Particle Verbs

Recently, I dusted off my unfinished linguistics project.  For something to do.  To fend off the atrophy of my brain.
The bad news is that this led to questions I couldn’t answer.  That was also the good news.

So.  Particle verbs are nice and interesting.  Here’s a brief Intro to Particle Verbs for y’all…

English (and a bunch of other languages) have phrasal verbs.  That’s exactly what it sounds like:  phrases which work as verbs, such as found out or cooked up.

Transitive example (i.e. taking a direct object):

He counts on Susan.
He could presumably be counting from one to thirty while atop Susan.   But it was clearly meant in the sense of depending. Different “on”.

Intransitive example (no direct object):

              She looked into having her car fixed but the quote she got was outrageous.
The into here is not behaving the same way as it would in:
              She put the quote into the glove compartment.

Particle verbs look like ordinary phrasal verbs.  But they have a distinguishing characteristic:  variation.  The direct object can be placed between the verb and the particle or it can be placed after both.


She put the book down before going into the kitchen.
She put down the book before going into the kitchen.

Put = verb;  down = particle.

Other examples of particle verbs are pull in, put together, turn off, invite over, bring down, and many more.

There is no variation with pronouns. (Note: an asterisk before a sentence denotes that it is ungrammatical and a question mark before the sentence implies that it is not entirely clear whether it is grammatical or not. )

I put it down before going into the kitchen.
*I put down it before going into the kitchen.
She called me in for a chat.
*She called in me for a chat.

This is also true for “this” and “that”.
I asked her to clean that up.
*I asked her to clean up that.

It sounds odd but you can easily imagine someone saying it. So maybe it should have a question mark. I leave the asterisk because if this was written in a newspaper there would be letters written to the editors in indignation.

But if the “this” or “that” is part of a noun phrase, it’s all fine and dandy again.

I asked her to clean up that mess.
I asked her to clean that mess up.

I doesn’t work in passive constructions because the object has moved to the subject position.

The book was picked up by Sally.
*Picked the book up by Sally.

Where would you even put the “was” in that sentence?

*Picked was the book up by Sally.
*Picked the book was up by Sally.

And you can have weird noun phrases. They are not subject to variation either. Just as in the passive construction, the object is the head of the phrase.

I like the book she picked up.
*I like she picked the book up.

So why would you care? You might not. I do.

I think the reason I gave about the lack of variation in passive and noun phrase constructions is reasonable. But there could be another reason or you might want to flesh out the theory (particle verb!) a bit more. More interesting for me – and the basis of my project – is about the variation in itself. Rather than be concerned about the situations where variation doesn’t happen, I want to know why sometimes you would say “I picked up the book” and other times “I picked the book up”. And I had a theory. A good theory, I think. (Don’t steal it, please).

My theory is that longer objects will tend to be placed last.

“Duh” you might be thinking. But there’s more.

Longer objects will be placed last in spoken utterances more often than in written speech.

You might still be thinking “duh” but now that’s on you. I’ve got a comparative and a testable hypothesis. I’m ready for a statistical fishing expedition. Boy howdy!

Then I did the really smart thing I’m not going to tell you about.
I’m not going to tell you about the really smart thing I did then.

Once you start seeing variation, you can’t stop seeing it.

I scanned about 1500 pages of written text and went through (phrasal verb!) dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of spoken speech, combing them for particle verbs. I found about 1,200 particle verbs. Of those, only about ten percent were in constructions that allowed for variation. It was in deciding which were “good” particle verbs that I ran into trouble.

For instance, there was the interrupted object:

I will pull out for you the file.
I will pull the file out for you.
I will pull out the file for you.

Spoken emphasis changed the rules and there was general weirdness. These are actual examples from my research.

?You should take on this.
?Can I pull up this into a larger platform?
*You should bring in him.
?If you’re going to take on them, why don’t you just….

Should such examples count? Or are they just production errors? Is there something going on there that I should be paying attention to or is it just noise? If there’s a shift going on where these constructions are becoming grammatical, I want to know about it. Where do you put the asterisks and where the question marks? Can you leave them all off? Oh, native English speakers, lend me your ears! These are not rhetorical questions. I really want to know. Help me!

Side note: in second year, I turned in a paper to an archaeology professor that didn’t have a title. He hadn’t specified that he’d wanted one so I just put my name and student number and the name of the class on it. He took marks off. I was incensed! From then on, I made up the most preposterous titles. (I studied math so I didn’t have to write many papers.) After I gave a doozy to a professor in the linguistics department, he told the entire class about a graduate student he’d once had. This guy had chosen a really freaking complicated project for his PhD thesis. While the university will usually cut you off (particle verb!) after five years, this student had begun his thesis before the university had started using a cut-off (weird version of same particle verb!) time. He was 5 years deep before he started writing. And then he ran into a complication. He defended his thesis 8 years later. The title of his thesis? “What I did on my summer vacation”. I just about fell out of my chair.

FYI – sorry for the crappy formatting.  Don’t know how to fix it.  Tried two different things to fix it and neither seems to work.


Edit note:
Much of the messed up pronoun variation is of a particular kind.  It’s like countable mass nouns.

“Sugar” is a good example.  It’s a mass noun like “furniture”.  You can want less sugar and less furniture.  “Idea” is a countable noun.  You have fewer ideas – not less!!!! –  and you can count them.  You can have three ideas.  You can’t have three furnitures.
You can take two sugars in your coffee.  One sugar, two sugars, three sugars, four!  I just counted them.  But it’s a mass noun…
Because there is an unspoken “packet of” sugar and “packet” is a count noun.

Similarly, when you get an utterance like

You should take on this.

There is an unpoken “project” at the end.

Now it is standard to speak of two sugars.  Is it becoming okay to take on this?   Will it soon be grammatical to bring in him?

Also, that A-ha song from the 80s always runs through my head when I look at examples like this.  What did they think they were doing?


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