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
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.