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Structural and semantic peculiarities of the english phrasal verbs

К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2009

Автор: Абдразакова К. Ж.

English has always been a fluid language, and being in constant close connection with the world changing at an extraordinary rate, the language is changing as well. Tracing the ways a language is used in the evolving rapidly changing language world, helps in understanding the process of forming and developing one’s language personality.

Phrasal verbs are an important feature of the English language. Their importance lies in the fact that they form a key part of everyday English. Not only are they used in spoken and informal English, but they are also a common aspect of written and even formal English. As Bolinger puts it, they constitute ‘an explosion of lexical creativeness that surpasses anything else in our language’. Understanding and learning to use phrasal verbs, however, is often a problem and there are many reasons for this. The meaning of the phrasal verb often bears no relation to the meaning of either the verb or the particle which is used with it. This means that phrasal verbs can be difficult both to understand and to remember. Besides, many phrasal verbs have several different meanings and their grammatical behavior is often unpredictable. Nevertheless, the student who is striving for native-like proficiency in the English language needs to be able to deal with the complexities of this frequently used structure in English and be ready to overcome them.

Multi-word expressions are very idiosyncratic constructs making progress in their computation difficult. They have been called “a serious problem”, “unpredictable” and “a pain in the neck”

Jon Patrick and Jeremy Fletcher define multi-word expressions as a generic term for the group of expressions that include idioms (e.g. over the moon), lexically fixed expressions (e.g. ad hoc), light verb constructions (e.g. make a mistake); institutional phrases (e.g. kindle excitement). All these expressions have in common either the occurrence of words adjacent to each other more frequently than usually found in a text stream (e.g. red tape), or being not statistically marked, have some particular meaning together that they would not have apart (e.g. land of milk and honey). Our area of research focuses on phrasal verbs, a sub-section of multi-word expressions.

These combinations take the following form:

1) Jo tore up the contract.

2) Jo came across the letter.

The particle in these combinations patterns with the verb and not the following noun – in example (1) ‘tore up’ is a unit, but ‘up the contract’ is not.

These verb + particle combinations are complex verbs that consist of two lexical items. Some analysts call such combinations complex predicates some call them multi-word verbs and whole others separate them into phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs

Here we follow Cowie and Mackin, who state in the Oxford Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs: ‘When a verb + particle (or a verb + preposition) is a unit of meaning like this it is a phrasal verb’.

Jane Povey gives the following definition of the phrasal verb. Phrasal verb is a combination of an “ordinary” (one-word) verb (e.g. come, give, put) and an adverbial or prepositional particle (e.g. in, off, up), or sometimes both, which constitutes a single semantic and syntactic unit.

For example come in – enter

Give up – stop doing

In grammar books we can find following definition of phrasal verb. A phrasal verb is an idiom which consists of a verb followed by a preposition, a verb followed by an adverb, or a verb followed by an adverb, followed by a preposition.

For example I ran into an old friend.

We put off washing the dishes.

They all look up to him.

In these examples, the phrasal verb to run into consists of the verb to run followed by the preposition into, the phrasal verb to put off consists of the verb to put followed by the adverb off, and the phrasal verb to look up to consists of the verb to look followed by the adverb up, followed by the preposition to.

Although the phrasal verb has been present in English for many centuries, it has only recently been described in detail. Citations in the OED date from Middle English: for example, turne aboute 1300; gon doun 1388. They are common in Shakespeare: ‘So long, that ninttene Zodiacks haue gone round’ (Measure for Measure, 1603). Such verbs have often been used to translate Latin verbs (to putte downe… Calare, deponere: Catholicon Anglicum, 1483) and to define verbs of Latin origin in English (abrogate… take away: Cawdrey, Table Alphabeticall, 1604). The 18c lexicographer Samuel Johnson was among the first to consider such formations seriously.

There is another kind of composition more frequent in English than perhaps on any other, from which arises to foreigners the greatest difficulty. We modify the signification of many words by a particle subjoined; as to come off, to escape by a fetch; to fall on, to attack; to fall off, to apostatize; to break off, to stop abruptly…

Phrasal verbs have always been common, but have increased in number since the mid-19c and even more so since the mid-20c, especially in AmE. As a result, a number of dictionaries of phrasal verbs have been published since 1974 and increasingly dictionaries for both native and foreign users have given phrasal verbs main-entry or high secondary status. They are increasingly the subject of special attention in courses for foreign learners of English, and it was in this area that the category came of age as a distinct aspect of grammar, and usage.

