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.)


Phrasal Verbs — The Good News (The Pronunciation)

The pronunciation pattern of phrasal verbs is less complicated than the grammar. Phrasal verbs have a stable, predictable stress pattern, which is: the 2nd word gets the stress. That means that the 2nd part is said more strongly (or, it sounds louder, longer and higher).

Some examples:
call OFF
pass aWAY
run INto
make UP
hang ON to
look UP to
drop IN on

This stress pattern holds true whether the phrasal verb is un-separated, or when separated by just one or by several words.
They called OFF the meeting.
They called it OFF.
They called all of the remaining sessions OFF.

Listening for the stress can help you distinguish between a normal preposition and a phrasal verb. Prepositions are normally weak, unstressed words in a sentence, but as part of a phrasal verb, they are stressed clearly. The following two sentences show the difference.

We turned on the wrong street.
In this sentence “on” is a preposition. It is pronounced weakly and can be hard to hear because prepositions are not normally stressed.

We turned on all the lights.
In this sentence “on” is part of a phrasal verb. It is strong and easy to hear because the second word of phrasal verbs do receive stress.

When speaking it is important to say phrasal verb stress correctly because you could accidentally say something you didn’t intend. Let’s use the sentence “I ran into the store” for an example. The meaning will be different if you change the stress pattern.

“Into” as a preposition
As a preposition, “into” should be unstressed, and the words “ran” and “store” are both strongly stressed, which gives: I ran into the store. You would say it this way if you were in a hurry or if you wanted to get out of the rain.

“Into” as part of a phrasal verb
As part of a phrasal verb, “into” should be stressed, making “into” and “store” the two strongest words in the sentence. That would give: I ran into the store. Now, I hope that you don’t ever need to say it that way, because that would mean that you crashed — if you walked without looking where you were going, or if you had a driving accident and hit the store with a car.

So, the good news is, knowing about the stress pattern of phrasal verbs can help you improve your pronunciation, and also help you with figuring out a little bit of grammar.

(There are so many phrasal verbs in English that it might help to study them a bit — here are some books that I would recommend.)

Phrasal Verbs — The Bad News (The Grammar)

The topic of phrasal verbs includes a little grammar and a little pronunciation. Since the grammar part is more complicated than the pronunciation part, this introduction to phrasal verbs covers the “bad news”.

First, what is a phrasal verb?
In order to speak in English, it is important to know about phrasal verbs. They are used very frequently in spoken English — much more than in written English — and so students who have studied English mostly through reading and writing are sometimes not be aware of them.

Phrasal verbs are also sometimes called two-word verbs or three-word verbs, because they use two or three parts to make up one verb. In a two-word verb, the first part is a basic verb, and the second part looks like a preposition. Here are some examples:

“pass away” which means: to die. For example: His grandfather passed away last year.
“make up” means: to invent. She had to make up a story for drama class.
“call off” means: to cancel. The meeting was called off at the last minute.
“run into” means: to meet by chance. I ran into an old friend last week.

For three-word verbs the third part also looks like a preposition.
“hang on to” means: to keep. I think I’ll hang on to this, it might be useful later.
“look up to” means: to respect or admire. It’s hard to look up to someone who is not honest.
“drop in on” means: to make an unexpected visit. Let’s drop in on Joe to see if he wants to join us.

Here are some important things to know about the grammar of phrasal verbs.

1. Are they separable or non-separable?
Some phrasal verbs can be separated and some cannot. If they are separable, other words can be in between the two parts.

An example of a separable phrasal verb is “call off”. It can be used together or separated.
They called off the meeting.
They called the meeting off.

But if a pronoun is used in place of the noun, then the phrasal verb must be separated.
They called it off.
It is not correct to say: ! They called off it.

An example of a non-separable phrasal verb is “run into”.
I ran into an old friend.
It is not correct to say: ! I ran an old friend into.

2. Some phrasal verbs have more than one meaning.

“make up” can mean…
invent: She had to make up a story for drama class.
compensate: We can make up the lost time if we hurry.
reconcile: They were angry with each other all day, but finally decided to make up.

Phrasal verbs can be confusing because there are thousands of them, some have several meanings, some are separable, and some are not. The bad news is that you can’t easily predict which ones are separable and which are non-separable. So you need to be aware of them, and watch out for them. They are used all the time in spoken English.

(Note: There are workbooks and dictionaries available just for phrasal verbs — here are a few that I would recommend.)