The Universe of Discourse
Mon, 10 Jul 2006

Phrasal verbs
My mom teaches English to visiting foreign students, and last time I met her she was talling me about phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb is a verb that incorporates a preposition. Examples include "speed up", "try out", "come across", "go off", "turn down". The prepositional part is uninflected, so "turns down", "turned down", "turning down", not *"turn downs", *"turn downed", *"turn downing". My mom says she uses a book that has a list of all of them; there are several hundred. She was complaining specifically about "go off", which has an unusually peculiar meaning: when the alarm clock goes off in the morning, it actually goes on.

This reminded me that "slow up" and "slow down" are synonymous. And there is "speed up", but no "speed down". And you cannot understand "stand down" by analogy with "stand up", "sit up", and "sit down". And you also cannot understand "nose job" by analogy with "hand job". But I digress.

One of the things about the phrasal verbs that gives the foreign students so much trouble is that the verbs don't all obey the same rules. For example, some are separable and some not. Consider "turned down". I can turn down the thermostat, but I can also turn the thermostat down. And I can try out my new game, and I can also try my new game out. And I can stand up my blind date, and I can stand my blind date up. But while I can come across a fountain in the park, I can't *come a fountain across in the park. And while I can go off to Chicago, I can't *go to Chicago off. There's no way to know which of these work and which not, except just by memorizing which are allowed and which not.

And sometimes the separable ones can't be unseparated. I can give back the map, and I can give the map back, and I can give it back, but I can't *give back it. I can hold up the line, and I can hold the line up, and I can hold us up, but I can't *hold up us. I don't know what the rule is exactly, and I don't want to go to the library again to get the Cambridge Grammar, because last time I did that I dropped it on my toe.

I hadn't realized any of this until I read this article about them, but when I did, I had a sudden flash of insight. I had not realized before what was going on when someone set up us the bomb. "Set up" is separable: I can set up the bomb, or set the bomb up, or someone can set us up. But "us", as noted above, is not deseperable, so you cannot have *set up us. But I think I understand the mistake better now than I did before; it seems less like a complete freak and more like a member of a common type of error.

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