Reader Friday: Phrasal Verbs, When an Adverb Is Not an Adverb

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Phrase verb

Phrasal verb

Preposition verb

This information was never discussed in my high school English class, or else I was sleeping that day. With our great disdain for adverbs, I find this subject particularly appealing, like discussing a forbidden topic. So, let’s dive in.

What is a phrase verb? According to Merriam-Webster, “a phrase (such as take off or look down on) that combines a verb with a preposition or adverb or both and that functions as a verb whose meaning is different from the combined meanings of the individual words.”

What is a preposition verb? A phrase verb that combines a verb with a preposition, like call on.

What is a phrasal verb? A phrase verb that combines a verb with an adverb, like call up.

Phrase verbs vs. phrasal verbs vs. preposition verbs?

Constance Hale, in her book, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, Let Verbs Power Your Writing, discusses this topic in Chapter 11, “Two-Stroke Engines.”

She uses the term “phrasal verb” instead of “phrase verb,” and states that “phrasal verb” can be used to include both adverbs and prepositions. And further, distinguishing between them becomes splitting hairs. So, let’s use “phrasal verb” and include both adverbs and prepositions.

The History

The first phrasal verb recorded, 1154, was to give up. This verb form multiplied greatly in Late Middle English, and in 1755 Samuel Johnson described them in his 1755 dictionary as a “wildly irregular” form. But, it wasn’t until the mid-1920s that Logan Pearsall Smith gave them a name – Phrasal Verbs. And, as an example of how they have exploded in recent history with new creations and word combinations and new uses, in 2012 the verb set (with all its combinations) took up more space in the Oxford English Dictionary than any other word with 60,000 words.

When you start looking, you will find them everywhere, and you’ll be asking, “Is that an adverb or a phrasal verb?”

Here’s a link to an extensive list of phrasal verbs:

Tell us what you think about this “wildly irregular” form.

Fire up your fingers and give a shout out to your favorite mash ups. Or, if you despise these little fast-breeding beasties, lay out your rationale for why we should put our fist down and kick them out of the English lexicon. And let us know in a year how that works out.

Other discussion questions for phrasal verbs:

  • What are some of your favorites?
  • What are some that you detest?
  • What are some that seem to be unique to your region?
  • And, finally, are there any that you would like to invent?

27 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Phrasal Verbs, When an Adverb Is Not an Adverb

  1. We must have been absent the same day, Steve. Phrasal verb is a new term to me, also. Thanks for adding to our education.

    Here’s an insult:

    “I have two words for you. The first is a verb, the second is a pronoun.”

    Funny to watch the insultee’s puzzled expression as they try to figure out what you said.

    “Shut up” is my least favorite.

    “Load up” (get in the vehicle) is mostly used in midwest and western states.

    Before I can invent new phrasal verbs, I need to caffeine up.

    FYI to TKZ community: The site is having problems with posts and comments disappearing. Our intrepid webmaster Brian is working on it.

    • Glad I’m not the only one who hadn’t heard of phrasal verbs before.

      Great choices, Debbie, for examples. One that I hear in our neck of the woods occasionally is “Rid up” – to clean out and throw away the unnecessary. That one is hard for me. I tend to save everything.

      If you invent any new phrasal verbs, after you caffeine up, let us know.

      Have a great bang up day!

  2. “keep up” seems to be the phrasal verb of choice for me since I’d never heard of this term before (and it gives me a headache to have one more thing to think about. LOLOL!!!!!)

    • That’s one of the favorites for coaches around here to use. Always pushing.

      I had a math teacher in middle school who was from the South. When he entered the noisy classroom, he would shout, “Quieten down, now, y’all!”

      Thanks for stopping by, BK. Hope you get caught up.

  3. Great post, Steve. I don’t recall hearing about phrasal verbs before. According to Wikipedia, this is a subject for English as a Second Language courses, but I’m surprised I didn’t encounter it growing up. Then again, grammar wasn’t covered much when I was in school, alas.

    “Look forward to” is a favorite of mine.

    Agree with Debbie about “Load up” being used here in the West.

    “Takes after” was an expression by mother and her mother’s generation used, but I rarely here it any more.

    Fingers crossed this and the other comments stay in place today.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Thanks, Dale. It’s interesting that this subject is covered in English-as-a-second-language courses, but not often covered in regular English classes. It must be terribly confusing to somebody learning English as a second language, given the huge list of such phrases.

      I thought it would be interesting to get everyone’s take on the subject, given our attempt to avoid adverbs.

      Yes, I hope all the comments stay on the site today, and none are erased.

      Have a great weekend!

    • Thanks, Deb. You guys are making me feel better, telling me the subject is new to you, as well. Maybe the anti-adverb crowd were hiding the information from us.

      I like “pony up.” It sounds like a winning gambler, in a saloon, asking the losers to “pay up.”

      Have a wonderful weekend!

  4. I have never heard of phrasal verbs either, but thanks for explaining them. Makes a lot of sense.

    I don’t have a favorite, but this does remind me of a workshop I watched a few weeks ago on editing. The presenter was pointing out unnecessary words you can easily cut. He said: “sit down? As opposed to what? Nod your head? As opposed to what? Stand up? As opposed to what?”

    • Thanks for your comments, Azali.

      The workshop you watched, is the point of this post. The constant attempt to remove all adverbs from our writing sometimes goes too far. Some of those “adverbs” are “particles” from a phrasal verb, i.e. not an adverb. Now, one could make the point that “sit down” is actually just a verb and an adverb, and using “sit” would work just as well. (removing the “down” doesn’t change the meaning of the “sit”). And the same with “stand up” (but not “stand up for”). But your points are well taken.

      Thanks for pointing out this subtle difference. And I better stop, because I am not an English teacher.

      Thanks for contributing!

      • It is also possible to sit up or stand down, depending on the individual’s previous posture. One can throw down a gauntlet, as well as throw up one’s cookies or throw up an obstacle.

        I’m reminded of a child’s question to a baby sitter regarding a particular book: “What did you bring that book I don’t like to be read to out of up for?”

    • Yes, Kay, a slow day indeed. That reminds me that my high school English teacher always continued talking after the bell rang for the next period, and students were leaving the class. I was sometimes the last one out, and she was still talking. She must have lectured on phrasal verbs when the room was empty.

      “Carry on” is a great example, and a good reminder to avoid loitering, and keep busy. Just what I needed to hear.

      Have a carry on day!

  5. Terrific post, Steve. Phrasal verb is new to me.

    My British friends say, “Bugger off.” The polite version of a popular swear ending with “off.” LOL

    Hope you have a wonderful weekend!

    • Good morning, Sue. We are definitely establishing that our English classes were deficient.

      I would have guessed that “bugger off” meant something more like “waddle off.” Thanks for the education. I’ll be certain to not use that phrasal verb around Brits.

      This seems like an area of the English language that is very regional. And a good excuse to travel for research.

      Have a great weekend!

  6. A workshop attendee recently used the phrase, “…nodded his head.” I enquired whether it would be possible to nod any other part of the anatomy. “Could he nod his butt? His elbow? His uvula?” She answered, “It depends on what planet he is from.”

    A British visitor once replied, “How come?” From his intonation and Alec Guinnessy smirk, I knew he was deliberately using an Americanism. I introduced him to several pages on the latter in Britannica (’26 or ’29 Edition.)

    • Thanks for stopping by, JG.

      Yes, the British don’t appreciate how we Americans have butchered the English language. But, the first phrasal verb was recorded in 1154. I doubt that was in the colonies.

      It would be interesting to see a list of phrasal verbs commonly used by the British.

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