Exploring new phrasal verbs: drilling down and dialling it up (part 2)

Exploring new phrasal verbs: drilling down and dialling it up (part 2)


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

In the last post, we considered various interpretations of the term ‘phrasal verb’ and  examined how they are used in terms of grammar and register. We then looked at how we at Collins went about identifying both new phrasal verbs and new uses of existing ones. 

Increased use of particles

There has been very little research done into whether there are increasing numbers of phrasal verbs entering the language, but a quick N-gram search on the commonest particles showed this.

Note that you can specify ‘particle’ in the search, which allows us to look specifically at how these ‘small words’ are used in phrasal verbs.

While there were, of course, lots of completely new phrasal verbs to add the the 4th edition (and we’ll look at those in a moment), we also noticed that people were adding particles to words that already had the intended meaning.

For example, people are told to ‘Wait up and ‘Listen up’ rather than just ‘Wait’ or ‘Listen’.

And people aren’t only adding apparently unnecessary particles to the more Germanic words in the language. At the time of writing this post, I had a break for an online yoga class and the yoga teacher told us to ‘extend our legs out’. And someone on the radio this morning mentioned that we might have to ‘revert back’ to an earlier plan.

You’ll see from the N-gram graph above that the particles that have made the greatest strides are ‘up’ and ‘out’. This very much bears out what we found when we were researching new phrasal verbs for our dictionary.

As well as wait up and listen up, which we saw earlier, we were hearing things like:

I need to draft up an email to send to Pauline.

How is that different from simply drafting an email?

And my partner, who was was attending a webinar, noticed that the speaker had said:

Our ideas were echoed out by the teaching team.

We also noticed a tendency to add a particle to a noun, so you might hear, for example,

You’d better lawyer up!

(noticed by Ramesh Krishnamurthy on a US crime drama.)


Looking forward to listening to some great speakers and nerding out over archives!

(spotted on Twitter)

I think we can probably safely say that anyone who has read this far is ‘nerding out’ over phrasal verbs …

New uses of existing phrasal verbs

One new (to the UK, anyway) sense of an existing phrasal verb that has caused much consternation among people who like to talk about language is ‘reach out’. This one has really taken off over the last few years. The traditional meaning of ‘reach out’ was always as shown in the last edition of COBUILD Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs:

Interestingly, it is used to talk about people both offering and asking for help and reassurance. In the past it was often used by charities and religious organisations to talk about helping people in great need.

However, the ‘new’ sense is used far more generally:

Some people really hate this. They think it sounds fake, especially when it is used by people trying to sell you something. Here’s a selection of opinions from commenters on the social question-and-answer website Quora.

‘I feel like this is a manipulative phrase. I mean, if someone is actually 'reaching out’ to me, how could any feeling person ever reject such an offer of compassion and sincerity?’

Reach out goes on my short list of words and phrases that should be dragged down a dark alley, forced to listen to Barney the Dinosaur songs and Justin Bieber …

 ‘I first heard it from the annoying horde of mortgage brokers who wanted to "just reach out" and see what I thought of their cheap mortgage deals. And then it appeared more and more often from charities, political calls, even appointment reminders. It was spreading, spreading … If you are hearing it, advise people to stop with the synthetic emotional outreach and talk like a normal human being.’

People feel so strongly about it that there is even a meme relating to it:

(For anyone who doesn’t get the reference to the Four Tops, they were a great Motown band in the 1960s who sang a song called ‘Reach out, I’ll be there’.)

Teasing out the meaning of different particles

Collating and analysing content recently added to the Collins Corpus from social media sites and news articles, we identified the most commonly used new phrasal verbs and explored the ways in which they are being formed. We then examined the particles and categorised them semantically to help users of the new COBUILD Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs to work out meanings for themselves.

So can we help our learners to gain some agency in working out what new coinages or unfamiliar coinages mean?

Well, the whole area of interpretation of particle meaning is widely discussed and much written about. One thing we can conclude is that it certainly isn’t a precise science.

Sometimes we don’t know why people are adding particles like ‘up’, ‘out’ or ‘off’ to an existing verb, but we can speculate.

  • In a cookery show on TV, why do chefs say they’re going to ‘cook off the onions’?
  • Why did my daughter want to ‘draft up an email’?
  • Why did the speaker on a recent webinar say that her ideas were echoed out by the teachers?

In many cases, I think perhaps the speaker simply wants to sound more informal, conversational, approachable – less stuffy, academic or formal. In other cases (and I think this is very common) the speaker is creatively merging two concepts in their head. For example:

  • Draft up might be based on the particle use in type up or write up.
  • Echoed out might be based on echoed and borne out.
  • And the TV chef is not only frying the onions, but frying them off – getting it done quickly and efficiently, following the same pattern as that found it dash off, knock off, rattle off or polish off.

When choosing which part of the particle index to put our new phrasal verbs in, we had to establish which meaning of the particle we were dealing with.

So, for example, we added airbrush out and grey out under the meaning ‘Removing, exclusing and preventing’. They followed the same pattern as words such as strike out, filter out and cut out.

Scope out was added under the meaning ‘Searching finding and obtaining’, following the same pattern as figure out, find out, puzzle out and suss out.


Call out was added under ‘Attacking, criticizing and protesting’, in the group comprising dish out, lash out and hit out.


Dial up was added under ‘Increasing’, with beef up, heat up, speed up and scale up.

And search up was inserted under ‘discovering’ with look up, dig up and chase up.


If you’d like to see a list of all the new phrasal verbs we added for this edition, take a look at the supplement at the end of the dictionary, ‘New phrasal verbs: where do they come from?’ It contains:

  • short explanations of tendencies we saw
  • how they work grammatically and pragmatically
  • any related compound nouns (e.g. pop up à pop-up)
  • the general meaning of their particles
  • examples taken from the corpus and other authentic sources

Here, the phrasal verbs are divided up into sections. You’ll see that by far the most productive sections are business, technology, media and social media. The general meaning of the particles are explained, and the reader can cross-refer to the particles index for more verbs that follow the same patterns.

Have you heard any new phrasal verbs recently? What do you think of the idea of categorising particles semantically to help users work out meanings for themselves? Is it worth it? Or is it easier for students simply to learn each phrasal verb individually?