Tag Archives: grammar

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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Causative verbs.

Lying about getting laid

by Dirk E. Oldman

The causative in English gives us what I like to call the frat-boy lexical problem.

You see, if you meet a frat boy at a party, he’s probably gonna have a lot to say about how many chicks he’s laying all the time. But you can never be sure how much he’s really laying, and how much he’s just lying.

Now, it’s true, lie and lay aren’t the only intransitive-causative pair in English. But in general the others don’t get confused so much. No one really says Are you gonna fall that tree? Because that tree might fell on you.

But someone might say Are you just gonna lay there, or are you gonna lie that cookbook down and pick up the whipped cream? And especially all sorts of people all the time say lay when they really are supposed to say lie.

I’m not some knuckle-rapping schoolmarm, but there are some things it’s just worth getting right most of the time, and knowing when you’re not getting them right. If you’re not really laying, if you’re just lying, you’re gonna get into trouble eventually if you really think you were laying. The person you think you were laying will have something to say about it. I don’t think that takes too much exercise of the imagination to figure out.

So here’s how it works. There aren’t too many cases of this left in English, but centuries ago it was a normal thing to use a past tense for a causative. What that means is that if you wanted to say “make A do B,” you could just use the past tense of B, use A for the subject, and skip the make. It’s sorta like our resultative conversion, where we say Take these panties and confetti them instead of and make them into confetti, only with the causative we used a past-tense verb instead of a noun, and we’re talking about an action and not a result.

Think about that. Imagine if, instead of

I’m gonna make you scream, I’m gonna make you squeal, I’m gonna make you come

you coud say

I’m gonna screamed you, I’m gonna squealed you, I’m gonna came you

That sounds pretty ████ed up to our ears now, so it’s no surprise that we might get a little confused about it. But just think of it in terms of frat boys. Those guys are always on the make. But you know, they have no self-control. It’s over before it starts. If one of them actually gets a girl to lie down, well, boom, that’s it, and it’s in the past already: lay.

Well, that’s fitting, anyway. Their entire approach to getting girls to go with them is to try to get something past them.

So, oh, yeah, if you’re not completely sure of the verb forms, now you can remember that lay is the past tense of lie. And you know, even if a frat boy does lay, he’s gonna lie about it anyway. He might, for instance, say it lasted more than 30 seconds, or that he even remembers it.

Here are the full forms for this one:

Today I lie down. Yesterday I lay down. All week I have lain down.

Now I lay you on the bed. Yesterday I laid you on the kitchen floor. I have also laid you in the garden.

You see that the past forms of lie end in y and n, as in yes and no. Think “Did you lie? Yes or no!” And you see that the past forms of lay both end in d. Which takes us back to the frat boys, who always want to lay girls with double-D’s. (That means big tits, in case that wasn’t clear.)

Probably one thing that’s gotten so many people confused is Now I lay me down to sleep. Maybe if whoever wrote that had written Now I lay myself down to sleep it would have been less confusing.

Now, how about those other causative forms? Well, there’s fall and fell, as in trees, and then there are some that were made that way originally but the forms have changed over time: drink and drench, rise and raise, sit and set. Some of the time we can just use the same form: Fly me to the moon, for instance. And there are a bunch of cases where it actually went the other way – we make an intransitive from the transitive but use the object of the transitive for the subject of the intransitive: Did you break the window? No, it just broke. So there are cases where it’s really easy.

Frat boys would like lie and lay to be easy. Sucks to be them.

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