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Phrasal Verbs: The Elephant Is a Whole, Not Its Parts

Although grammatical relationships among forms of lexemes are expressed through either inflection or periphrasis, English is a highly periphrastic language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2008), periphrasis is defined as “a phrase of two or more words used to express a grammatical relationship which would otherwise be expressed by the inflection of a single word.” Examples of periphrasis include the verbal aspects progressivity as in is sleeping, perfectivity as in has eaten, and perfect-progressivity as in had been biting as well as the comparative adjective as in more cunning and superlative adjective as in most adorable. Phrasal verbs such as fall through and squirrel away are also forms of periphrasis in the English language (Courtney 1983: 178, 602). Formed by a verb phrase followed by a marooned preposition or p-word, the phrasal verb forms a semantic constituent whose meaning is not determined by the verb phrase or preposition or p-word as individual parts but rather by the whole phrasal verb as a single lexical item (Hopper 1999: 122; Tyler and Evans 2003: 62; DeCarrico 2000: 132-133; Williams 1970: 287). More simply, phrasal verbs are periphrastic because two or more words create a single grammatical category.

Akin to Modern German and Dutch, many verbs in Old English consisted of verbs with separable preposition or p-word prefixes (Fischer et al. 2000: 182; Williams 1970: 286; Strang 1974: 275). For example, the Modern German aufwachen meaning “to wake up” and the Modern Dutch uitlachen meaning “to laugh at” both consist of the separable preposition or p-word prefixes auf and uit and the verbs wachen and lachen (Fischer et al 2000: 182). When verbs with separable preposition or p-word prefixes are conjugated, however, the preposition or p-word prefix “separates” from the beginning of the verb to the end of the predicate phrase as in ich wache morgens auf meaning “I wake up in the morning.” Phrasal verbs, single semantic units formed by a verb phrase followed by a marooned preposition or p-word such as wake up, only developed in the English language during the Middle English Period (Smith 2005: 104). According to Barbara M. H. Strang in A History of English (1974: 275), the separable nature of certain intransitive verbs with preposition or p-word prefixes produced many patterns in which the separated preposition or p-word prefix immediately followed the verb as in the Modern German du kommst auf meaning “you arise” or “you get up” and wir kommen an meaning “we arrive.” Such syntax in which the preposition or p-word followed instead of preceded the verb became the preferred word order in English, which consequently developed into the modern phrasal verb (Strang 1974: 275). The English phrasal verb is therefore a rather Germanic verb construction.

Similar to nonperiphrastic verbs such as cough in The baby coughed and sneeze in My puppy sneezed on my hand, phrasal verbs may be intransitive. Intransitive verbs including intransitive phrasal verbs differ from transitive verbs in that intransitive verbs cannot or do not take objects (Jacobs 1995: 248). For example, the verb cough is always intransitive as in The baby coughed or The baby coughed during the night because cough cannot take an object as in *The baby coughed mucus or *The baby coughed the formula. Many phrasal verbs are also intransitive (Jacobs 1995: 248). In the sentences He finally showed up by the end of the party and My puppy woke up early, the phrasal verbs show up meaning “to arrive” and wake up meaning “to awake” are both intransitive because neither take objects in the example sentences. Other intransitive phrasal verbs include get up as in She got up from bed, break down as in The car broke down on the highway, die down as in The commotion finally died down, and run away as in The delinquent ran away from home (Courtney 1983: 47, 132, 231, 521). The preposition or p-word functioning as a particle almost always directly follows the verb in intransitive phrasal verb constructions as in She threw up on the floor but not *She threw on the floor up.

Phrasal verbs, like other nonperiphrastic verbs such as eat as in The cat eats her pâté and nibble as in The puppy nibbled the leaf, may also be transitive. Unlike intransitive verbs that cannot or do not have objects, transitive verbs require direct objects and may also take indirect objects (O’Dwyer 2000: 60). Most phrasal verbs, however, only take direct objects. For example, the verbs deck out and soak up as in We decked out the house for the holidays and He soaked up the information both have direct objects in the form of the noun phrases the house and the information making both phrasal verbs transitive (Courtney 1983: 125, 590). Within the transitive category, phrasal verbs may be either nonseparable or separable. Phrasal verbs in which the preposition or p-word functioning as a particle cannot move or be separated from the position directly following the verb are nonseparable (Jacobs 1993: 249). Nonseparable phrasal verbs include run into as in She ran into an old friend, stand by as in He will always stand by his wife, go for as in The cat went for the rabbit in the garden, and come across as in Lyndsey came across a rare book in the stacks (Jacobs 1993: 249). The prepositions or p-words in all the examples of the nonseparable phrasal verbs can only appear immediately after the verb. Therefore, the syntax of the phrasal verb ran into in the sentence She ran into an old friend is grammatically possible in English but *She ran an old friend into is not.

