Saturday, May 4, 2013

To separate or not? (2) - a little experiment

As you know, there are many phrasal verbs which can take a direct object, and where that direct object can come between the verb and the particle or after the particle. These are often known as seperable phrasal verbs:
  • He took his hat off
  • He took off his hat
We know that if the direct object is a pronoun we need to separate, but what about if it's a noun. Do native speakers usually separate or not? We'll look at some possible reasons for separating after the exercise.
So I thought I'd do a little experiment and see what Google came up with: how are separable phrasal verbs being used on the web? What I want you to do is decide which of each pair you think is more natural, and then we'll compare the results with the relative numbers of Google hits. All the sentences are grammatically possible, so there aren't really any wrong answers. Just compare your answers with what happens on the Internet.

Group 1 - Choose the sentence in each pair you think sounds better

1. bought out the company 298,000
bought the company out 349,000
2. brought up their children 12,800,000
brought their children up 525,000
3. call the meeting off 80,000
call off the meeting 420,000
4. carried out the operation 15,000,000
carried the operation out 605
5. clear the mess up 339,000
clear up the mess 2,000,000
6. close the factory down 88,300
close down the factory 415,000
7. cut out the middleman 3,300,000
cut the middleman out 278,000
8. chop the meat up 112,000
chop up the meat 638,000
9. chop up the meat into 207,000
chop the meat up into 17,700
10.dressed up her daughter 50,800,000
dressed her daughter up 69,000

Group 2 - Choose the sentence in each pair you think sounds better

1. figured the truth out 38,700
figured out the truth 18,700,000
2. fill out the form 344,000,000
fill the form out 962,000
3. found the truth out 141,000
found out the truth 8,930,000
4. get across his meaning 144,000
get his meaning across 108,000
5. giving up smoking 819,000
giving smoking up 39,000
6. hand the assignment in 76,900
hand in the assignment 3,230,000
7. held a bank up 6,450
held up a bank 597,000
8. let down the side 9,190,000
let the side down 1,290,000
9. pay the loan back 1,790,000
pay back the loan 9,650,000

Group 3 - Choose the sentence in each pair you think sounds better

1. put her coat on 2,140,000
put on her coat 1,110,000
2. saw off her mother 4
saw her mother off 789,000
3. saw off the intruder 1,010
see the intruder off 1,340
4. showed her new dress off 3
showed off her new dress 1,510,000
5. showed off his new car 3,180,000
showed his new car off 5
6. think an excuse up 10
think up an excuse 186,000
7. tidy up your room 730,000
tidy your room up 40,100
8. tore the building down 217,000
tore down the building 395,000
9. turn on the computer 35,600,000
turn the computer on 3,700,000


This is not a scientific experiment, and the findings from Google aren't definitive. For one thing, I've had to make the sentences quite simple, and a lot would depend on the context and the other words used in the sentences. Secondly, I've chosen a relatively small number of phrasal verbs to try it on. But we can make out some patterns:
  • nearly equal - buy sth up, let sb down, see sb off (chase away), tear sth down
  • hardly ever separated - carry sth out, dress sb up, fill sth out, show sb/sth off, think sth up
  • almost always separated - see sb off (say goodbye)
And the rest seem to be somewhere between 5:1 and 200:1 in favour of keeping the verb and the particle together.

A reason for not separating - end-weighting

One thing to bear in mind, is that in all these examples the direct object is relatively short, most of then only one or two words. When the direct object is a longer expression, we are more likely to put it after the particle.
  • He looked the information up in Wikipedia.
  • He looked up the information he needed for his project in Wikipedia.

A reasons for separating - known information

I've also seen it suggested in a linguistics paper that we are more likely to separate the verb and the particle when the object has already been mentioned - it is 'old' or known information. New imformation, however, is more likely to go after the particle. This is in line with the general idea in linguistics that we prefer old information earlier on and new information towards the end of a sentence.
  • He wanted how phrasal verbs worked, so he looked phrasal verbs up on the Internet. We already know what information he was looking for - phrasal verbs - this is 'old' information. By putting 'on the Internet' immediately after the particle, we can put more emphasisi on it.
  • He looked up phrasal verbs on the Internet. This is the first time we have heard about his interest in phrasal verbs, so by putting phrasal verbs after the particle, we draw attention to it.


From this little experiment, it looks as though we don't really separate seperable phrasal verbs that often (except of course when the direct object is a pronoun, which includes somebody, something etc). There are one or two, however, that are almost always separated, such as see somebody off (say goodbye). Others like this include ask somebody out, call somebody back, put somebody through (on the phone).
There is also a small group of phrasal verbs which are always separated, such as ask somebody round, have somebody over, mess somebody about. I've listed about these in a separate post linked to below.
And remember, the longer the direct object, the more likely we are to put it after the particle.

Phrasal verb or verb + preposition?

Remember that not every verb followed by a preposition is a phrasal verb. A phrasal verb has a special meaning different from its component parts. When a verb is simply followed by a preposition, they cannot be separated.
  • She looked through the report.
    She looked it through
  • She looked through the window.
    She went up to the window and looked through it.
  • He turned down their offer.
    He turned it down
  • He turned down a side road.
    He saw a side road and turned down it.


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