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Style and Formation of Phrasal Verbs in English

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The formation and proper use of phrasal verbs in English by no means a simple matter. As the name indicates, a phrasal verb is a phrase, a combination of a root verb and a particle. When we combine a verb of motion with a particle such as "up, we derive the verb "to go up," although the particle "up" often appears in phrasal verbs, it does not indicate motion. Usually, such particles limit the meaning of the root verb. "To clean up" is more limited than "to clean."

Because in English Latin-based verbs are perceived as more formal than Anglo-Saxon verbs, a stylistic distinction comes into play. Thus, "to put off" is an informal verb, whereas the verb with the same meaning, "to postpone," would normally be used in a professional situation.

Thus, understanding the stylistic implications of phrasal verbs is essential to success in education and in the professions.

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Solution Summary

This solution of 1,585 words provides a guide to the effective use of phrasal verbs, which consist of a verb and a particle. It includes an in-depth background history and usage in the present day.

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A Stylistic Introduction English Phrasal Verbs

In contemporary English, especially contemporary American English, people often use phrasal verbs. In fact, phrasal verbs are so common that people often use them without understanding them as features of English style. The problem is compounded, of course, for students of English as a Second Language (ESL), who have few reliable guides to the stylistic implications of phrasal verbs. That is to say, it is not enough to know how to form phrasal verbs; to speak contemporary American English fluently, one must also understand how phrasal verbs fit into the stylistic system of English.
There is a basic fact about English that makes the formation of phrasal verbs possible: Unlike Continental languages such as French and Spanish, English does not have a unitary verb system. It has multiple forms in the present tense, such "I sit"; "I do sit"; "I am sitting." (And that's not to mention contracted forms such as "I'm sittin'.")
Phrasal verbs are another aspect of the variety of forms in the English verb. As the name indicates, phrasal verbs are phrases; they consist of a root and one or more particles. Some obvious examples appear in verbs of motion such as "go." To that root we can add directional particles, such as "go into"; ""go over"; and "go through." Such phrasal verbs may be called "descriptive phrasal verbs."
It often happens that we can add several different particles to a root other than verbs of motion, and thereby create phrasal verbs with different nuances of meaning. Take, for example, the verb "to clean." We can add to this root the commonly used particles "up"; "out"; and "off," thereby creating verbs that are used in different contexts. (Note that in such verbs these particles do not indicate motion or direction.) Since the particles make these verbs more specific, they thereby limit the number of objects that these verbs can govern. Thus, "to clean up" as in "to clean up a room" means to straighten up, and to remove things like old magazines and coffee cups. However, "to clean out" usually refers to organizing a limited space, such as a garage or closet, as in "People often clean out their closets in the spring." By contrast, "to clean off" usually refers to removing extraneous objects from a surface, as in "I need to clean off the dining table before I can ...

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