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The term phrasal verb is commonly applied to two or three distinct but related constructions in English: a verb and a particle and/or a preposition co-occur forming a single semantic unit. This semantic unit cannot be understood based upon the meanings of the individual parts in isolation, but rather it can be taken as a whole. In other words, the meaning is non-compositional and thus unpredictable. Phrasal verbs that include a preposition are known as prepositional verbs and phrasal verbs that include a particle are also known as particle verbs. Additional alternative terms for phrasal verb are compound verb, verb-adverb combination, verb-particle construction, two-part word/verb, and three-part word/verb (depending on the number of particles), and multi-word verb.
One can discern at least three main types of phrasal verb constructions depending upon whether the verb combines with a preposition, a particle, or both. The words constituting the phrasal verb constructions in the following examples are in bold:
The difference between these types of phrasal verbs lies with the status of the element(s) that appear in addition to the verb. When the element is a preposition, it is the head of a full prepositional phrase and the phrasal verb is a thus a prepositional phrasal verb. When the element is a particle, it can not (or no longer) be construed as a preposition, but rather it is a particle by virtue of the fact that it does not take a complement. Finally, many phrasal verbs are combined with both a preposition and a particle.
The aspect of these types of phrasal verbs that unifies them under the single banner phrasal verb is the fact that their meaning cannot be understood based upon the meaning of their parts taken in isolation. When one picks on someone, one is not selecting that person for something, but rather one is harassing them. When one hangs out, one is in no way actually hanging from anything. The meaning of the two or more words together is often drastically different from what one might guess it to be based upon the meanings of the individual parts in isolation.
As a class, particle phrasal verbs belong to the same category as the so-called separable verbs of other Germanic languages. They are commonly found in everyday, informal speech as opposed to more formal English and Latinate verbs, such as to get together rather than to congregate, to put off rather than to postpone (or to defer), or to do up rather than to fasten.
The terminology of phrasal verbs is inconsistent. Modern theories of syntax tend to use the term phrasal verb to denote particle verbs only; they do not view prepositional verbs as phrasal verbs. The EFL/ESL literature (English as a foreign or second language), in contrast, tends to employ the term phrasal verb to encompass both prepositional and particle verbs. The terminology used to denote the particle is also inconsistent. Sometimes it is called an adverb, and at other times an intransitive prepositional phrase. The inconsistent use of terminology in these areas is a source of confusion about what does and does not qualify as a phrasal verb and about the status of the particle or a preposition.
Concerning the history of the term phrasal verb, Tom McArthur writes:
The value of this choice and its alternatives (including separable verb for Germanic languages) is debatable. In origin the concept is based on translation linguistics; as many single-word English and Latinate words are translatable by a phrasal verb complex in English, therefore the logic is that the phrasal verb complex must be a complete semantic unit in itself. One should consider in this regard that the actual term phrasal verb suggests that such constructions should form phrases. In most cases however, they clearly do not form phrases. Hence the very term phrasal verb is misleading and a source of confusion, which has motivated some to reject the term outright.
When a particle phrasal verb is transitive, it can look just like a prepositional phrasal verb. This similarity is another source of confusion, since it obscures the difference between prepositional and particle phrasal verbs. A simple diagnostic distinguishes between the two, however. When the object of a particle verb is a definite pronoun, it can and usually does precede the particle. In contrast, the object of a preposition can never precede the preposition:
The object of a preposition must follow the preposition, whereas the object of the particle verb can precede the particle especially if it is a definite pronoun, since definite pronouns are very light.
The aspect of phrasal verb constructions that makes them difficult to learn for non-native speakers of English is that their meaning is non-compositional. That is, one cannot know what a given phrasal verb construction means based upon what the verb alone and/or the preposition and/or particle alone mean, as emphasized above. This trait of phrasal verbs is also what makes them interesting for linguists, since they appear to defy the principle of compositionality. An analysis of phrasal verbs in terms of catenae (=chains), however, is not challenged by the apparent lack of meaning compositionality. The verb and particle/preposition form a catena, and as such, they qualify as a concrete unit of syntax. The following dependency grammar trees illustrate the point:
The words of each phrasal verb construction are highlighted in orange. These words form a catena because they are linked together in the vertical dimension. They constitute units of meaning, and these units are stored as multi-part wholes in the lexicon.
A confusing aspect of phrasal verbs concerns the distinction between prepositional phrasal verbs and particle phrasal verbs that are transitive, as discussed and illustrated above. Particle phrasal verbs that are transitive allow some variability in word order depending on the relative weight of the constituents involved. Shifting often occurs when the object is very light, e.g.
Shifting occurs between two (or more) sister constituents that appear on the same side of their head. The lighter constituent shifts leftward and the heavier constituent shifts rightward, and this happens in order to accommodate the relative weight of the two. Dependency grammar trees are again used to illustrate the point:
The trees illustrate when shifting can occur. English sentence structures that grow down and to the right are easier to process. There is a consistent tendency to place heavier constituents to the right, as is evident in the a-trees. Shifting is possible when the resulting structure does not contradict this tendency, as is evident in the b-trees. Note again that the particle verb constructions (in orange) qualify as catenae in both the a- and b-trees. Shifting does not alter this fact.
Prepositions and adverbs can have a literal meaning which is spatial or "orientational", and then, as happens with all words, metaphorical meanings develop that are systematic extensions from the original core meaning. Many verbs in English can interact with an adverb or a preposition, and the verb + preposition/adverb complex is readily understood when used in its literal sense.
The function of the prepositional phrase/particle in such clauses is to show the relationship between the action (walked, opened, looked) and the relative positioning, action or state of the subject. Even when such prepositions appear alone and are hence adverbs/particles, they have a retrievable prepositional object. Thus, He walked across clearly shows that the "walking" is "across" a given area. In the case of He walked across the square, across the square is a prepositional phrase (with across as its head word). In both cases, the single-word/multi-word expression (across and across the square) is independent of the verb. The action of the subject (walking) is being portrayed as having happened in/at/on/over a certain location (across the square). Similarly in She opened the shutters and looked outside and When he heard the crash, he looked up, outside is logically outside (of) the house, and up is similarly an adjunct (= upwards, in an upwards direction, he is looking in a direction that is higher than where his eyes were previously directed).
Phrasal verbs are represented in many languages by compound verbs. An intermediate state is in Dutch, where de lamp aansteken (to light the lamp) becomes, in a principal clause, ik steek de lamp aan (I light the lamp).
If the particle is in first place, then the phrasal noun is never written with a hyphen, if the particle comes second, then there is sometimes a hyphen between the two parts of the phrasal noun.
The two categories have different values. Particle-verb compounds in English are of ancient development, and are common to all Germanic languages, as well as to Indo-European languages in general. Those such as onset tend to retain older uses of the particles; in Old English on/an had a wider domain, which included areas which are now covered by at and in in English. Some such compound nouns have a corresponding phrasal verb but some do not, partly because of historical developments. The modern English verb+particle complex set on exists, but it means "start to attack" (set itself means start a process). In modern English there is no exact verbal phrase equivalent to the older set on, but rather various combinations which give different nuances to the idea of starting a process, such as winter has set in, set off on a journey, set up the stand, set out on a day trip, etc. Verb-particle compounds are a more modern development in English, and focus more on the action expressed by the compound; that is to say, they are more overtly "verbal".
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