Tag Archives: syntax

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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Copular verbs.

Slicing it thin

by Annie Wei-Yu Kan

Yes, it’s me. I hope you weren’t expecting another filth-fest from Dirk about copulation with all sorts of people, places, and things. I’m happy to say that that knuckle-dragger isn’t getting this bit of low-hanging fruit. This is a natural topic for dealing with through cooking.

As you might expect, I cook a lot. This happens to mean that I read recipes often. And one thing I see often in recipes is this:

100 g of prosciutto, thinly sliced

or this:

Thinly slice one medium onion

What I don’t see so much is this:

2 russet potatoes, sliced thin

You see the difference, right?

Well, let me state it flatly: it’s a question of whether you slice something thinly or slice something thin.

Some people object to saying slice thin, or pack flat or feel good or or or. “These are verbs,” they say. “You don’t modify a verb with an adjective.” And then they make some annoying immature sound of misguided exasperation.

It’s true that whatever you modify a verb with is an adverb. It’s also true that you use nouns or adjectives for predicates. A state of being, or the result of an action, is not an adverb.

For instance, I don’t say

I am happily.


I am irritatedly.


He is disgustingly.

The verb there is a copula: it joins the subject to another thing or to a state of being. It’s like a cooking method that takes ingredients and makes servable food out of them. We know that there is more than one way to do that: fry, bake, freeze. And the verb be is not the only copular verb.

Let me show you some verbs. You’ll see how an adverb shows how the action is done, but an adjective shows a result or effect of the action or a quality of the subject.

This wine smells good.

This wine taster smells well.

Your cat tastes cautiously.

Your chicken tastes salty.

This wine smells well.

This wine taster smells good.

Your cat tastes salty.

Your chicken tastes cautiously.

In these cases, the verb is only copular when it’s taking the adjective, not the adverb. You can see that a wine smelling good is actually a good wine being smelled, and a chicken tasting salty is actually a salty chicken being tasted. The subject and object are switched.

There are also verbs that can be copular without switching subject and object.

This basil is growing slowly.

This basil is growing big.

This basil is slowly growing big.

And there are also verbs that can join the object, not the subject, to another thing or quality:

Make the cake carefully.

Make the cake good.

Make the cake a big one.

Carefully make the cake good.

So you can clearly see that there are plenty of verbs that can take an adjective to describe a result or quality or effect. One of them is pack:

Pack your clothes flat, not rolled up or crumpled.

If you pack them flatly, that’s like stating something flatly, only you’re packing, not stating.

Another is feel:

I feel bad.

If you say I feel badly, it means you do a bad job of feeling someone or something. There’s really too much of that already, so don’t.

And of course another copular verb is slice. If you slice an onion so that the slices are thin, you are slicing it thin.

Can you say you are slicing it thinly? Is thinness a quality of the action? If you are slicing it slowly and slicing it carefully, then the action of slicing is slow and careful. Can you say the action of slicing is thin? I leave it to you whether the distinction between slice it thin and slice it thinly is a major one or is slicing the matter quite thin.

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