Ooh, neat grammar post

Okay, fine, I know, many people are probably not as interested in grammar as I am. What can I say? This post at Kill Zone Blog caught my eye because I’m just the kind of person who instantly stops at posts like this: Phrasal Verbs, When an Adverb Is Not an Adverb

What is a phrasal verb?

Get out! Calm down. Carry on. Show off.

So a phrasal verb is a verb that combines with an adverb. Why are “out,” “down,” “on,” and “off” considered adverbs in the above phrases? They are obviously prepositions; everyone knows that if you are listing prepositions, “out,” “down,” “on,” and “off” would all be on that list. They are considered adverbs here because when a phrase has an object, then the item in question is considered a preposition: Get off the roof. When there is no object, as in Get off!, then “off” is considered an adverb. I sort of wonder now about this rule and why it works that way. Maybe the podcast Lingthusiasm has an episode about that.

Anyway, a phrasal verb creates a new meaning from the combination of two words. That meaning is separate from the meaning of the constituent words. If you say, “Carry on,” to someone, you don’t mean either “carry” or “on.” You mean something else.

This is neat! The post at Kill Zone Blog discusses the history of phrasal verbs, with a (really interesting!) observation that they haven’t always existed and that the first use of phrasal verbs was in 1154. (It was “give up.”)

Now, granted, in the 1150s, modern English didn’t exist, obviously. That was (I looked it up) Early Middle English. What was Early Middle English?


Þe Nihtegale bigon þo ſpeke
In one hurne of one beche
& sat vp one vayre bowe.
Þat were abute bloſtome ynowe.
In ore vaſte þikke hegge.
Imeynd myd ſpire. & grene ſegge.
The Nightingale began the match
Off in a corner, on a fallow patch,
sitting high on the branch of a tree
Where blossoms bloomed most handsomely
above a thick protective hedge
Grown up in rushes and green sedge.

Well, okay, there have been A LOT OF CHANGES to English since this poem, called “The Owl and the Nightingale,” was published. I guess I can believe that phrasal verbs weren’t in use as far back as that. They are certainly super common now. This post at Kill Zone Blog says that all the versions of phrasal verbs using “set” encompassed 60,000 such versions. Can that be true?

Okay, Wikipedia says The longest entry in the OED2 was for the verb set, which required 60,000 words to describe some 580 senses (430 for the bare verb, the rest in phrasal verbs and idioms).

So, pretty much true, apparently. What are some of those? Set aside, set down, set up, set off, set forth, get set. Okay, fine, there do seem to be a lot. I thought of these in about two seconds. Sixty THOUSAND still seems like a stretch. I don’t plan to go look at the OED to check, though.

Regardless, I’m not sure I knew what the term “phrasal verb” actually meant until now. It’s not something that comes up a lot.

Nor does there seem much reason to specifically look for or think about these, except that, to the extent phrasal verbs also happen to be slangy, they may or may not fit the style of a particular work of fiction. That is, “Get out!” for leave is not going to sound like slang to any readers, probably, but “Get out!” as in “You’re kidding!” or “You’re making that up!” definitely will.

So, pretty sure everyone can get along just fine without knowing what a phrasal verb is. Nevertheless, glad I saw the post. Always happy to think about grammar and language.

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16 thoughts on “Ooh, neat grammar post”

  1. When I export the OED’s entry on “set” to PDF, it’s 180 pages. So I can believe 60k words.

  2. 180 pp of “set.” It’s astounding to think about. I’m almost tempted to google that page and start scrolling.

  3. I looked at our campus OED – it only listed 30 different phrasal verbs, each with between 1 and 42 senses in which it could be used. So while the entry may be sixty thousand words, that’s including all the different words used to define everything. I think Kill Zone is a wee bit off.

  4. Looked at our campus online OED… not sure we even have print! (I’m sure there’s a copy somewhere…)

  5. So 580 senses, with so many examples that blows up to 60,000? That would be a hundred examples per sense, which seems wildly over the top. I’m STILL not going to go start scrolling, but it’s a bit puzzling.

  6. I think 60,000 was the count of words in the entry – including things like “is” “the” and “definition”.

  7. I found out about phrasal verbs from a Spanish-speaking friend. Apparently they drive foreigners barking mad. Most languages don’t have them and trying to remember all the arbitrary extra meanings of verb plus preposition is really hard for people who grew up without them.

    And then there’s the way the preposition/adjective can move around in the sentence without losing its meaning. “My dog fought off a bear” and “my dog fought a bear off” both mean the same thing. But if you’re an ESL speaker who can just about remember the meaning of ‘fight off’ when both parts of the verb are on the same place, you’ll tear your hair out when the ‘off’ just ups and wanders off.

    In case you couldn’t guess, my friend was very eloquent on the subject.

  8. Rachel–
    You may be pleased to hear this
    https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/24302731-new-penric-impending—demon-daughter

    The new novella is currently being proofread, and can be expected next month. It clocks in at just over 40000 words.
    The cover is done, but there’s no cover blurb, alas. So I have no real udea what the story is about. It does involve a sorceress being cast overboard and taking revenge on her would-be executioners, so it might be about Penric’s “ancestor”, Umelan the Roknari.

  9. Thanks, Pete!
    Good news, it’s not a prequel. In the comments at the linked post the author herself wrote the following.

    Lois:
    The vendor-page copy dropped into my head this morning, from wherever these things come. First (and possibly final) draft goes thus:

    “A six-year-old shiplost girl draws the kin Jurald family of Vilnoc into complex dilemmas, and sorcerer Learned Penric and his Temple demon Desdemona into conflict — with each other. It will take all of Penric’s wits, his wife Nikys’s wisdom, and the hand of the fifth god’s strangest saint to untangle the threads of their future.”

    Always a hard balance to find between too many spoilers, and so vague no one can decide whether to buy a story or not…

  10. Excellent, Hanneke! I mean, that’s a bit confusing as back cover copy goes, but it sounds exciting and active and certainly not like a prequel. Thanks for tracking that down!

  11. Neat indeed! I had to go look at morphemes and wonder about why phrasal verbs are not compound verbs, and why they’ve kept their morpheme boundaries… and if I even remember enough about these concepts to understand them. Which is to say, yay more linguistics in my life!

    Thanks for mentioning the ESL aspect, Rowan!

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