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?