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A Comparative Grammatical Description of Modern English Phrasal Verbs and Old English Verb-Particle Constructions

Verb-particle constructions are a characteristic feature of the highly periphrastic Modern English verb system (Fischer et al. 2000:180). Modern verb-particle constructions, which are most frequently termed phrasal verbs, are formed by a verb followed by at least one preposition functioning as a particle (Kosur 2008:1; Fraser 1976:1; Elenbaas 2007:9). A particle is a grammatical function that describes a function word (a word that performs a definite grammatical function but that lacks a definite lexical meaning) that expresses a grammatical relationship with another word or words. Like other periphrastic constructions in Modern English, the phrasal verb forms a semantic constituent whose meaning is not determined by combining the meanings of the verb and preposition as individual parts but rather by understanding the whole phrasal verb as a single lexical item (Kosur 2008:1). For example, the meaning of the phrasal verb set out “embark” cannot be determined by combining the meaning of the verb set “put, place” with the meaning of the preposition out “not in.” Other common examples of phrasal verbs in Modern English include wake up, look up, throw up, get up, pass out, and log on.

Aside from its unique form (verb-preposition[s]), the distinguishing feature of the modern phrasal verb is the variation and flexibility of its syntax (Elenbaas 2007:12-14). Phrasal verbs in Modern English fall into one of four categories: intransitive, nonseparable transitive, optionally separable transitive, and obligatorily separable transitive. The syntax of intransitive and nonseparable transitive phrasal verbs is identical to that of other English verbs, i.e., subject-verb-(direct object) as in The guests finally showed up and The woman ran into an old friend at the supermarket (Kosur 2008:2-3). The syntax of optionally separable and obligatorily separable phrasal verbs, however, is unique to phrasal verbs within the English verb system. Optionally separable transitive phrasal verbs like call off “cancel” and fill in “complete” have two possible word order patterns; the preposition functioning as a particle may appear directly after the verb (verb-particle-direct object) or immediately following the direct object (verb-direct object-particle) (Kosur 2008:4). For example, The Dean called off the meeting and The Dean called the meeting off are both grammatically possible constructions in Modern English syntax. The direct object of an optionally separable transitive phrasal verb must be a grammatical form other than a pronoun. Similarly, obligatorily separable phrasal verbs require that the preposition separate from the verb and follow the direct object (verb-direct object-preposition) as in You figured it out (Kosur 2008:5). An optionally separable transitive phrasal verb becomes obligatorily separable when the form of the direct object is a pronoun, e.g., He filled out the form, He filled the form out, and He filled it out. With two possible syntactic patterns (verb-preposition-[direct object] and verb-direct object-preposition), modern phrasal verbs differ from prototypical English verbs in which no part of the verb phrase functioning as the predicate can separate and follow an object.

Similar verb-particle constructions also existed in Old English. For example, the verbs utstician “to stick out, to poke out” and ofslean “to strike from, to cut off” that appear in The Old English Orosius (1) are verb-particle constructions:

(1) …þa sticode him mon þa eagan ut, & siþþan him mon slog þa handa of
…then stuck him one the eyes out, and afterwards him one struck the hands from
…then one poked his eyes out, and afterwards one cut his hands off… (OR 4)

Akin to separable prefix verbs in Modern German and Modern Dutch, Old English verb-particle constructions consist of a verb with a separable prefix in the form of a preposition or an adverb that functions as a particle (Fischer et al. 2000:182; Kosur 2008:1). Such verb-particle constructions differ from other Old English verbs with nonseparable prepositional or adverbial prefixes in that the particle can separate from the verb (Mitchell 1987:443; Elenbaas 2007:105); for example, the prefix to of the nonseparable prefix verb toberan “to remove, to carry off” cannot detached from the verb beran but the particle ut of the verb-particle combination utstician can separate from the verb stician. The most frequent prepositions and adverbs that function as particles in Old English are adun “down,” aweg “away,” forþ “forth,” fram “from,” ofer “across,” to “towards, at,” up “up,” and ut “out” (Fisher et al. 2008:182; Elenbaas 2007:137).

