm indebted to him for furnishing
me with a copy of it.
Phrasal verbs are often thought of as a discrete and peculiar
sector of the English language. In next month's article, I'll be looking
at how phrasal verbs fit into the larger-scale network of English vocabulary,
following the same semantic and metaphorical patterns as other lexical