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The truth revealed:
phrasal verbs in
writing and speech

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Focus on Phrasal Verbs:
Pronunciation and stress pattern
of phrasal verbs

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Euphemisms – examples
of lexical camouflage

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Spoken language and the BNC

The truth revealed: phrasal verbs in writing and speech
by Jonathan Marks

• Popular wisdom
• Some facts and figures
• Phrasal verbs in academic writing
• Phrasal verbs in fiction
• A word of warning
• To recapitulate, or sum up
• Further reading
• Acknowledgement
• Next in the series

Popular wisdom

Widespread popular wisdom about phrasal verbs among learners and teachers is that they are:
  •  informal
•  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.

1 Some phrasal verbs are markedly informal, for example:
bum around, palm off, rat on, swan around
2 But some phrasal verbs, conversely, are decidedly formal and/or literary, for example: ascribe to, cast down, complain of, consign to, impinge on, renege on
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.
3 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.
4 Phrasal verbs are common in many types of writing – though not all – as well as in speech. More about this below.
5 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.


Some facts and figures

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 fiction
1800 times per million words in conversation
1400 times per million words in newspapers
800 times per million words in academic writing

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 fiction
4800 times per million words in conversation
4400 times per million words in newspapers
4200 times per million words in academic fiction

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.)


Phrasal verbs in academic writing

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 Press, 1990):

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).


Phrasal verbs in fiction

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 learned:
recovered recurring discerning
enclosed waking recollect
pondered discover recall
arose rousing  

Nevertheless, phrasal verbs do occur as well:
feared for push aside burst in

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 prepositional verbs:

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 woman.
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 stood up.
... 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 forehead.
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 hers.


A word of warning

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 Observer, 19th 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.


To recapitulate, or sum up

1 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 the listener.
2 Phrasal verbs are widespread in written language as well as spoken language.
3 Phrasal verbs are relatively uncommon in academic writing, but by no means entirely absent.
4 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.
5 Widespread use of phrasal verbs is not evidence of lack of education or lack of linguistic competence.


Further reading

The Macmillan Phrasal Verbs Plus dictionary labels phrasal verbs, where appropriate, as:
formal literary
humorous offensive
impolite old-fashioned
informal showing disapproval

It also labels verbs which are used particularly in the contexts of:
business health
computing linguistics
economics technical

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 verbs.



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.


Next in the series

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 items.