Like the particle of the phrasal verb in Modern English which is distinguished from other verb-preposition and verb-adverb constructions through word order, the particle in the verb-particle construction of Old English exhibits similar variation and flexibility in its syntax compared to verbs with nonseparable prefixes. According to Fischer et al. (2000:183-184), prepositions and adverbs functioning as particles in Old English exhibit unique syntactic behavior different from prefixes within four grammatical environments: (1) negated verb phrases, (2) inflected infinitives, (3) preterite-present verbs, and (4) preposition stranding. First, when an Old English verb phrase that contains a verb-particle construction is negated, the negative adverb (or negative particle) ne “not” always directly precedes the verb, thus separating the particle from the verb (Fischer et al. 2000:183; Mitchell 1987:445). For example, the adverb ne comes between the particle and the verb in the verb forðbringan “to bring forth” in (2):

(2) …forþam seo lease wyrd hi na forð ne bringð
…because the false fate them no forth not bring
…because the false fate did not bring them forth… (Bo)

Second, when the preposition to functioning as an infinitive marker immediately precedes an inflected infinitive, the particle separates from the verb and comes before the to (Fischer et al. 2000:183; Elenbaas 2007:132). For example, the preposition to separates the particle from the verb in the separable prefix verb utadrifan “to drive out” in (3):

(3) …deofolseocnessa ut to adrifanne.
…demoniacal possession out to drive.
…to drive out demoniacal possession. (Mk [WSCp])

Third, when an Old English verb phrase contains a preterite-present verb (which become modal verbs in Modern English), the particle may separate from the verb. For example, the particle separates from the verb utwurpan “to throw out” in the verb phrase ut sceoldon wurpan “should throw out” in (4):

(4) …hi hine ut sceoldon wurpan.
…they him out should throw.
…they should throw him out. (LS 8 [Eust])

Fourth, when a preposition is stranded from its prepositional complement as in an adjective clause, the particle may also separate from the verb. For example, the stranded preposition of comes between the particle and the verb of the verb utgongan “to go out, to leave” in (5):

(5) …ðæt we ænige ðinga furðum ðæt ealond gesecan meahton, ðæt we ær ut  of gongende wæron.
…that we in any way even the island to seek could, that we before out from going were.
….that we could even seek in any way the island from which we were going out before. (Bede 5)

Old English verb-particle constructions are clearly distinguishable from nonseparable prefix verbs within the grammatical environments of negation, inflected infinitives, preterite-present verbs, and stranded prepositions.

In addition to the unique syntax identified by Fischer et al. (2000:183-184), verb-particle constructions in Old English also exhibit other syntactic behavior similar to modern phrasal verbs. Like nonseparable transitive phrasal verbs, the particle of a verb-particle construction may directly precede the verb as in utaspatan “to spit out, to spew out” in (6):

(6) …& hine þær ut aspaw.
…and him there out spit.
…and spit him out there. (ÆCHom I, 18)

When the particle precedes the verb, a direct object may come between the two elements of the verb-particle construction. For example, the noun functioning as a direct object æpla “apples” comes between the particle and the verb upberan “to bear up, to bring forth” in (7):

(7) Ic on neorxnawonge niwe asette treow mid telgum, þæt ða tanas up æpla bæron
I in paradise newly set up tree with branches, that the boughs up apples bore
I recently place a tree with branches whose boughs brought forth apples in paradise… (Sat)

Like phrasal verbs in Modern English, the particle of a verb-particle construction in Old English may also separate from the verb and follow a direct object that immediately proceeds the verb. For example, the particle up of the verb upahebban “to raise up, to lift up” detaches from the verb and follows the direct object in the form of a noun phrase mine eagan “my eyes” in (8) and ut separates from utdrifan and follows the pronominal direct object hine “him” in (9):

(8) Ic nabuchodonosor ahof mine eagan up to heofonum.
I Nabuchodonosar raised my eyes up to heavens.
I, Nabuchodonosar, raised my eyes up to the heavens. (ÆCHom II, 33)

(9) …& hig drifon hine ut.
…and they drove him out.
…and they drove him out. (Jn [WSCp])

When the word order of an Old English sentence is verb-subject-(object), the particle may separate from the verb and follow the subject. For example, the subject pronoun hi “they” comes between the separated verb-particle construction utferan in (10):

(10) …þa on niht ferdon hi ut, and genamon unc and ferdon to sæ and ut reowan.
…then during night went they out, and took us two and went to sea and out rowed.
…then during the night they set out and took us two and went to sea and rowed out. (LS 8 [Eust])

