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Sunday, June 19, 2005

Phrasal verbs

In my preceding post I referred to a post at the Language Hat blog which discussed a recent post here on the Better Bibles blog. I replied to languagehat (I never have learned his real name) about his post:
Languagehat, thanks for your very fair treatment of my approach to language issues. Interestingly, I just finished responding to someone's comment on my blog about ending a sentence with a preposition. It turns out that the ugly English from a Bible version, "they do not know over what they stumble," was, apparently trying to follow the proscription against prepositions at the end of sentences, but didn't realize that "over" in this sentence isn't even functioning as a preposition. It is, instead, functioning syntactically in English as a particle, tightly glued to the verb "stumble" and both of them together are called a phrasal verb. And the words of phrasal verbs should not be separated, not by some "school grammar" proscription, but based on important syntactic usage rules. That sentence would sound far better in English as "they do not know what they stumble over."

Come take some of the language usage polls on my blog. Ultimately, discovering the rules which English speakers actually follow should give us the clues to how contemporary English Bibles should be written.

I enjoy visiting your blog, as well as Language Log, and Inflections.
A linguistically sharp reader, named Alex, then responded to my comment:
Are you sure "stumble over" is a phrasal verb in this particular? The paradigm is clearly "stumble over NOUN," with the "over NOUN" part forming a prepositional constituent (which can be raised out of, as in the example sentence, or replaced as a single unit). Further, "stumble" carries the same meaning as "stumble over." Lastly, it can't be used by itself in a sentence: *I stumbled over.

Of course, "stumble over" can be a phrasal verb meaning "to stumble repeatedly," but that's not what you've got here.
I then replied to Alex:
Alex, you raised a good question about the status of "stumble over." You're probably right. I tend to think on my feet and then come back to think again later. Thanks for helping bring me back to think again. In any case, I think it is clear that the original clause I cited does not need to stand as it was written but would sound better with "over" immediately following "stumble," as least in my idiolect (we've always got that escape hatch, eh?!).
Mea culpa! Through these exchanges you and I get to learn more about phrasal verbs, an important category of English verbs which can be difficult for non-native learners of English to master.

I have a couple of dictionaries about phrasal verbs. I should have consulted them as well as other sources before making some of my recent statements I about phrasal verbs, especially that I thought that the clause from the Bible version, "they do not know over what they stumble," had an instance of a phrasal verb, "stumble over."

What are phrasal verbs, then? They are combinations of verbs such as "put", "take, "come", and "go" and particles like "in", "out", "on," and "off". (I was at least right that the latter are particles, even though they act as prepositions in other contexts. Because of this, most people would simply consider them as being in the traditional class of prepositions, unless they have had more recent exposure to English or linguistics classes which do discuss phrasal verbs.) These particles act like adverbs, modifying the verb, as in:
1. put it down ("put down" would be the phrasal verb)
2. stand up
3. call her up ("call up" is the phrasal verb)
4. I took off my socks ("take off" is the phrasal verb)
5. I took my socks off.
6. I took them off. (but not "I took off them")
7. He put on his cap ("put on" is the phrasal verb)
8. He put his cap on.
9. He put it on. (but not "He put on it")
As you can see, my previous comments that a phrasal verb cannot be separated were not true, at least for not all phasal verbs. As can be seen from the preceding sentences 5 and 8, phrasal verbs such as "take off" and "put on" can be separated by their object. But other phrasal verbs cannot be separated by their objects, for example, in sentence 10 the object "tree" cannot separate the verb "ran" from its phrasal particle "into":
10. I ran into a tree (but not "I ran a tree into")
Even though I began formal linguistic studies about 35 years ago, I had not done any detailed study of phrasal verbs during any of that time. I'm not sure how I missed out on that since phrasal verbs are so important within English syntax. In any case, this has been a good learning experience, and I am thankful to Alex for stimulating me to go back to the books and think again about phrasal verbs.

Now, what does this have to do with Bible translation? Well, obviously, a good English translation of the Bible needs to have proper use of phrasal verbs. An English translator needs to know the difference between the syntactic behavior of true prepositions and particles which are part of phrasal verbs.

And I would say, again, that there is no logical reason why the clause in question, which started this discussion, "they do not know over what they stumble" should not be expressed in more natural English as:
they do not know what they stumble over" (NRSV)
In fact, I think that the NRSV wording could be revised further to even better English as in:
Proverbs 4:19
they do not know what makes them stumble (NIV, TNIV, NKJV, GW)
they do not know what causes them to stumble (NET)
they cannot tell the obstacles they stumble over (NJB)
[they] ... have no idea what they are stumbling over. (NLT)


At Tue Jun 21, 09:04:00 AM, Anonymous Richard Hershberger said...

A caveat with regard to phrasal verbs is that not everyone uses the same definition. I follow that in Quirk et al, and don't consider sentence 10 to have a phrasal verb. That use of 'ran into' is a prepositional verb, i.e. a verb which takes its complement as a prepositional phrase. In this stricter sense the phenomenon you illustrate with sentence 9 is a defining characteristic of a transitive phrasal verb. It's all more complicated than this, of course. Chapter 16 of Quirk et al devotes many pages to the subject.


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