flesl.net grammar glossary::multi-word verbs

phrasal verbs

• Phrasal verbs are a type of multi-word verb.

• There are two main types: intransitive phrasal verbs and transitive phrasal verbs.

• Phrasal verbs are, importantly, to be distinguished from the other main type of multi-word verb: prepositional verbs.

• Like all multi-word verbs, phrasal verbs have semantic unity: although they are made up of two words, they have a single meaning just as single-word items typically do. (In other words, each of the words in a phrasal verb has its own meaning when used independently, but when it is part of a phrasal verb, it loses that meaning and cooperates with another word to create a new meaning.)

• phrasal verbs and free combinations:
- it is important to distinguish between phrasal verbs and “free combinations” of verb-words and adverbial particles which may appear superficially similar; for example, in “When Jane heard the news, she broke down,” the word “down“ is a part of the phrasal verb “break down“ whereas in “When Jane heard the news, she came down,” “down” is an adverbial modifying the verb “come.”

• idiomaticity:
- Phrasal verbs are often described as “idiomatic” — as being “idioms,” in other words. This label is accurate enough, but it can be misleading, especially from the point of view of ESL instruction. In the first place, if the words “idiom” and “idiomatic” are used casually, and without careful definition, the impression can be created that phrasal verbs are not part of the core of standard English and that they are therefore dispensable from the point or view of ESL learners in the same way as are slang words and various colloquial “expressions.” In the second place, there is the danger that labelling phrasal verbs as idiomatic will encourage students to regard these items as intractably mysterious. Such a view is unfortunate and unnecessary: the syntax of phrasal verbs can easily be explained to anyone who understands basic grammatical terminology; and any semantic mystery suggested by the “idiomatic” label can quickly be dispelled by pointing out that to say that a phrasal verb is idiomatic is just another way of saying that the words that make it up have lost their own meaning and, together, created a new one.)

• gradience of idiomaticity:
- Phrasal verbs vary in the strength of their idiomaticity; in other words, idiomaticity is on a gradient. For example, the phrasal verb “take off,” meaning “humorously imitate” is strongly idiomatic: it would be impossible to guess its meaning from a knowledge of the meaning of its components. By contrast, “put off” meaning “delay“ is moderately idiomatic; and “speed up,“ meaning “suddenly accelerate” only slightly so. (Its meaning could be quite easily guessed from a knowledge of the meaning of its components, but it still has a unique meaning.)

• informality:
• Phrasal verbs are generally informal — not considered appropriate in most written contexts and in some spoken ones. This is particularly so in the case of phrasal verbs such as “throw up” which have one-word equivalents (“vomit”). Many other phrasal verbs such as “take over” are, however, suitable in almost all contexts.