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Syntactic Properties of Phrasal Verbs in English Essay (Critical Writing)

Introduction and Brief Summary of the Article

The Grammar of English Phrasal Verbs is an article, written by R. M. W. Dixon in 1982. This work aims at defining the term “phrasal verb” itself and analyzing the properties of phrasal verbs in English from syntactic and semantic perspectives. The article under consideration is properly structured and written in clear and comprehensible language.

With the help of evaluation of past studies in the same area, the reader gets a wonderful opportunity to clear up what is already known about phrasal verbs, why it is necessary to classify phrasal verbs, and why these certain types are chosen, what the peculiarities of transitive and intransitive phrasal verbs are, and why the underlying structures are considered to be the best means of explaining the actions and changes, which take place within phrasal verbs in comparison to the surface structures.

The grammar of phrasal verbs in English takes an important place in the study of this particular language, this is why it is crucially important to pay attention to any type of properties in order to comprehend appropriately how and why it is necessary to classify phrasal verbs. The work by R. M. W. Dixon is a reliable source that provides the reader with all the necessary information about phrasal verbs and their possible classifications.

Phrasal Verbs as a Verb-Preposition Combination

Nowadays, people face more and more problems with defining phrasal verbs, their place in English grammar, and their classifications. It turns out to be rather difficult for not-native speakers to comprehend what phrasal verbs actually mean (Ware & Dowd 2008: 50). Due to this very reason, it is necessary to admit that that article by Dixon should be regarded as a real treasure for those, who are going to start learning English grammar and touch the peculiarities of phrasal verbs in particular.

From the very beginning of the work, the author offers several ideas of how to interpret a phrasal verb. One of the clearest and frequently used points is the idea that phrasal verbs are those verb-preposition combinations, which “cannot be inferred from the separate ‘norm’ semantic characterisations of the simple verb and of the preposition(s)” (Dixon 1982: 1).

Past Studies Help to Evaluate the Situation

With the help of past studies, it is known that phrasal verbs have to be listed separately, as the combinations of verbs and prepositions may present various idiosyncratic meanings, which have to be remembered (Gelderen 2002: 84). In his article, Dixon touches upon such issues like substitution, gapping, fronting, and the position of prepositions.

All these non-semantic criteria help to distinguish phrasal verbs from other literal combinations, which may confuse people and even researchers. For example, the criterion of substitution may be evaluated: only a few number of phrasal verbs can have proper and pure corresponding synonyms (let out may be sometimes interpreted as disclose). It is also necessary to underline another very important criterion of phrasal verbs.

Lots of people still believe that if they interchange the position of a preposition with a non-pronominal post-verbal noun, the meaning of the whole phrase will not be changed. However, as the investigations prove, this point of view is rather mistakable. Many phrasal verbs cannot be divided into a simple verb and a preposition; this is why it is crucially important to study the use of phrasal verbs and their location in the sentences.

In order to comprehend better how dangerous the substitution or wrong placement of words can be in English sentences can be, it is possible to make use of phrase structure trees. It is “a way of representing the linear order, constituency and hierarchical structure of sentences in a language” (Payne 2006: 339).

For example, let us take two sentences from Dixon’s article: “John takes after his father” and “John takes his father after” (Dixon 1982: 4). Any branch of phrase markers should begin with a clear combination of words and end with a certain terminal symbol (Cannon 2002: 100):


Noun Phrase Verb Phrase

Adjective Noun Verb Adverb

According to this scheme, the sentences under consideration may be analyzed in the following way: noun phrase is “John” and “his father”, and verb phrase “takes after”. The point is that this phrase cannot be divided into any other parts, because it is a meaningful phrasal verb. If the noun phrase separates the verb phrase, the essence of the verb will be lost. This is why it turns out to be impossible to say “John takes his father after”, and the only possible variant is “John takes after his father” that means that the father and the some resemble in their appearance.

The role of past studies in this article takes a significant place, because such brief examination of already known facts about phrasal verbs help to start own investigation and make use of evaluated pros, cons, and peculiarities of phrasal verbs. The above-mentioned criteria are not the only ones that are discussed in this piece of work, however, they are considered to be the most important and the most known.

