Last week we brought you an excerpt from Constance Hale's new book, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, focusing on the power of phrasal verbs. In this second part, Hale looks at just how productive those "fertile phrasals" have grown to be.

Here's another thing to know about phrasal verbs: they are like arugula, tasting like a vegetable but acting like a weed, regenerating like mad in the garden. This explains why set claims more real estate than any other word in the Oxford English Dictionary: the entry for that innocent verb includes more than 430 senses, consisting of approximately 60,000 words or 326,000 characters.

What's so cool about phrasal verbs is the versatility they give us. Each expression conveys a shade of meaning that would not be possible without the particle.

Mix different synonyms with different particles and the ways to describe an activity increase geometrically. Start with eat and add a particle; you get eat up. Swap in synonyms, adjust the particles, and the imagination goes nuts with gustatory possibilities: chow down, gobble up, pig out, scarf up, tuck in, pork out, polish off, put away, take in, peck at, and dispatch within seconds.

What's not so cool about phrasal verbs is that one combo can mean several different things. Come out has eighteen different meanings, encompassing cotillions in Manhattan and street parties in San Francisco's Castro district.

Log in, meet up — but don't bog down

Another vexing thing about phrasal verbs is that they can gang up with prepositions and other words:

  • gang up on (as in "My family ganged up on me")
  • walk out on ("At least my husband didn't walk out on me")
  • face up to ("Family harmony requires facing up to problems")
  • fix up with ("I tried to fix my daughter up with Joan's son")
  • get away with ("My girl wasn't about to let me get away with that")
  • meet up with ("She met up with me at the movie theater")

Some of these beefier gangs can trip up even the deftest wordsmiths. Phrasal verbs emerging out of the tech sector are especially tricky, because they are so colloquial. Back in 1996, many writers and editors followed the verb log with into. The editors of Wired magazine (aka yours truly) tried to set them straight in the irreverent Wired Style:

Keep the to discrete — don't write "log onto" or "log into." Unconvinced by our prepositional logic? Consider the difference between He came on to me and He came onto me.

To use phrasal verbs without making mistakes, we have to understand them. Log on means "to access a computer or network." When we're done, we log off. Two phrasal verbs. In both, we must keep the verb and particle unconjoined in order to enjoy different tenses: it's log on, logging on, and logged on, after all — can you imagine the spelling train wrecks that would result if we started with logon? Could we live with a gerund like logoning?

Log on might be the most common phrasal verb brought to us by geekspeak, but it's hardly the only one. Jack in and dial up gained currency in the Internet age, goto tells a computer to perform a one-way transfer of control to another line of code, while Mailto refers to the code that makes an email address in a text or HTML message clickable. Mashup is an application that combines data, or functionality, from two or more sources to create new services. More recently, we've had the social-media success stories StumbleUpon and LinkedIn. (Clearly, neologists have ignored the call to separate verbs and particles.)


Reprinted from Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing by Constance Hale. Copyright © 2012 by Constance Hale. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.