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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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    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 serve dinner."
    We can use these same particles with the verb "to pick," with similar results. Thus, "to pick up" means "to meet and give transportation to," as in "Parents pick up their children after school." "To pick off" is a specialized term in baseball. When there's a runner on first base, a pitcher may try to "pick off" a runner by quickly throwing the ball with the hope of catching him off base. "To pick out" is a more emphatic version of the root verb "to pick." We may say that "People want to pick out the best vegetables in the supermarket."
    There are lots and lots of such phrasal verbs in contemporary English, and a brief essay cannot list even a significant percentage of them. Serious ESL students and others who want to master phrasal verbs would be well advised to study and work with a book such as "The Ultimate Phrasal Verb Book," by Carl L. Hart, or "Phrasal Verb Fun," by Peter Gray.
    But it is not enough to study the formation and meaning of phrasal verbs in isolation. In order to understand how to use phrasal verbs effectively, students will want to understand how they fit into the overall stylistic system of English. This is an important matter, because much of English vocabulary can be divided into two groups: the Anglo-Saxon group and the Latin-based group. This division has deep historic roots, so a brief history lesson will help us to speak English clearly, and to say what we want to say.
    The Latin-based group of English words comes to us primarily through French, and ultimately dates back to the Norman Conquest in October of 1066. At that time William the Conqueror, who spoke Anglo-Norman, a northern dialect of Old French, defeated the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada in the Battle of Hastings. The consequences of this battle matter a lot even today, because after 1066, Anglo-Norman became the language of the new aristocracy that took over England. Thus there appeared a class difference in the use of language; the aristocracy used the Latin-based Anglo-Norman, while the common folk, the original inhabitants of what became England, used Anglo-Saxon. This distinction has lasted for ten centuries, and has been accentuated in the democratic ethos of America, where we value ordinary, everyday speech. It appears in the distinction between Latin-based words, which are often perceived as abstract and formal, as opposed to Anglo-Saxon words, which are often perceived as direct and informal.
    We can better understand how this distinction appears in today's vocabulary by noticing the differences between pairs of verbs that have more or less the same meaning, such as "embrace/hug" and "assist/help." The first two verbs in those pairs are English versions of the French verbs embracer and assister; since they come from French, they are generally used to express abstract meaning. Although one can use embracer with a person in French, the English verb "embrace" is not generally used with a person. Thus, we generally say "to embrace an idea" rather than "to embrace a friend." Rather than "embrace a friend," we would normally say "hug a friend."
    The same distinction appears in the difference between "assist" and "help." "Assist" is usually used in a formal, professional sense. Thus, financial advisors who are writing promotional materials would probably promise to "assist" clients in finding advantageous investments. The formal "assist" is appropriate when discussing something as important as money. On the other hand, if you see people who have fallen, you would "help" them get up. This is of course a physical action, and is thus the Anglo-Saxon verb, a cognate of German helfen, is used.
    To understand how this Latin/Ango-Saxon opposition appears in phrasal verbs, consider these pairs of verbs:
    blow up/explode
    break away/separate
    get over/recover from (as from an illness)
    look forward to/anticipate
    show up/appear
    keep on/continue
    put off/postpone
    The phrasal verb, the first verb in each of these oppositions belongs to what might be called personal or everyday discourse, as opposed to the professional discourse of the second verb. A few examples may suffice here.
    Family members might "look forward" to a picnic, but a company press release would say "We anticipate better profits in the next quarter." To continue with the picnic theme, we might say, "It's raining, so we have to put off the picnic," as opposed to an executive who writes in an email, "Something has come up, and we'll have to postpone the meeting this afternoon."
    Examples such as these can easily be multiplied, but what matters is understanding the proper context for the use of Anglo-Saxon verbs as opposed to Latin-based verbs. People who wish to advance in their careers in business and the professions will find such understanding to be especially useful.
    This matter of style deserves particular emphasis in America today, because what people hear on television and in popular music is a series of Anglo-Saxon phrasal verbs. Using those verbs, as opposed to the Latin-based words such as those above may mark people as unprofessional.
    It is worth noting that in addition to the standard phrasal verbs that consist of a root plus a particle, there are also phrasal verbs with a double particle. Thus, we have "to read up on," which means "to research," and "to do away with," which means to eliminate. (Another double phrasal verb, "to get rid of," has the same meaning.) Serious students may be referred to the books mentioned above for more examples.
    And, finally, since phrasal verbs are used so often in colloquial English, there are lots of slangy phrasal verbs. The thing to remember about slangy phrasal verbs is while they look like standard phrasal verbs, they often cannot be explained as a combination of root and particle, but rather have to be learned as a whole semantic unit.
    Three illustrative examples of such slangy phrasal verbs use the common particle "out"—"to freak out" and "to space out" and "to vege out." The first, "to freak out," is a holdover from the 1960s, and means "to become upset." "To space out" means "to become distracted," especially in class or some other situation in which one is expected to pay attention. This idiom has generated a noun, "a space cadet," which refers to someone who is "spacy," i.e., generally disorganized and easily distracted. Finally, "to vege out" is a rare example of a slang verb that has a clear origin. It means "to engage in non-demanding activities, as in "When I got home from work last night, I was so tired I just veged out in front of the tv." That is to say, "I became a like a vegetable"—I had no brain activity.
    This brief survey shows that phrasal verbs are of essential importance for people who wish to master contemporary colloquial English. They are a key component of the complex, evolving English verb system, which may be the most demanding feature of English. The root-plus-particle structure of the phrasal verb has a flexibility that allows for numerous stylistic distinctions as well as the creation of new forms.

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