Sunday 20 June 2010

Mucking About With Phrasal Verbs

There's a wonderful thing called a phrasal verb. Essentially it's a verb plus a preposition, which together give you a whole new meaning: for example, doing up a house. A foreigner learning English might know the word do and the word up, but would still be unable to work out why you were performing a building skywards. And when he discovered that you could also do in your enemies, he would be done for.

Muck out = clean a stable
Muck in = help
Muck about = play uselessly
Muck up = ruin

So a lazy and incompetent stable boy could be said to muck about constantly, out and in rarely, and up everything.

Rhetorically, this trope of using one verb in several different senses (She left in a taxi and a flood of tears) is called syllepsis. Without doubt the greatest exercise is syllepsis is Have Some Madeira M'Dear by Flanders and Swann.

Printed lyrics here.

You are invited to compose similar sentences and leave them in the comments. However, before setting off to write a novel relying entirely on syllepsis you should consult Joel Stickley's inestimable How To Write Badly Well blog.


  1. Under pressure from Mrs Malaprop which would leave Ahmadinejad begging for clemency, I should point out that this is merely one form of syllepsis, a term that refers to any word governing others in a surprising manner.

  2. The Antipodean21 June 2010 at 04:03

    Like this? (Any relation to actual persons, living or dead, etc etc.)

    Boris Jones headed an easy goal past the hapless English keeper, into new contracts with Nike and Lego, and onto the front and back pages of all the major British and Perestroikan newspapers for the next week. In celebration, he sailed triumphantly through the pack of his delirious teammates, the ensuing press conferences, and his new yacht into an unsuspecting lighthouse.

  3. Flanders used the word "antepenultimate"! This is the first time I have heard it spoken -- it made me laugh and happy.

  4. I don't think I like phrasal verbs very much. A bit too colloquial!

  5. More football, although not as good as Antipodean's:

    It was a bad night for England's star striker after he hit the crossbar, a supporter, and out at reports that he was about to be sent home from the tournament, packing by his girlfriend and to Coventry by his disgruntled team-mates.

  6. The Antipodean22 June 2010 at 10:57

    I dunno Mrs M, you get five phrases in one sentence; I think that's impressive. I was working on something with 'set' but it got a little out of control, and also often wasn't actually needed so it just sounded like a list.

  7. In the football commentary today there was a prettily turned little epigram "His passes have not come off since he came on the field", which I'm sure was quite unintentional.

  8. I have but this to say, I'm from Madeira Island :$

  9. "You held your breath and the door for me" Alannis, Head over Feet.