Sunday, February 28, 2010

Finding Out About Phrasal Verbs

(When you see an * in the text, it means the two or three words next to it make up a “phrasal verb.”)

One of the most difficult aspects of English for foreign students to master is something we native speakers of English rarely even think about* or hear of*: phrasal verbs. On my shelf of books about English is a hefty volume entitled, “NTC’s Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs and Other Idiomatic Verbal Phrases.” There are more than 12,000 such entries in this tome. True, some entries are idioms (colorful expressions). But what ARE these phrasal verbs? Read on* and find out*!

Phrasal verbs – among the most basic phrases and expressions in our language -- take one base verb then add a word ‘particle’ (looks like a preposition but doesn’t operate like one grammatically) to express a certain meaning. A two-year-old can use phrasal verbs: “Pick me up” or “Go out now?” Even my cat understands “Get down!” or “Come in.” (That is, he seems to, though he’s better at “come in” than “get down.”)

The base verb alone, however, does not do the job; it’s the little particle that makes all the difference. Use the wrong particle – like “put OFF” instead of “put ON” and you either make no sense, or have said the opposite of what you meant to say. Such a small slip explains why most foreign languages use completely different verbs – like the French “chercher” for “look for,” and “regarder” for “look at” -- whereas English speakers just switch a little word.

Some phrasal verb particles are directional: sit down; stand up; go out; look up. But others create a meaning larger than the word’s regular use: take “off” for instance. If I take something “off” a shelf, I remove it. But if I walk, storm, run, or drive “off,” then I remove myself far into the distance and out of sight.

Think of* “turn” “turn around,” “turn in” “turn into” “turn in on,” etc. -- each one requiring a separate definition. This could make you turn against* English!

Think about* the difference between “cleaning” your room and “cleaning out” your room. Or “writing” a message and “writing down” a message.

And try explaining why “wind up” and “wind down” can mean the same thing.

Yet despite these intricacies, native speakers of English – even the most illiterate or grammar-phobic – rarely (if ever) make mistakes with phrasal verbs (or the phrasal nouns and adjectives derived from them).

There is so much to say about phrasal verbs, it makes me realize how concise that 12,000-entry phrasal verb dictionary actually is. But rather than risk losing readers with my enthusiasm for the subject, I will instead cut to* the inspiration for this blog - a recent letter to the Language Lady from Renee, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in New York, who writes:

“Dear Language Lady,

One of my colleagues is teaching phrasal verbs and ran across* "find out" vs "find out about." Our whole troupe of teachers is stumped: We can't figure out* why it's “find out” the rules, but “find out about” volunteering. Both rules and volunteering are nouns so why do we need the preposition for one but not the other? (the two **added by The Language Lady)

Can you help?”

Thanks for asking, Renee.

The key here is the word, “about,” which means “concerning; in regard to;” “referring to different sides or aspects of something.”

The phrasal verb, “to find out” means to search and confirm or discover (“discover” is too big a word for the act, really, but it’s the closest either the dictionary or I could get) the answer to something fairly straightforward or already written down: We “find out,” for example, what the homework is; what time a movie starts; a person’s last name; and, as Renee asked, “the rules,” which given the context, are presumably ones already ones set down and recorded.

“To find out ABOUT” something changes the meaning; “about” implies that there is something bigger than a simple answer to confirm or discover. If someone asked you to “find out about” someone’s last name, you might look into* the name’s ethnic origin, meaning, change or spelling, etc. to uncover various elements “concerning,” “in regard to,” or “about” the name. So to “find out about” volunteering would involve several calls or queries to see how to go about* it, what choices there are, whom to contact, etc. In other words, finding out about something entails more than a pre-determined fact or answers, but a larger scope of different things to think about* or consider.

Just one more thing: why Renee is right when she says that both “rules” and “volunteering” are nouns. “Volunteering,” in the context of finding out about it, is a “gerund” – that is, a noun formed from a verb. And when a verb form follows a preposition (or phrasal verb particle), it almost always takes a gerund. This is why we say “to look forward to _______ing” (seeing, doing, meeting, etc.) or “from _______ing (listening, talking, running, etc.). To find out “about” something requires a gerund as well – hence, “volunteering.”

So keep on* coming up with* excellent questions and The Language Lady will happily follow up* and get back to* you.