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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

26 March 2008

Phrasal verbs: Cool, but often misused



You may never have heard of “phrasal verbs,” but you use them all the time. Phrasal verbs—also called compound verbs—consist of a verb (often of Anglo-Saxon ancestry) plus a preposition or an adverb. English contains thousands of these chimeras.

Like the mythological Chimera, the phrasal verb is often more than the sum of its parts: The meanings of the verb and preposition bend, twist, and warp in unexpected ways when combined. For example, take “grind”*:
  • grind away at (person): needle, criticize, or nag continually
  • grind away at (thing): crush something continually into particles
  • grind (thing) away: remove something by grinding
  • grind (person) down: wear someone down by constant requests or nagging
  • grind (thing) down: make something smooth or even by grinding
  • grind (thing) into (thing): pulverize something into powder; crush or rub one thing into another
  • grind on: drag on endlessly
  • grind out: produce something in a mechanical manner
  • grind (thing) to (thing): grind something until it is something else
  • grind to a halt: slow and stop
  • grind (things) together: rub things together
  • grind (thing) up: pulverize or crush
As a copyeditor, I’ve seen three phrasal verb mistakes over and over.

1. Tangled sentence due to reluctance to end a sentence with a preposition. I can give no better example than Winston Churchill’s tongue-in-cheek comment on this mistake: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

2. Wrong preposition. Like “grind,” many verbs can pair up with several different prepositions and adverbs. The most common confusion is probably between “compare to” and “compare with.” “Compare with” is used when comparing how people or things are alike or different: “Compared with last spring, this spring has been cold and rainy.” “Compare to” is used when likening one person or thing to another, as in William Shakespeare's “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Dictionaries often give examples of phrasal uses of a verb after its definitions, so if you’re not sure which preposition to use, you may be able to find the answer there.

3. Missing preposition in a sentence with two phrasal verbs. Because phrasal verbs are so common in English, two or more often end up in a sentence together. It’s okay to drop a preposition when both verbs take the same one, as in, “We were excluded and banned from the party.” “From” does double duty. Problems arise, however, with sentences such as, “We were banned and thrown out of the party,” which should be, “We were banned from and thrown out of the party.”

*Examples and definitions based on NTC’s Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs and Other Idiomatic Verbal Phrases by Richard A. Spears.

18 comments:

Lisa said...

I didn't know these were called "phrasal verbs" and I never knew what the distinction was between "compare with" and "compare to", although I know I instinctively tend to use "compare with" more often. Now I know why. This is very helpful.

Charles Gramlich said...

I know the kind of verbs you're talking about, of course, but did not know they were called Phrasal verbs. I sometimes struggle with number 3 on your list. Fortunately, things usually "sound" wrong to me if I don't get it correct, but I wasn't sure why until now.

Shauna Roberts said...

LISA and CHARLES, thanks for stopping by. You're both lucky to have a good ear for phrasal verbs. I've seen a lot of bizarre and obscure sentences from writers who didn't.

Lana Gramlich said...

It seems that more & more people these days bungle these phrasal verbs. But proper English grammar seems to be going the way of the dinosaur these days, anyway...Destroyed by the comet of pop culture. <:\

Shauna Roberts said...

LANA, I try to take the long-term historical view and think of language as evolving, rather than degenerating. Unfortunately, "going to heck" is a better description of our current situation, with newspapers, books, and magazines full of inconsistencies and many people seeming to have no better grasp of grammar than they did in elementary school. I don't see something new and consistent arising from the ashes.

Bernita said...

The grammatical terms seem to be evolving as well.
I've never heard of phrasal verbs.

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Helpful post. If it don't ring right, I try not to use it, unless for effect - it's a plus to know exactly why it don't work though....!!

Sphinx Ink said...

Interesting topic, Shauna, and excellent post. Despite having been an English major in college, I know longer recall the more obscure and esoteric specifics of grammar. (Well, college was a LONG time ago.) Like Charles, I write and edit by instinct gained via many years of reading prose. Usually I am correct, but occasionally I run into snags. Your post(s) on grammar are helpful.

Travis Erwin said...

Interesting post. Me and grammar rules rarely see eye to eye.

Rae Ann Parker said...

I learned something new from your post today, Shauna. Thanks! I wish I had payed more attention in English class. When I have a grammar question, I usually call a good friend who is an English professor and read (usually a query letter) over the phone. My daughter often asks me grammar questions during daily homework time and if my answer is "I do not know." her response is, "But aren't you a writer?"

Steve Malley said...

I use Bill Bryson's Troublesome Words for guidance.

And I'm with you on the 'evolving' thing. After all, a couple hundred years ago, standardized spelling and grammar didn't exist. Folk just spelled stuff like it sounded to them.

My favourite instance? Shakespeare. Man signed several documents in his lifetime, with several different spellings for his own name!

Steve Malley said...

I use Bill Bryson's Troublesome Words for guidance.

And I'm with you on the 'evolving' thing. After all, a couple hundred years ago, standardized spelling and grammar didn't exist. Folk just spelled stuff like it sounded to them.

My favourite instance? Shakespeare. Man signed several documents in his lifetime, with several different spellings for his own name!

Steve Malley said...

I use Bill Bryson's Troublesome Words for guidance.

And I'm with you on the 'evolving' thing. After all, a couple hundred years ago, standardized spelling and grammar didn't exist. Folk just spelled stuff like it sounded to them.

My favourite instance? Shakespeare. Man signed several documents in his lifetime, with several different spellings for his own name!

Shauna Roberts said...

BERNITA, phrasal verbs have several other names, so that may be why you haven't heard the term before.

JULIE, exactly! It's much easier to break the rules and have it work if you know what the rules are. It's hard to trust your ear if you grew up, as I did, in an area where standard English wasn't standard.

SPHINX INKand RAE ANN, thanks. Grammar isn't the world's most interesting subject for most people, but a writer who doesn't know grammar is missing an important weapon in the battle to get published.

TRAVIS, surely you inserted at least some correct grammar into Plundered Booty every now and then?

STEVE, three responses! I appreciate your enthusiasm! I hadn't heard of Bryson's book before, but it sounds useful. I put it in my pile of books to buy. My favorite examples of language evolution are old movies. In movies from just 70 years ago, the pronunciations and vocabulary are different from now. It's interesting, too, that having English in a "fossilized" form, first through the printing press, then through dictionaries, and now through film, hasn't not stopped it from changing.

Farrah Rochon said...

As one of the ladies with the hard job of critiquing my horrid grammar, you know more than most that such things boggle my mind (which makes my mother, an English teacher for 35 years, cringe).

I'll definitely bookmark this one.

Shauna Roberts said...

Glad it was useful, FARRAH.

steve said...

Edwin Newman once wrote that you can convince of, and convince that, but you can't convince to. I try to avoid using "convince to," but I see it everywhere. Is it now accepatable?

Myk said...

The other common "mistake," in online writing anyway, is combining the words of the phrasal verb, f.e. "login" for "log in" as in the imperative, "Login to our site!"

As I understand it, the combined form is a noun or adjective, not a verb, and the words should be separated when used as a verb, i.e. "Log in to our site using our login form!"

I think the language is evolving towards these "run-together" phrasal verbs, though, as they seem to be catching on. Nevertheless, they still remain separate in past tenses: "I'll login today just like I logged in yesterday."

In the past, some such verbs appear to have been formed by switching the order of the words, f.e. "input" for "put in," as in "I input the data" or perhaps "outlaw," as in "we outlawed drunkenness in public."

But I've never seen anyone use "inlog" for "log in."