Chicken or Egg? Phrasal Verbs & Compound Nouns

Many phrasal verbs have a similar looking compound noun. For example, the phrasal verb “take off”, which means “to depart”, corresponds to the noun “takeoff”, which means “departure”.

Here they are in sentences:
The plane could not take off until the snow was cleared.
Why was the takeoff delayed so long?

Phrasal verbs are distinguished from compound nouns by the stress. The stress of phrasal verbs is on the 2nd part, but compound nouns are stressed on the 1st part. Listen to the stress in the these examples:

turn out
This new cake recipe did not turn out very well.
Voter turnout is expected to be high for the next election.

work out
They went to the gym to work out.
The fitness instructor started them on a new workout.

drive through
Let’s drive through so we don’t have to get out of the car.
The drive-through is open even if the dining room is closed.
(Note: this noun is often spelled “drive thru” –it’s easier to put on a sign that way)

break down
The car broke down again? We really need to get a new one.
There was a breakdown in communications after they discovered the new evidence.

break through
I hope the sun breaks through the clouds soon – it’s been raining all week.
There have been many medical breakthroughs in the last 50 years.

knock out
The storm knocked out the electricity in the whole town.
The boxer won by a knockout in the first round.

carry on
We will have to carry on the best we can even without his help.
How many carry-ons does this airline allow?

call back
Will you please ask John to call me back when he arrives?
They promised a callback to let us know when it’s ready.

turn over
Let’s turn this project over to someone with more experience.
That job has a lot of turnover – most workers don’t stay more than a year.

give away
They are going to give prizes away at the grand opening.
Then they will have a giveaway of gift cards next month.

You may have noticed that in some of these examples the phrasal verb and the compound noun have similar meanings, while others do not. In reality, each of these nouns and verbs have several meanings. One other thing to know is that not every phrasal verb has a corresponding compound noun.

So, that leads us to the chicken-or-the-egg question: which came first, the phrasal verbs or the compound nouns? I’m not exactly sure, but I would guess it’s the phrasal verbs. Either way, new phrasal verbs and new compound nouns are being invented in English all the time. So keep your eyes open for them, and remember to be careful with the stress.

(There are many websites for learning English that have lists of phrasal verbs, but the best resource that I have found is The Macmillan Dictionary. The definitions and examples seem to be very thorough.)

4 thoughts on “Chicken or Egg? Phrasal Verbs & Compound Nouns

  1. Prepositions are not stressed words. But what about two syllables prepositions as before or among? Do they need to be stressed?
    Thank you so much

    • Two-syllable prepositions, such as “before” or “among” have word stress. That means there is a weaker and a stronger syllable in the word: beFORE, aMONG. However, within a sentence, they are still much weaker than the normal strong words (nouns, verbs, etc.), unless there is a reason to make them strong for the purpose of clarification. For example: I want to eat before the movie, not after.

  2. Our choir director feels you must say thee anxious ; not the anxious ; I was taught to only change the word “the” to “thee” if the next word has a long vowel starting ; who is right

    • The word “the” is pronounced two ways. The weak way is with a schwa sound, but the strong way has a clear “E” sound. The weak way is most frequent. The strong way is sometimes used for making emphasis, or before a word that starts with a vowel — it could be either a Long-vowel or a Short-vowel — but this rule is not 100%. When singing in a choir, sometimes some vowel sounds are slightly different from normal speaking patterns, because it sounds nicer, or more musical, that way.

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