Exploring new phrasal verbs: drilling down and dialling it up (part 1)

Exploring new phrasal verbs: drilling down and dialling it up (part 1)


Exploring new phrasal verbs: drilling down and dialling it up

This is the first in a series of two posts about the process of putting together the new edition of the COBUILD Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs, published in 2020, together with a new edition of COBUILD Dictionary of Idioms.

With new phrasal verbs continuing to proliferate in the English language, we at COBUILD surveyed a variety of news and other media sources to identify the most frequent new phrasal verbs for the Collins COBUILD Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs.

What is a phrasal verb?

Before we go any further, let’s just summarise what a phrasal verb is. (Hint: there is not really a consensus on what constitutes a phrasal verb.)

Here are a few definitions from various English language sources. This is a very simple one:

‘a verb combined with an adverb or a preposition, or sometimes both, to give a new meaning, for example, go in for, win over and see to

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online

In the next one, note use of the term ‘particle’, and reference to a ‘particular meaning’:

‘a combination of a verb and an adverb or preposition, which has a particular meaning, such as look after, hurry up, give in, chill out, get away with and bring up. An adverb or preposition in a phrasal verb is sometimes called a particle.’

Macmillan Dictionary online

And here, note the reference to the phrasal verb having a different meaning from its parts’:

‘a verb together with an adverb or preposition that has a different meaning to the meaning of its separate parts. For example, look up and carry on are phrasal verbs.

Cambridge Dictionary online

However, you will find, particularly in phrasal verb dictionaries, phrasal verbs with literal meanings, too. That’s why some of these definitions say ‘particular meaning’, and not ‘different meaning’. There are several reasons for including these. First, they look like phrasal verbs, and are often the first meaning defined (e.g. go down). They provide a basis for all the other meanings, which are often, but not always related (e.g. food ‘goes down’).

The introduction of the COBUILD Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs adds the following aspects of the phrasal verb:

  • They are sometimes known as multi-word verbs.
  • They are extremely common in English.
  • They can be problematic for learners because …
  • their meaning can be very different from the meaning of the two words used independently (e.g. make up).
  • they are often polysemous (= they have several different meanings); e.g. get on has 13 senses in COBUILD Phrasal Verbs Dictionary.

But if you look in any of the main phrasal verb dictionaries, you’ll see plenty of verbs that simply have dependent prepositions, e.g. fraternize with or mediate between.

This is where the grey area lies: no one can really draw a line between where a phrasal verb starts being a literal two-part verb or simply a verb with a dependent preposition.

Does it have to be figurative? Does it have to mean something completely different from its independent parts?

A cynic might say that the dictionary publishers are happy for that line to be fuzzy because it means they can claim to have more phrasal verbs than their competitors. But whatever the reason, they do little or no harm by being there.

Let’s move on to look at how phrasal verbs are formed.

Some phrasal verbs can only be used transitively:


Others can only be used intransitively:

Others can be both:

In some phrasal verbs, the verb and the particle can be separated by an object:

In others, they cannot be separated:

And with regard to their use, there is frequently a strong collocational association between phrasal verbs and other verbs. When we were working on the COBUILD Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs, we recognised this and made up boxes showing the strongest collocations for those phrasal verbs that have a clear set of collocations.

You’ll also find these collocation boxes at verbs like set up, hand over, get over and deal with.

Finally, again with regard to use, it is commonly said that phrasal verbs are rather informal. While some are, I think it’s more accurate to say that most phrasal verbs are ‘neutral’ or ‘not particularly formal’.

In academic or medical texts, for example, we might prefer to talk about proceeding rather than going ahead, or experiencing something, rather than going through it. For a comprehensive 14-page list of phrasal verbs and their single-word, more formal, equivalents, see page 540 of the new edition of the dictionary.

Of course, there are always exceptions, and we do still find phrasal verbs in formal texts. For example, no scholar would flinch on reading that an experiment had been carried out or that a fellow researcher had pointed out an interesting observation.

Finding new phrasal verbs

How do lexicographers identify new phrasal verbs, apart from generally looking out and listening for them in the course of their everyday life?

One particularly useful source of insights, particularly with regard to new phrasal verbs, has been the Language Observatory Group facebook page, which was set up by Michael McCarthy. Michael often records new phrasal verbs he has noted, particularly in the media, leading contributors to wonder whether the number of phrasal verbs in English is increasing. In the words of commenter Steve Coffey on a recent post on the LOG Facebook page, the English language is still, perhaps more than ever, ‘phrasal verbing itself up’.

We at COBUILD also noticed that political debate, cookery programmes, song lyrics, and a variety of social media channels all bear testament to the claim that new phrasal verbs are continuing to enter the language thick and fast. Ministers, for example, are said to be ‘teeing up’ (= preparing) for a legal fight and ‘dialling up’ (= increasing) the rhetoric. In a business environment, we ‘reach out to’ (= contact) our clients and they ‘push back’ (= resist) when they don’t like our proposals.

In the next post in the series, we’ll look at the various ways in which we create new phrasal verbs in our everyday lives, people’s attitudes to such coinages, and whether there is anything we can do to help learners work out meanings of the particles themselves.