The phrasal verbs look up and chew out differ from nonseparable phrasal verbs in that the preposition or p-word functioning as a particle may appear directly after the verb or immediately following the direct object without changing the function of the preposition or p-word (Jacobs 1993: 248; Justice and Ezell 2002: 147). For example, both My mom chewed out my baby brother for being late and My mom chewed my baby brother out for being late are grammatically possible in English. According to Joseph M. Williams in Origins of the English Language: A Social and Linguistic History (1975), the separable phrasal verb construction developed as a result of the relative flexibility in the syntax of prepositions or p-words to direct objects (286-287). As abovementioned, many verbs in Old English consisted of verbs preceded by separable preposition or p-word prefixes, which moved to the end of the predicate phrase during conjugation (Williams 1970: 286). Up until the fourteenth century during the evolution of such verbs into modern phrasal verbs, the preposition or p-word in the new verb form consisting of a verb directly followed by a preposition or p-word could appear either before or after the direct object in the form of a noun phrase (Williams 1970: 286). As such prepositions or p-words stopped functioning as heads of prepositional phrases and began functioning as particles in phrasal verb constructions, the position of the preposition or p-word remained flexible (Williams 1970: 286). Therefore, while the Old English syntax of the phrasal verb look up would more closely resemble the Modern English He looked the word up and the Modern English construction should only be He looked up the word, both syntaxes remained grammatically possible for separable phrasal verbs in Modern English (Williams 1970: 287). That certain transitive phrasal verbs are separable further supports the idea that the English phrasal verb is highly Germanic in form.

Many separable phrasal verbs, however, are only optionally separable when the direct object is a noun phrase in any form other than a pronoun. Two word orders, verb-preposition/p-word-noun phrase and verb-noun phrase-preposition/p-word, are possible when the direct object is a prototypical noun phrase consisting of a noun and any number of modifiers (Fischer et al. 2000: 180). However, when the direct object is in the form of a pronoun, the preposition or p-word functioning as a particle must be separated from the verb (Jacobs 1995: 249). For example, the phrasal verb check out is optionally separable as in Many patrons check out this book and Many patrons check this book out because the direct object of the verb phrase is the noun phrase this book consisting of the determinative this and the noun book without any pronouns. If, conversely, the direct object this book is replaced by the pronoun it, then the phrasal verb check out is obligatorily separable. Therefore, the construction Many patrons check it out is grammatically possible in English but *Many patrons check out it is not because phrasal verbs with pronoun direct objects must be separable. Many prescriptive grammarians argue against the placement of the preposition or p-word after the noun phrase, stating that ending sentences with prepositions is ungrammatical according to proscriptive grammar rules. Prescriptive grammarians also claim that phrasal verbs are colloquial in register and should be avoided in formal writing because more formal nonperiphrastic synonyms also exist i.e. get up ~ arise, wake up ~ awake, look up ~ consult (Smith 2005: 104). But, the obligatorily separable construction of phrasal verbs with pronouns functioning as direct objects only strengthens the Germanic nature and therefore legitimateness of phrasal verbs in the English language.

Within the four different types — intransitive, nonseparable transitive, optionally separable transitive, and obligatorily separable transitive — phrasal verbs remain periphrastic forms whose meaning is derivable only from the combination of the verb and preposition or p-word as a single semantic unit (DeCarrico 2000: 132-133; Tyler and Evans 2003: 62). In the example He looks up the word, the meaning of the phrasal verb look up cannot be determined by the meanings of the individual verb look meaning “to visually turn attention to” and the individual preposition or p-word up meaning “at a higher point” (Fischer et al. 2000: 180). When he looks up the word, he is not visually turning his attention to a word at some higher point; he is instead searching for or consulting the word probably in a dictionary or some other reference material. That the meaning of phrasal verbs cannot be inferred by simply combining the meanings of the verb and preposition or p-word further indicates that phrasal verbs are single semantic units (Fischer et al. 2000: 180). The preposition or p-word, which in addition to the verb comprises the phrasal verb, no longer functions like a prototypical preposition or p-word but rather functions as a particle, which is part of the verb (Justice and Ezell 2002: 146). The preposition or p-word functioning as a particle in the phrasal verb look up in the example He looks up the word is therefore more grammaticized than the preposition or p-word functioning as a complement in the prepositional verbs look at or look out in the examples He looks at the sky and He looks out the window (Tyler and Evans 2003: 62). Thus, phrasal verbs are periphrastic verb constructions because the grammatical relationship is expressed not through inflection but through two or more words.


Courtney, Rosemary. 1983. Longman Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs. Essex, England: Longman Group Limited.
DeCarrico, Jeanette S. 2000. The Structure of English: Studies in form and function for language teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Fischer, Olga, Ans Van Kemenade, Willem Koopman, and Wim van der Wurff. 2000. The syntax of early English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Jacobs, Roderick A. 1995. English syntax: A grammar for English language professionals. New York: Oxford University Press.
Justice, Laura M. and Helen K. Ezell. 2002. The syntax handbook: Everything you learned about syntax…but forgot. Eau Claire, Wisconsin: Thinking Publications.
O’Dwyer, Bernard. 2000. Modern English structures: Form, function, and position. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.
Oxford English Dictionary. 2008. Periphrasis, n. http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy2.library.uiuc.edu/cgi/entry/50175668?single=1&query_type=word&queryword=periphrasis&first=1&max_to_show=10 (12 Oct. 2008.)
Smith, Jeremy J. 2005. Essentials of early English: An introduction to old, middle and early modern English. London: Routledge.
Strang, Barbara M. H. 1974. A history of English. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.
Tyler, Andrea and Vyvyan Evans. 2003. The semantics of English prepositions: Spatial scenes, embodied meaning and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Williams, Joseph M. 1975. Origins of the English language: A social and linguistic history. New York: The Free Press.

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