How to Write with Idioms or Phrasal Verbs
In this lesson, you will learn how to identify idioms and phrasal verbs. Once you can recognize these parts of speech, you will be able to use them yourself in your writing.
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An idiom in English, or in any other language, is simply another term for a turn of phrase. Idioms often don’t make sense when you read them literally, but have very important contextual cultural meanings. What do I mean by that?
For instance, to ‘sound off’ on someone means to yell at them for some perceived slight, but literally, it appears to mean something like ‘to turn the sound off,’ which is pretty close to the opposite of its idiomatic meaning. There are many more. ‘Killing two birds with one stone’, for instance, means to accomplish several goals in a single effort, while ‘take with a pinch of salt’, far from literally adding seasoning to something, means to hold some doubt in your mind about what someone or something is claiming.
These expressions you simply have to learn, and thus the title of this lesson is a little bit of a misnomer. I am going to teach you about idioms and will describe for you how they’re put together and some of the more common ones, but the fact is that all of the idioms in English are too numerous to list in any 10-minute lesson. Think of this lesson, instead, as a primer for further exploration.
The other thing that you should be aware of is that loose idiomatic expressions, like the ones I’ve just described, are not usually appropriate for academic writing. A scholarly essay demands that you be precise, and too many idioms can get in the way of expressing yourself clearly. That said, idioms in looser work - like a personal essay or a memoir piece - can lend great character to your work. Let’s look at a few of the different types of idioms that you see in everyday usage.
A phrasal verb is a kind of idiomatic expression that usually consists of a verb and a preposition or adverb, often followed by a direct object. Because it combines more than one word, it’s sometimes also called a multi-word verb (as weird as that sounds).
Like more whimsical idioms, it’s not always clear from the expression’s literal meaning what the figurative meaning of a phrasal verb is. It may be clear, for instance, that ‘eat out’ means to eat outside of the home, but the phrasal verb ‘pans out’ does not mean you’re suddenly flashing your cookware for the world to see. It means that something ended up being successful. As in: ‘Since the stove broke at home, going out to dinner really panned out.’
There are more than 3,000 phrasal verbs in the English language, so it would be impossible to list them all, but I hope that by showing you how they’re constructed - and the different types of phrasal verbs there are - you can recognize them in the wild and use them correctly yourself.
Separable Phrasal Verbs
A separable phrasal verb is called separable because the object can be separated from the phrasal verb (or not) depending on how it’s written, but the general meaning remains intact no matter how you write it. One such phrasal verb is the expression ‘hold up,’ which means to delay. This can be expressed as one complete expression, as in, ‘I had to hold up the meeting, because the office had disappeared’ (in this case ‘the meeting’ is the object), or separated with the object between the verb (hold) and preposition (up), as in ‘I had to hold the meeting up because the office had disappeared.’ In both cases, the phrasal verb’s meaning remains the same. If the meaning changes when you change the position of the object, the phrasal verb is not separable.
The one slight exception to this rule is when the direct object is a pronoun (I, you, me, we, he, she, it, they, et cetera). In this case, the pronoun that is the object must come between the verb and the preposition. There’s no option of putting it anywhere else. As in, ‘I’ve been meaning to look you up.’ where ‘look up’ is the separable phrasal verb, and ‘you’ is the pronoun/object. ‘You’ must appear in between the two parts of the phrasal verb because it wouldn’t make sense to say ‘I’ve been meaning to look up you.’
Other separable phrasal verbs include expressions like ‘back up’ (to save a duplicate in case the original is lost or damaged), ‘pay off’ (to bribe), and ‘throw away’ (to waste something), among others.
Inseparable Phrasal Verbs
By contrast, inseparable phrasal verbs follow a similar format to separable phrasal verbs, but cannot be split up. Here are a couple of examples with the phrasal verbs in bold.
‘I really wish that lizard boy would stop hitting on me.’ ‘Hitting on’ is the idiom here, meaning, to flirt with, (this is an idiom precisely because what you don’t do when flirting with someone is hit them - this is clearly a figure of speech), while ‘me’ is the object. This phrasal verb is inseparable because putting the object between the verb and its preposition would alter its meaning.
For instance, ‘I really wish that lizard boy would stop hitting me on’ suddenly makes no sense.
Other inseparable phrasal verbs include expressions like ‘look after’ (which means to care for), ‘run for’ (to campaign, like as for a political office), ‘go through’ (to use up, as in ‘Elijah could go through all of his allowance in a day.’), ‘get away with’ (not be discovered or punished) and ‘get along with’ (have a good relationship with), though there are, of course, many more.
Intransitive Phrasal Verbs
Intransitive phrasal verbs are a little bit of a different beast from the other types we’ve discussed. Like other phrasal verbs, these usually consist of a verb and an adverb or preposition. Unlike those we’ve discussed before, intransitive phrasal verbs are not followed by a direct object, though they can be followed by an indirect object. For instance:
‘This will all blow over,’ Rachel said, watching Jeff’s father’s prized Lamborghini disappear into the ocean.’
The intransitive phrasal verb here is ‘blow over,’ which in this context means it will ultimately not do permanent damage (presumably to Jeff’s relationship with his parents). As you can see, it doesn’t require an object to make it work; the expression has meaning on its own. Let me give you a few other examples of intransitive phrasal verbs:
‘The driver of the 1960s Mustang was a total show off .’
‘Alice had to check out before she left.’
‘My little sister always talks back to me.’
To recap, an idiom is a turn of phrase that means something different in the context of the language than its literal meaning. ‘Get your head on straight,’ for instance, means to start thinking clearly - not to literally straighten your neck.
A phrasal verb is a kind of idiom with a specific grammatical construction, usually consisting of a verb and a preposition or adverb.
With a separable phrasal verb, the object can be separated from the verb and the preposition and placed between them without changing the meaning of the expression.
Inseparable phrasal verbs, by contrast, must remain together or lose their meaning.
Intransitive phrasal verbs, unlike most phrasal verbs, do not require an object for it to make sense, though sometimes an object is implied.
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