Phrasal verbs.

The Billy Jack incident

by Dirk E. Oldman

When you were a kid, you might have had this one used on you:

If Billy Jack helped you off your horse, would you help Billy jack off his horse?

This little gotcha actually helps illustrate an important fact of English grammar: some verb-preposition pairs are really hustlers.

Here’s what I mean. Say you have a guy talking to a girl at a bar. If they’re sitting together and talking together, they’re functioning together. If they’re not together, they’re not working together. But if only one of them is there, they’re still functioning the same as usual.

But now say the guy and this girl are really just pretending to be two people who just met, and they’re really a team there to hustle – pool, cards, booty, whatever. Even when they’re on opposite sides of the room, they’re still working together. But take one of them away completely – put them in separate interrogation rooms – and their stories don’t stick together.

These hustler couples in English are phrasal verbs. They can look just like normal verb-preposition pairs. But with a normal verb-preposition pair, the preposition’s really with its own posse, not teamed up with the verb. With a hustler verb, I mean a phrasal verb, the verb and the preposition are really a team – you need both of them, but they work together even if they’re on opposite sides of something.

Let’s take the examples jack off and jump off. One of these two is really a hustler verb. How do you know which one? Let’s play around a bit.

Billy jacked off the horse.

Billy jumped off the bridge.

Billy jacked the horse off.

*Billy jumped the bridge off.

Uh-oh. Looks like in jump off the off is really with the bridge, not jump. So it’s not part of a team with jump. But jack off is a hustler team. (I’m using the linguistic symbol * to indicate that something is shitty. It was Kurt Vonnegut who first pointed out that * looks like an asshole.)

Let’s try something that could be either: ████ around.

Don’t ████ around my friend.

Well, now, does that mean

Don’t ████ my friend around

or does it mean

Don’t ████ near my friend

That’s another test right there. Can you swap in another similar word?

But there’s something curious about these hustler verbs. If you use a pronoun instead of a noun, they have to be on opposite sides of it. On the other hand, if the preposition is just a preposition, it has to be before the pronoun. To hustler verbs, pronouns are a special kind of mark that requires double-siding. See:

Don’t ████ him around.

Don’t ████ around him.

Two completely different meanings! Just like with our first examples:

Billy jacked it off.

*Billy jacked off it.

*Billy jumped it off.

Billy jumped off it.

The two in the middle just don’t work.

Congratulations. You’ve just learned a really important concept in linguistics: constituents. Sentences aren’t just strings of words. Those words are working in teams. And sometimes you have to move things around a little to see who’s really on whose team.

Here are a couple more ways to figure out who’s hustling you by pulling them apart and interrogating them.

Try a question and answer with the preposition staying with the noun:

Off what did Billy jump? Off the bridge.

*Off what did Billy jack? Off the horse.

(*)Around whom shouldn’t you ████? Around my friend.

If the preposition can stick with the noun, then it’s not with the verb.

Or try using an It was construction, like this:

It was off the bridge that Billy jumped.

*It was off the horse that Billy jacked.

(*)It’s around my friend you shouldn’t ████.

Now, you can keep the preposition after the verb in either of these tests and it will still work either way, which proves that it’s BS that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition in English:

It was the bridge that Billy jumped off.

It was the horse that Billy jacked off.

It’s my friend you shouldn’t ████ around.

The examples so far are all transitive – or, as I like to call them, sex for two. There are also intransitive, sex-for-one verbs that are phrasal. And there are things that look like instransitive verb-preposition combinations that aren’t phrasal verbs – but the preposition is really an adverb saying what way the verb is being done. (Often these are related to transitive non-phrasal verbs: Get off the couch. Get off!)

Hustlers and non-hustlers are harder to tell apart when they’re intransitive. But you can still try splitting them apart:

I want you to go out.

You want me to go where? Out.

I think I’m going to freak out.

*You think you’re going to freak where? Out.

This actually gives a good opportunity for humour, because it’s wrong, but people can still understand it. They know that the out doesn’t really mean “out”, it’s just part of a phrasal verb, and it’s idiomatic.

Try another:

He didn’t ████ up until he looked down.

Which way did he look when he ████ed up? Down.

*Which way did he ████ when he looked down? Up.

Let’s go back to the similar word test. If they’re really random strangers, one of the type is about as good as the next. If they’re hustling you, they have to go together.

He didn’t ████ up until he glanced down.

*He didn’t fornicate up until he looked down. (On the other hand, screw up is another hustler verb.)

Now tell me whether ████ off is a hustler verb.

While you’re having fun with that, there’s a good blog post on Sesquiotica that has a poem that uses lots of these hustler verbs.

Got your answer on ████ off? Yeah, of course it’s a hustler verb. Was there any doubt?

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Unnecessary words.

How many ingredients?

by Annie Wei-Yu Kan

Do you cook? Are you a good cook? Don’t lie. If you’re a good cook, tell me: if you’re making a soup and you empty your spice cupboard into it, just toss in a bit of everything, how does it taste?

If you don’t know, the answer is: not very good. It’s like mixing a bunch of different paints. You always get a nasty version of brown.

OK, but now tell me this: if you just boil a chicken and don’t add anything, except maybe some salt, how is that?

