Phrasal verbs–minions of evil, or sometimes useful?

Book- onstruction-sign copyPhrasal verbs are usually two-or three-word phrases consisting of a verb plus an adverb, or a verb plus a preposition, or both. They are just another aspect of English vocabulary, and can be considered a form of compound verbs.  We use them all the time, but what, exactly, are they?

First, what is an adverb?

The term adverb is somewhat of a catchall word to describe many kinds of words having little in common other than the fact they don’t fit into any of the other available categories (noun, adjective, preposition, etc.) and they modify an action word—a verb.

The principal function of adverbs is to act as modifiers of verbs or verb phrases. An adverb used in this way gives information about the manner, place, time, frequency, certainty, or other circumstances of the activity denoted by the verb or verb phrase. Too many modifiers in your narrative and voila! Purple prose.

phrasal verbsThere are three main types of phrasal verb constructions depending upon whether the verb combines with a preposition, a particle, or both.

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, has a good example of these three forms:

Verb + preposition (prepositional phrasal verbs)

  1. Who is looking after the kids? – after is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase after the kids.
  2. They picked on nobody. – on is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase on nobody.
  3. ran into an old friend. – into is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase into an old friend.
  4. She takes after her mother. – after is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase after her mother.
  5. Sam passes for a linguist. – for is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase for a linguist.
  6. You should stand by your friend. – by is a preposition that introduces the prepositional phrase by your friend.

Verb + particle (particle phrasal verbs)

  1. They brought that up twice. – up is a particle, not a preposition.
  2. You should think it over. – over is a particle, not a preposition.
  3. Why does he always dress down? – down is a particle, not a preposition.
  4. You should not give in so quickly. – in is a particle, not a preposition.
  5. Where do they want to hang out? – out is a particle, not a preposition.
  6. She handed it in. – in is a particle, not a preposition.

Verb + particle + preposition (particle-prepositional phrasal verbs)

  1. Who can put up with that? – up is a particle and with is a preposition.
  2. She is looking forward to a rest. – forward is a particle and to is a preposition.
  3. The other tanks were bearing down on my panther. – down is a particle and on is a preposition.
  4. They were really teeing off on me. – off is a particle and on is a preposition.
  5. We loaded up on Mountain Dew and chips. – up is a particle and on is a preposition
  6. Susan has been sitting in for me. – in is a particle and for is a preposition.

(end of quoted example, thank you Wikipedia)

We use phrasal verbs all the time in our daily speech and in our writing. However, whenever it’s possible we should look for simpler ways to phrase our thoughts when writing, unless we are writing conversations spoken in the local vernacular.

Why do I feel that way? The way I see them, phrasal verbs are  two-or-three words (an action word and modifiers) forming what can be considered a separate verb-unit with a specific meaning. In other words, they use more words than is really needed to express a thought:

  • Who is looking after (verb unit) the kids? == Who is watching the kids?
  • They brought that up (verb unit) twice. == They mentioned it twice.
  • Who can put up with (verb unit) that? == Who can endure that?

We use these phrasings because they sound natural to us—that is the way people in your area might speak. But when used too frequently in a written piece, phrasal verbs junk up the narrative. They subtly contribute to what we call “purple prose” because the overuse of them separates the reader from the story.

Unless you are writing poetry, simplicity is best, because you want to immerse your reader in the experience.

ok to write garbage quote c j cherryhWhen we are revising our first draft, and tightening our narrative we should be examining the prose for weak phrasing. Each time you come across phrasal verbs in your work, look at the sentence it occurs in as if it were an isolated incident and ask yourself if it needs to be there. Many times a phrasal verb really is  the only way to express what you are trying to say, but equally often a more concise way can be found.

Phrasal verbs have their places, but if you can simplify a thought and make the sentence stronger, do so.


Filed under Literature, Publishing, Uncategorized, writer, writing

2 responses to “Phrasal verbs–minions of evil, or sometimes useful?

  1. Stephen

    Whoa! This is like back to school stuff and you know it’s summer vacation at the moment, don’t you? However, once again you demonstrate the unique linguistic qualification of English as the world’s best language for writing! So many word choices, so little time!