Phrasal verbs are an important feature of the English language. Their importance lies in the fact that they form a key part of everyday English.

It is generally recognized that the role of English phrasal verbs has increased dramatically in recent years. This is reflected in the state of dictionaries and practice books devoted to them. Not only have these verbs become more numerous but they are used more and more widely, not only in colloquial English but also, for example, in academic writing, in official reports, in fiction, and in the mass media. Some of them are pushing more traditional, one-word, verbs into second place.

We have found that there are for about 12 thousand phrasal verbs in the English language. There are 41 particles (prepositions or adverbs) that combine with verbs to form phrasal verbs. The most widely used particles are: up, down, in, out, on, off, away, back.

According to Jane Povey’s definition a phrasal verb constitutes a single semantic and syntactic unit. But how do we decide that a certain combination forms such a unit and should therefore be considered a phrasal verb? There is some disagreement among linguists on this question. Jane Povey confirms her definition, giving the following characteristic features of phrasal verbs

The unity between the components of a phrasal verb is often expressed in terms of their cohesion. Thus a phrasal verb is one where the cohesion between the two elements reaches a certain degree. This can be seen most clearly if we consider such contrastive pairs of sentences as:

1a. Peter called up his friend.

b. Peter called up the stairs.

2 a. Rita looked after the children.

b. Rita looked after the departing guests.

There is obviously a much higher degree of cohesion between the verb and the following word in sentences “a” than in sentences “b’ and it would seem natural to indicate this cohesion as follows:

1 a. Peter called up his friend.

b. Peter called up the stairs.

2 a. Rite looked after the children.

b. Rite looked after the departing guests.

In sentences “a” we can say that the degree of cohesion is high enough to consider the words called up and looked after phrasal verbs, whereas in sentences “b” up and after are “pure” prepositions introducing a prepositional phrase which functions as an adverbial modifier.

Although there can be little doubt that called up and looked after in sentences “a” above form single units of meaning, there are many other cases which are not so clear-cut.

1) John swam across the river.

2) The horse jumped over the fence.

3) The boy looked through the telescope.

Are across, over and through prepositional particles or “pure” prepositions?

Besides, phrasal verbs can be intransitive. How are we to asses the degree of cohesion in sentences such as:

1) The girl looked down.

2) The bird flew away.

3) Father often dines out.

In order to answer such questions some objective criteria are needed. Those usually applied are the following:

Replaceability by a one-word verb is often given as an indicator of semantic unity. While it is certainly true that many combinations generally regarded as phrasal verbs can be so replaced

For example: call up – telephone,

put off – postpone,

come by – obtain,

put up with – tolerate

This is clearly not an essential criterion, because there are many other obvious phrasal verbs for which there is no one-word equivalent. Examples are break down (stop functioning), make up (apply cosmetics).

Another criterion is idiomaticity, as an idiom is often defined as a combination of two or more words which function as a unit of meaning. Certainly many phrasal verbs have meanings which are not deducible from their parts, for example bring up (educate), give up (stop doing, using), come by (obtain), go in for (practice systematically). However, as stated in the Introduction to the Oxford Dictionary of Current idiomatic English, there is no sharply-defined boundary between idiomatic and non-idiomatic combinations. The compilers go on to say:

‘We shall do better to think of a scale of idiomaticity, with the “true” idioms (step up, take off) clearly established at the upper end and draw out appearing near the bottom, but with many items representing various degrees of semantic and grammatical unity spaced out in between. Among the intermediate types, or “semi-idioms” we find items such as put up, as used in the sentence ‘Increased transport costs will put up prices’.

In fact the compilers of this dictionary, and others, include even items which are not idiomatic at all, for example, fall down and pull off (in their literal senses), either because they consider them to be single units according to other criteria or because the same combination may be used in figurative (idiomatic) sense.

For example:

1) that’s where the plan falls down. (is shown to be inadequate);

2) it’s a good idea but are you sure you can pull it off? (carry it out successfully)

Bolinger considers idiomaticity to be a secondary factor when deciding whether a combination is a phrasal verb.

Another criterion that Jane Povey picks out is passivization, or the possibility of passive formation, is accepted by all writers as characteristic of transitive phrasal verbs.

