Series: Get To Know English

How do you say ‘postpone’ in another way?

Did you say ‘put off’?

Which comes to mind first: ‘postpone’ or ‘put off’? Do you postpone or put off housework?

Most of us would say the latter. Would you call ‘postpone’ the ‘fancy way’ of saying the same thing? Do you think ‘put off’ sounds more simplistic?

Welcome to the wonderful world of phrasal verbs — the words we build with verbs and prepositions. [record scratch] Wait. Prepositions? For the grammar novice, a preposition is a word that indicates position, like: off, on, over, under, after, in, for, up, etc. In phrasal verbs the preposition/s attached after a verb change the meaning of the verb, like so:

Think about the difference between ‘eat’ and ‘eat up’.

In this case, ‘up’ refers to completion. We finish our meal. We eat everything up.

Or, try this:

Think about the difference between ‘make’ and ‘make up’.

What does ‘up’ change here? Does ‘make up’ mean ‘to complete creation’, like in ‘eat up’, or does it mean ‘to fictionalise’?

As you can see, when you try to create a consistent, airtight rule, you soon start making exceptions.

This is a nightmare for learners of English. Phrasal verbs present the biggest challenge to most students of the language. Only some other Germanic languages such as German, Swedish and Dutch, for example, create new verbs with prepositions like English does. This might be why these learners take to the language much quicker than do their Romance language counterparts who, conversely, share almost double the vocabulary with English as Germanic ones. In fact, English borrowed so many words from French and Latin that most phrasal verbs have a ‘Latinate’ equivalent, like ‘postpone’ is to ‘put off’.

Most elementary English textbooks will start with a handful of phrasal verbs: wake up, sit down, stand up — ones for which their Latinate equivalent sounds awkward or archaic. No one says “I gained consciousness at eight, retired to my desk, elevating from time to time to defecate”, but hats off to you if you do. After this, phrasal verbs take an understandable back seat while students wrap their heads around syntax and spelling. Then, suddenly, advanced students run into a bunch of words they know they know, but can’t figure out through logical deduction what they mean.

The trouble with phrasal verbs is that they tap into a primal part of a native English speaker’s cerebral cortex. Phrasal verbs imprint on us very early on in our language development because they are the words our parents use to speak to us. They are short. They are ‘simple’. They are the building blocks we learn to play with first. We learn ‘put off’ before ‘postpone’. This follows the fact that these ‘simpler’ words are much older than their Latinate counterparts and have Old Norse or Anglo-Saxon roots. We instinctively reach further back into our linguistic past for economy of communication. Phrasal verbs are our casual conversation markers. In fact, we’re so comfortable in their presence that they’re ubiquitous in English wordplay. While it can be difficult to explain the preposition’s purpose to a learner of English, native speakers can decipher meaning from joke words that resemble other, familiar phrasal verbs. We can add ‘off’ to most verbs to indicate a competition: “face off”, “sing off”, “bake off”, “chili cook off”.

The complications don’t end there, either. English phrasal verbs come with extra baggage.

Think on the following:

How do you know it’s “I’ll look into the file” and not “I’ll look the file into”?

Why can we say “I can’t make anything here outand “I can’t make out anything here” and yet we can’t say “I can’t make out it” when we say “I can’t make it out”?

Some phrasal verbs can be separated, others cannot. The object pronoun (me, you, it, him, her, us, them) never comes after a separable phrasal verb, but always comes after an inseparable one. If your head hurts getting it around this information, you’re not alone.

Consider the English learner next time you’re in a position to tone down your language. More often than not, the phrasal verbs you use to make things simpler for a tourist or international student don’t help. Saying “hop in a taxi” is not easier for them to understand, even though you might think it should be.

Click here for the next instalment: Present Perfect