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Understanding Verb Particles
As noted in a recent GrammarBook e-newsletter article, verbs form both the engine and the steering wheel driving our language.
They determine the direction and speed of a sentence.
Sometimes, we’ll spot other words riding with them in the passenger
seat. They’re not verbs, but they still attach themselves with seat
belts secured. We accept and use those words because we know the main verb
needs them for where we want to go in expressing ourselves.
These verb-car passengers are referred to as verb particles. Verb particles are the add-ons in verb phrases with idiomatic meanings—i.e., their definition is not obvious from the words creating the phrase.
Consider a sentence such as “She looked up the number in her cell
phone’s contact list.” The verb is “looked.” The
verb particle is “up.” A literal, non-idiomatic reading of the
words alone would lead us to think she was physically looking up, perhaps
toward the sky or a ceiling. Idiomatically, however, we understand she is
retrieving the number from her phone.
Some other common verb particles are “in,” “off,”
“down,” “over,” and “out,” as used in
the following examples:
Facing constituent pressure, the governor gave in
to the Senate’s proposed legislation.
Would you please break off a piece of that
chocolate bar for me?
Analysts agree the company’s bold marketing campaign will beat down the competition.
That’s a tough question. Let me mull over
my answer for a while.
Will you be checking out of your room soon?
Here are several more verbs that include particles to achieve their
As shown here, the verb particle is often needed to convey the right idea.
At the same time, we need to watch for particles that seem like they belong
but make the phrase a tautology—e.g., continue on, close down. These examples would not lose meaning or clarity without the particle and thus are not idiomatic.
In certain other cases, a particle might create a tautology, but we still
need it for proper writing and speech. One such instance involves the verb
“sit,” which by definition does not need the particle
“down” for clarity. However, imagine using “sit”
instead of “sit down” when addressing a person instead of a
It’s always easier to use and ride with a particle in your verb car
when you know what it is, why it’s there, and, equally important, if
it belongs. Just determine if together the verb and particle are idiomatic
and not tautological. If so, leave them connected and keep your content
If not, pull over, let the passenger out, and wish it the best in finding
another good sentence.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your comments or questions regarding today's (or any past) article through GrammarBook.com’s Grammar Blog
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