Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

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Who cares about phrasal verbs?

Not you? You don’t even know what they are? Join the club! Most people could care less about verbs (the action words), let alone complicated ones. But, if you don’t have a basic idea of phrasal verbs, then they can really mess up how your reader understands you.

A phrasal verb is simply a verb plus a particle (which is usually a preposition and sometimes an adverb—please see my 5 minute grammar sheets). So, in addition to using the verb ‘to run’, you may say ‘to run on’ or ‘to run over’, with completely different meanings:

I will run all day.

The words will run onto the next page.

The concert will run over time.

From these examples, you may think phrasal verbs are easy: you understand the three different sentences above, and you correctly use the two phrase verbs (‘run onto’ and ‘run over’) without even thinking. But are they so easy for writers with English as a second language? And do you always know where in the sentence to put the preposition after the verb?

To both questions, the answer is no. ESL writers find phrasal verbs difficult to use because we pick up the difference between ‘pick’ (meaning ‘choose’), ‘pick at’ (meaning ‘gradually consume’ or ‘continue to jab at’), ‘pick on’ (meaning ‘annoy/bully’) and ‘pick up’ (meaning ‘move something upwards), for example, from increasing practice with the English language. The language has hundreds of phrasal verbs. We learn them only from hearing and reading them repetitively, and then knowing how to use them in context.

The other problem is that we understand phrasal verbs only when we know where to put the preposition. Let’s check out the four types of phrasal verb, and where the preposition (bold in the examples below) should sit in each type:

  1. When the phrasal verb isn’t acting on anything (that is, it has no object) AND the preposition must immediately follow the verb

These are called intransitive phrasal verbs—for example:

My grandfather recently passed away. (died)
The truck broke down on the highway. (malfunctioned)
The girls broke down with emotion. (cried)
What time did she get up today? (arise)

2. When the preposition must immediately follow the verb AND an object follows the preposition

These are called nonseparable transitive phrasal verbs—for example:

You should look into the reasons for his behaviour. (investigate)
He came across the missing folder in the drawer. (discovered)
My friends dropped by my house on the weekend. (visited)
The lodging puts up travelers from all places. (accommodates)

3. When the phrasal verb must have an object AND the preposition can follow the verb or the object

These are called optionally separable transitive phrasal verbs—for example:

The school will call off the swim carnival due to the weather. (cancel)
The school will call the swim carnival off due to the weather.

Please hand out this card to people you meet. (distribute)
Please hand this card out to people you meet.

My teacher always mixes up the students. (confuse)
My teacher always mixes the students up.

4. When the object is a pronoun (when the order has to be verb, pronoun, preposition), rather than a noun (when the order has to be verb, preposition, noun)

These are called obligatorily separable transitive phrasal verbs—for example:

Can you add up the prices? (total)
Can you add the prices up?
Can you add them up?
* Can you add up them? (incorrect)

That woman shouted down the rude man. (yelled at)
That woman shouted the rude man down.
That woman shouted him down.
* That woman shouted down him. (incorrect)

The upshot? Most phrasal verbs are an action phrase of two or three words. They can be challenging for English learners because sometimes they have a literal meaning (such as ‘stand up’) and sometimes they have a figurative meaning (such as ‘give into’).

If you are an ESL writer, or you have a work team with ESL writers, take charge of this area of English. First, prepare a list of phrasal verbs that often pop up (there’s one!) in your workplace writing. Start with 10 to learn, then another 10, and so on.

And use the English speakers around you. It’s simply a matter of saying ‘Does this sound right to you?’. If the person corrects your phrase, then add the correction to your learning list.

Right, time to turn off my laptop, top up my coffee and run over my to-do list. (Did you spot the three phrasal verbs?)

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Tortured words or the new way

Some Americans now say ‘I am ashamed by my behaviour’ rather than ‘I am ashamed of’, confusing it with the different expression ‘shamed by’. Is this an absolute wrong, or can we accommodate such a change? For the bigger grammatical picture, the curly question is whether to adhere to a ‘correct’ grammatical expression when most of us don’t even know why it is correct.

The choice of a preposition such as ‘of’ or ‘by’ to accompany a particular verb was determined way back, at a time we can’t pinpoint. And while the choice was probably that of an Englishman, we can’t be sure of that either. So, as people around us come up with new wording options, can we ignore them? Or do we want to stick to the decisions of time and people past?

The trick is that I will have one answer and you may have another. There is no path that will suit everyone. The Americans saying ‘ashamed by’ will continue to do so, and that wording will spread across a generation and geographically too. But I’m too self-conscious to say something that sounds so wrong to me. I’ll edit it out of my clients’ writing, and I’ll correct my children if I hear them say it. In other words, two opposing forces are at work: the nay sayers (my hand is up) and the early adopters of invented language. I know who will triumph, and it won’t be my side. That’s because all language is invented; it is a social construct. It has to change to suit its users. If you belong to the largest user group (which may be a group with less education, or a group that listens to new music by young songwriters), then you necessarily have the deciding vote.

Let’s face it. Not being bound by a grammar construct (perhaps because you didn’t learn it, or you don’t see it consistently in action) frees you to use language how you please. Even to switch prepositions. As young people enter the workforce and bring new language to their writing, their managers will struggle to accept it. And their readers may too. But the young writer’s open mindedness about language will prevail. So, while I’m ashamed ‘of’ saying I won’t yet discard the old ways, I sadly realise my vote doesn’t count anyway.