Unless it’s an outstanding chicken, it will be dull.

But there’s a lot of room in between the two. You can flavour it with a bit of fresh thyme, some parsley, a few shallots. Or you can use garlic, curry paste, coconut milk, bamboo shoots. Or you can add sherry, a bouquet garni, chives.

You can make a soup that has just a few ingredients, simple and clear and fresh. You can make a soup that has many seasonings, but all in harmony like a grand choir. The options are endless: something for every situation. Several things for every situation.

So why do some people insist that text always needs to be lean and trim? Who do some people drone “Cut unnecessary words” but cut so many that add flavour?

Yes, yes, it’s true: many writers empty the spice cupboard. It’s a common feature of bad writing. But that doesn’t mean that good writing is always very lean and spare. It doesn’t even mean that bad writing needs to be cut to improve it. Sometimes you just need to change a bit. Replace the peppermint in your soup with a bit of chili pepper.

Let’s start with a famous example. I think you’ll recognize this sentence:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Ignore the 19th-century commas and the use of fathers and men. We all know we would do different with those now. Let’s look at what the “eliminate unnecessary words” school would do to this:

Eighty-seven years ago our ancestors founded this nation as a free land dedicated to equality.

Who wants to say that’s better? No, really, stand up. So I can throw this eraser at you.

Of course, you can destroy it by emptying the spice cupboard into it, too:

Fore scores of years plus a septennium in the past from today, or a baker’s dozen of solar revolutions less than a neat century towards the dawn of time, those magnificent and magnanimous great spirits we are so privileged to call our forefathers brought forth out into this world and upon this august continent (but in July) this our nation which was, at the time, a brand-new nation, meaning a country in its infancy; they conceived and gestated and gave birth to it in the realm of Lady Liberty’s expansive belly and it was dedicated by them to that vaunted great proposition that is the true basis of all equality among men, which is that all men are from their very birth and even before and ever after and always equal among each other.

This is what you do if you charge by the word, maybe. As long as you don’t expect to get any work from that client ever again. Or have any sort of decent reputation.

Now let’s look at a longer example, a recipe that we can modify more. This is not very good:

She was a Fatal Temptress and he was a Hercules of the kitchen. His cuisine was embraced by her and this is what he thrived on, because otherwise he wanted to die. So he made everything she asked for. Dishes flew back and forth from the kitchen and pots flew back and forth in the kitchen.

Change not all that much – some words, a bit of sentence structure, improve the rhythm and clarify contrasts, pay attention to the sounds – and you get a much sharper version:

He was Carême, but she was a Siren. She loved his cooking; he lived on her approval. Her displeasure scorched his soul, so he cooked her all that she wanted in order to keep her happy. Dishes flew into and out of the kitchen, pots onto and off of the stove.

Notice that I used in order to and off of. Many people say those should always be trimmed to to and off. They are very narrow little people. If you change off of to off you wreck the parallel structure with into, out of, and onto, and you hurt the rhythm. If you change in order to to to, you have an ambiguity: is it that she wanted it to keep her happy, or just that she wanted it and he did it to keep her happy? Not the same thing. If you move to keep her happy before he cooked to avoid the embiguity, you get a structural and rhythmic problem.

Here’s what the “cut and cut and cut” school produces from that:

She loved his cooking. He lived on her approval. He cooked her all she wanted to keep her happy. Dishes flew into and out of the kitchen, pots onto and off the stove.

Is that it? Ai yah, not so much there. No redundancies, but where’s the flavour?

Even if you want to be businesslike, you can give it more flavour than that. Try this:

He had a genius for cooking; she had a genuis for temptation. She loved his cooking; he was addicted to her approval. This meant that he cooked everything she wanted, with the aim of keeping her always happy and never displeased. Consequently, there was much traffic of dishes to and from the kitchen, and much use of pots in the kitchen.

Not really as lyrical, is it? But it’s still better than the original. To say nothing of the clipped version.

Try something completely different for contrast:

She: gourmet – and Siren. He: master chef – addicted to her. Her desire: his food. His need: her happiness. The menu: whatever she wanted. The means: a polyphony of pots and pans; the medium: a solar system of dishes, in incessant orbit around her.

Did you notice – no verbs? Well, OK, wanted, but that’s in a complement to a noun phrase. Does it seem much shorter and sharper? Compare the length with my first “better” version. See? They’re nearly the same.

One more version, turned around and with more of a popular-literature flow:

The kitchen whirled with activity, and dishes flew full to the table and as soon back empty. The man was cooking to feed his addiction, and his addiction was the woman seated at his table. He was the kitchen’s master but the diner’s slave. Oh, he was a great cook, and she knew it, and loved it – but she was a greater temptress. Of all the fine things he served, the dish he served most eagerly and she consumed most hungrily was his heart and soul.

That’s much longer, but millions of people buy books written in that style. Do you want their money?

Which version you use will depend on what kind of document it is, who’s reading it, and what effect you want to have on them. Of course. That’s what I’ve been telling you for how many lessons now?

Let’s make this your homework. I want you to write three completely different versions of that passage. Then compare how they taste, and which you like better for which situation. Yes, three. I wrote six. You can do three.

I am not going to mark them for you. You’re an adult now.

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