And, unlike the modern phrasal verb, the particle may also separate from the verb and follow the subject and direct object (and sometimes the indirect object) when the word order is inverted. For example, the particle ut separates from the verb utstician and follows the pronominal indirect object him “him” (which imperfectly translates into his or of him in Modern English), the pronominal subject mon “one,” and the nominal direct object þa eagan “the eyes” in (11):

(11 )…þa sticode him mon þa eagan ut
…then stuck him one the eyes out
…then one poked his eyes out… (OR 4)

Thus, like with the phrasal verb in Modern English, the syntax of the verb-particle construction in Old English exhibits a range of variation and flexibility.

Combinations of verbs and prepositions or adverbs that function as particles are a unique verb form characteristic of the English language. In Modern English, such verb-particle constructions are referred to as phrasal verbs. Modern phrasal verbs are unique in that the syntax of the particle is variable. For nontransitive and nonseparable transitive phrasal verbs, the particle must directly follow the verb. With obligatorily separable phrasal verbs, the particle must separate from the verb and come immediately after the direct object. However, the syntax of optionally separable phrasal verbs is flexible; the particle may precede or proceed the direct object. The verb-particle construction of Old English exhibits similar syntactic variability which helps distinguish it from similar verbs with nonseparable prepositional or adverbial prefixes. Unlike with nonseparable prefix verbs, the particle of a verb-particle construction often detaches from the verb within one of four grammatical environments: (1) negated verb phrases, (2) inflected infinitives, (3) preterite-present verbs, and (4) preposition stranding. Old English verb-particle constructions also exhibit syntactic variability in relation to subjects and objects similar to the word order variation of modern phrasal verbs in relation to direct objects.

References

Elenbaas, Marion. The Synchronic and Diachronic Syntax of the English Verb-Particle Combination. The Netherlands: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics, 2007.
Fischer, Olga, Ans van Kemenade, Willem Koopman, and Wim van der Wurff. “Verb-particles in Old and Middle English.” The Syntax of Early English. Cambridge, English: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 180-210.
Fraser, Bruce. The Verb-Particle Combination in English. New York: Academic Press, 1976.
Kosur, Heather Marie. “Phrasal Verbs: The Elephant Is a Whole, Not Its Parts.”
Mitchell, Bruce. Old English Syntax: Concord, the Parts of Speech, and the Sentence. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Editions Used

ÆCHom I, 18: In Letania maiore: Clemoes, 1997 317-24; Clemoes, P.A.M. Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: The First Series, Text, EETS s.s. 17 (Oxford).
ÆCHom II, 33: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: Godden, 1979 249-54; Godden, M. Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: The Second Series, Text, EETS s.s. 5 (London).
Bede 5: Bede, History of the English Church and Nation, Book 5 and Genealogy: Miller, 1890-98 384-488; Miller, T. The Old English Version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 4 vols., EETS 95, 96, 110, 111 (London) [repr. 1959-63].
Bo: Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy: Sedgefield, 1899 7-149; Sedgefield, W.J. King Alfred’s Old English Version of Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae (Oxford) [repr. Darmstadt 1968].
Jn (WSCp): John (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS. 140): Skeat, 1871-87 12-186; Skeat, W.W. The Four Gospels in Anglo-Saxon, Northumbrian, and Old Mercian Versions (Cambridge) [repr. Darmstadt 1970].
LS 8 (Eust): Saint Eustace and his Companions: Skeat, 1881-1900 II, 190-218; Skeat, W.W. Ælfric’s Lives of Saints, 4 vols., EETS 76, 82, 94, 114 (London) [repr. in 2 vols. 1966].
Mk (WSCp): Mark (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS. 140): Skeat, 1871-87 8-134; Skeat, W.W. The Four Gospels in Anglo-Saxon, Northumbrian, and Old Mercian Versions (Cambridge) [repr. Darmstadt 1970].
OR 4: Orosius, Book 4: Bately, 1980 83-113; Bately, J. The Old English Orosius, EETS, s.s. 6 (London).
Sat: Christ and Satan: Krapp, 1931 135-58; Krapp, G.P. The Junius Manuscript, ASPR 1 (New York).

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