For example: Payments are limited to 10% each month

This medicine must be measured out exactly

Three-word combinations can also be passivized.

For example: The noise will have to be put up with

Another syntactic criterion put forward by the authors of A Grammar of Contemporary English is that questions formed from phrasal verbs have the pronominal form who(m) or what, not an adverbial form such as where or when. Thus the question formed from John called up the man is Whom did John call up? Whereas that formed from John called from the office is Where did John call from?

The most reliable criterion for transitive phrasal verbs with an adverbial particle is that the particle, unlike an ordinary adverb, can usually stand before a noun object.

For example: Call up the secretary or Call the secretary up.

If the object is a pronoun, the particle must follow.

For example: Call him up

Although all the criteria dealt with above can be useful in deciding whether a certain combination is a phrasal verb, none of them, either singly or together with others, provide an absolutely reliable test. There are always exceptions, borderline cases, which is not surprising in view of the great number and variety of these formations. Most writers agree that it is impossible to draw a clear line between phrasal verbs on the one hand and verbs with “pure” adverbs or prepositions on the other.

In order to understand and use PVs correctly it is necessary to divide them into groups or patterns, according to:

1) Whether the pattern is transitive or intransitive

2) Whether there are one or two particles

3) Whether the particle(s) is/are adverbial or prepositional.

At first sight the third distinction might seen unnecessary from a practical point of view, especially as it is not always easy to make, because some words function both as adverbs and prepositions (for example, up, down, over). However, unless we distinguish between adverbial and prepositional particles we cannot understand why we can say, for example: I looked up the word (in the dictionary), or: I looked the word up, but not: I came the word across; why we say: I looked it up: I came across it.

If we know that up in the combination look up (a word, etc) is an adverbial particle whereas across is a prepositional one, the position becomes clearer.

We have adopted the classification given in the Oxford Dictionary of Contemporary Idiomatic English, as this classification is based on extensive research and is also convenient from the practical point of view. However, the codes by which the types, or patterns, are designated (A1, A2, etc) have been replaced by letters which stand for words describing the nature of the pattern. These provide closer connection between the pattern and its designation and are therefore easier to associate with various patterns.

They are as follows:

IA intransitive pattern with an adverbial particle;

eg: The alarm clock went off at 7 o’clock.

IP - intransitive pattern with a prepositional particle;

eg: I came across that word in a newspaper.

IAP –intransitive pattern with both an adverbial and a prepositional particle;

eg: She put up with the interruptions cheerfully.

TA – transitive pattern with an adverbial particle;

eg: He looked up the word in the dictionary.

looked the word up

This pattern has two small sub-groups:

TApo – the particle (p) always precedes the object (o), unless the latter is a pronoun.

eg: I wish you’d give up smoking.

give it up.

TAop – the particle always follows the object.

eg: The lecturer got his point across very well.

TP – transitive pattern with a prepositional particle

eg: The instructor put my sister off driving.

TAP – transitive pattern with both an adverbial and a prepositional particle.

eg: You shouldn’t take your resentment out on the children.

Phrasal verbs are semantically complex and combinations display very different levels of idiomaticity. The meanings of some combinations can be worked out from the sum of the meanings of their parts, but other combinations are like idioms and cannot be unpacked in this way. This is the problem of ‘compositionality’

In this way, based on compositionality, we have classified phrasal verbs as:

1) transparent phrasal verbs,

2) semi-transparent phrasal verbs?

3) opaque phrasal verbs. These may be called ‘literal’, ‘semi-idiomatic’ and ‘idiomatic phrasal verbs’, which we think are roughly similar divisions.

Literal phrasal verbs consist of a verb which retains its basic concrete meaning and a particle which maintains a literal meaning.

For example: Jo pulled off the glove.

Jo fell overboard.

Literal phrasal verbs are fully compositional and for this reason they do not cause too many problems once it is clear that the verb and the particle are patterning as a unit.

Idiomatic phrasal verb combinations consist of a verb and a particle which are both opaque. Like other types of idiom, they are probably stored whole as units in the lexicon and as such they have to be ‘learnt’ as units.

Semi-idiomatic phrasal verbs are so called because the particle adds a nuance that would not be clear from its basic meaning. The verb retains its lexical meaning in these combinations but the particle does not.

For example: Jo drank up the milk.

Jo played on.


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К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2009

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