Continuums play an important role in phrasal verbs’ evaluation

The article under consideration examines of the phrasal verbs’ criteria separately due to its unclear nature. “It appears that there is a continuum, with the more idiomatic and idiosyncratic combinations at one extreme, and entirely literal combinations at the other” (Dixon 1982:9). The continuum under analysis may be classified according to five clear levels, which evaluate the meaning of the sentences with phrasal verbs. The continuums can be both literal and non-literal, and idioms. Some of the constructions, usually literal ones, demonstrate the absence of semantic peculiarities. In comparison to these constructions, the author represents several sentences, which require a distinct dictionary entry.

Types of Phrasal Verbs, Offered by Mr. Dixon

In The Grammar of English Phrasal Verbs, the author identifies six different types of phrasal verbs. The chosen by the author approach makes the understanding of each phrasal verb’s type easier and clearer. In order to comprehend why the author chooses six types only and give preference to the underlying structures, it is necessary to identify what the underlying structure means, what other types of structures may be used in this kind of analysis and classification, and what type of order is inherent to each of these phrasal verbs types.

Lots of scholars distinguish four main types of phrasal verbs: (1) intransitive and inseparable, (2) transitive and inseparable, (3) transitive and separable, and (4) transitive with inseparable prepositions (DeCapua 2008: 150). However, to attract the attention of the readers, the author made a wonderful attempt to represent more types of phrasal verbs and, by means of underlying structures, prove his ideas and approach.

There are two possible structures: underlying, also known as deep or D-structure, and surface, also know as S-structure. Laurel Brinton (2000) defines underlying structure as a linear order of words in sentences and surface structure as a concrete realization of the previous structure (163-164). The author of the article that is discussed right now chooses six underlying structures:

  1. Preposition (P)
  2. P and Noun phrase (N)
  3. N and P
  4. N – p – N
  5. P – p – N
  6. N – p – p – N

After providing this brief classification of phrasal verbs, the author analyzes three types of the verbs thoroughly and represents the examples for the readers in order to prove his choice.

First of all, he names intransitive single phrasal verbs – the structure (1) that does not require direct/non-direct objects and the structure (2) that usually requires prepositional objects.

e.g.: He came to within a short period of time (1).

My chief picks on me for each mistake (2).

The next group for discussion is considered to be transitive single phrasal verbs. The representatives of this group have the underlying structures (3) and (4). As a rule, the phrasal verbs of this group need a prepositional object, and only in few cases, a direct object may be used.

e.g.: It is impossible to bring her down (3).

You have nothing to do but see this game through its successful end (4).

Double phrasal verbs are the last group of verbs that unites fifth and sixth underlying structure. Mr. Dixon admits that these verbs have need of two prepositions and at least one prepositional object:

e.g.: You need to take up this case with really sophisticated people (5).

I do not want to take her up on the event I am not sure about (6).

The use of examples and clear explanation of possible objects to the verbs is one of the winning ideas of the article under consideration. Readers’ understanding of the topic usually depends on the properly chosen examples. In this article, the underlying structures is the best means to demonstrate how exactly phrasal verbs may be classified into six possible categories.

Underlying Structures vs. Surface Structures

One of the major points of this article is that the author assumes the underlying structures than other possibilities, the surface structures in particular. In order to prove and justify his choice, the author devotes a separate chapter to justification for the chosen structures. Mr. Dixon describes the attempts of other scholars like Chomsky, who made attempts to use prepositional movements for structure analysis.

However, lots of troubles and unclear points took place while such way of analysis, this is why Mr. Dixon underlines that his idea to classify phrasal verbs with the help of the underlying structures turns out to be more effective and less troublesome, because these structures “provide the basis for an optimally simple grammatical description” (Dixon 1982: 20). In this article, several properly explained reasons why the underlying structures are better than the surface structures and prepositional movements.

First of all, the underlying structures provide proper explanations of possibilities for prepositional movements and adverb insertion and examining the changes within prepositional fronting. The underlying structures also demonstrate the possibility to substitute some types of phrasal verbs or impossibility to change even an object in the phrase.

One of the most brilliant justifications of the underlying structures, which are presented in the article, is the comparison of pNpo and Ndop. It is all about the movements of the noun phrases around the prepositions. For example knock about the town means travel in the town, and knock a person about in the town means treat this person brutally in the town.

Any other possibilities like the prepositional movement or the surface structures cannot present similar information and proper explanation of the matter. And Mr. Dixon’s approach demonstrates how simple these explanations can be. The use of phrase markets plays a crucial role in this case, because only the evaluation of the components helps the reader, the student, or any other person, who are eager to learn English grammar and the phrasal verb in particular, use these types of verb in a proper way.

