Stage of Fools

Last week I taught my students everything they need to know about phrasal verbs. Here is the gist of it:

…a small subset of 20 lexical verbs combines with eight adverbial particles (160 combinations) to account for more than one half of the 518,923 phrasal verb occurrences identified in the megacorpus. A more specific analysis indicates that only 25 phrasal verbs account for nearly one-third of all phrasal-verb occurrences in the British National Corpus, and 100 phrasal verbs account for more than one half of all such items. Subsequent semantic analyses show that these 100 high-frequency phrasal verb forms have potentially 559 variant meaning senses.

Gardner and Davies

That’s it, in a nutshell. 20 lexical verbs (set, get, be, put, pick, point etc.) and 8 particles (off, on, up etc.) are all you need, pretty much, to speak English (the purist might want to add a few pronouns and perhaps a few nouns, but if you have mastered the art of pointing with your finger (in shops, at menus etc.) you probably don’t need to bother much with nouns either).

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Of course, the sting is in the tail. That handful of phrasal verbs generates a vast array of meanings and idioms. Today in class we found ourselves being drawn into the vortex of put off, which, at a lowly 82 on the list of most frequently used phrasal verbs, resolves into a fragrant soup of polysemy on even cursory inspection (put off a meeting, put you off your dinner, put me off my stroke; and so on); not long before that we had steered deftly around the reef of set up (no.3 on the most frequent phrasal verbs list), during which I made the mistake of mentioning that set has more definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary than any other headword, and yet we rarely teach it.

When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools, says old King Lear. So must our students feel, sometimes, when we lift the lid of the chaos of language for them.

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