Transitivity as an Evidence of the Underlying Structures

One more issues, discussed in the article, that helps to gain better understanding of the topic is the transitivity of phrasal verbs. In his numerous books, Dixon (2005) admits that it is “a fascinating and not altogether easy question” (p. 294). Phrasal verbs may be of two types transitive and intransitive.

The transitive phrasal verbs are those, which have the underlying structures accompanied with a direct object of the verb. Those underlying structures of the phrasal verbs, which have prepositional objects, are named as intransitive. In order to help the reader to comprehend the nature of phrasal verbs and their classification, the author examines the characteristics of each type of objects.

The direct object usually serves as the sign of passivisation; the prepositional objects demonstrate the impossibility of passivisation. Only the cases of some idiomatic combinations may be the factor of passivisation in the sentences with prepositional objects. The value of transitivity is rather considerable for phrasal verbs. This is why it is very important to distinguish transitive phrasal verbs with simple verb constituent.

For example, the phrasal verbs, which have such simple verbs like go, come, or be can only be intransitive. However, its simple verb constituent may be both transitive and intransitive, as much depends on the chosen for the verb object. The offered by Mr. Dixon list of transitive possibilities diminish the doubts concerning the effectiveness of the underlying structures for phrasal verbs analysis.

The idea of transitivity also helps to determine the weakness of the surface structures in comparison to the underlying structures. The surface structures are considered to be realization of the underlying structures, this is why these structures do not offer clear explanations of why this phrasal verb may be both transitive and intransitive and why the same verb accompanied with another preposition can be only transitive but not intransitive. So, in this case, the understanding of the phrasal verbs’ nature by means of the underlying structures is regarded as clearer and simpler.


In general, the article under analysis is a perfect source of information about phrasal verbs and their classification. Mr. Dixon made a wonderful attempt to represent for the reader a new way of classification of phrasal verbs by means of the underlying structures only. He also gives enough reasons to justify his choice and persuade the reader that his approach to evaluation of phrasal verbs has more benefits in comparison to the surface structures and the prepositional movement by Chomsky.

The use of figurative or idiomatic speech in every day life makes each phrasal verb too much important. Unfortunately, not each person especially not-native speaker can easily realize what phrasal verb is better to use. The literal meaning of the phrasal verb may have nothing in common with its own constituents, this is why it turns out to be very easy to lose the necessary way and miscomprehend the whole text.

With the help of clear explanation of the term phrasal verb, Mr. Dixon demonstrates his awareness of readers’ demands and needs. He can easily foresee the difficulties, which may take place while reading his article The Grammar of English Phrasal Verbs, and destroy any doubts by providing clear and informative explanations of each point.

The language of the article under discussion is not that difficult to comprehend; the structure is properly organized as well and allows to evaluate each point of the text. The existence of different types of phrasal verbs, recognized by Dixon, can make other scholar to start their own investigations on the same field and approve or disprove Dixon’s ideas.

To my mind, the articles, which provoke other people be interested in the theme under consideration, should be classified as the most successful, because the writers of such articles are not only able to inform the reader but also to make them think and evaluate the situation. This is why The Grammar of English Phrasal Verbs by R. M. W. Dixon should be considered as a successful piece of work that represents reliable and captivating information about phrasal verbs and helps to make the use of phrasal verb more proper and more correct.

Reference List

Brinton, LJ 2000 The Structure of Modern English: A Linguistic Introduction. John Benjamins Publishing Company, the Netherlands.

Cannon, D 2002 Deductive Logic in Natural Language. Broadview Press, Peterborough, Canada.

DeCapua, A 2008 Grammar for Teachers: A Guide to American English for Native and Non-Native Speakers. Springer, New York.

Dixon RMW 2005 A Semantic Approach to English Grammar. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Dixon, RMW 1982, ‘The Grammar of English Phrasal Verbs’, Australian Journal of Linguistics, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-42.

Gelderen, E 2002 An Introduction to the Grammar of English: Syntactic Arguments and Socio-Historical Background. John Benjamins Publishing Company, the Netherlands.

Payne, TE 2006 Exploring Language Structure: A Student’s Guide. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Ware, PD & Dowd, R 2008, ‘Peer Feedback on Language Form in Telecollaboration’, Language Learning & Technology, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 43-63.

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