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Vocabulary acrobatics.

The acrobatic capability of English words to change their meaning in accordance with their context poses the temptation to fabricate amusing statements like the following:

Most people seem to get enough sleep, but the restless rest rest less. (Here the context changes the meaning of "rest" from remainder to repose.)

If your offspring can't solve their money problems, perhaps your will will if you are willing. ("Will" changes from specification of inheritance to possible future action.)

Words that mate with other words through a property that can be thought of as a sort of syntactic covalence also display the capability of changing meaning with context. For example, "Jack struck out" might mean that Jack fanned in a baseball game, started on a journey, threw a punch, or got nowhere with his girlfriend. If Jill "made out," she may have succeeded romantically, completed a form, managed to discern something written or spoken, or hit an easy-to-catch fly ball.

When verbs and prepositions get together, they demonstrate an especially strong syntactic covalence, enriching our vocabulary with colorful new compounded nouns and verbs like the examples listed below:

hang up (v), hangup (n), hang out (v), hangout (n), hang in (v), hang around (v), shake up (v), shakeup (.), shake down (v), shakedown (n), shake off (v), let up (v), letup (n), let down (v), letdown (n), let in (v), let off (v), break in (v), breakin (n), break out (v), breakout (n), break up (v), breakup (n), break down (v), breakdown (n), break off (v), knock out (v), knockout (n), knock down (v), knockdown (n), knock up (v), show up (v), showdown (n), show off (v), showoff (n), take off (v), takeoff (n), take out (v), takeout (n), take in (v), walk out (v), walkout (n), walk up (v), walkup (n), walk in (v), let up (v), letup (n), let down (v), letdown (n), withdraw (v), withhold (v), withstand (v)

Antonymic pairs of adverbs (e.g., in, out; up, down; on, off) seem to be particularly active in combining with a given verb to compound new nouns and verbs. There is an almost irresistible urge to make use of these newly minted verbs and nouns to fabricate amusing sentences like the following:
 If I pretend that your adverse criticism
 doesn't bother me, I put on that I can put up
 with your putdown.

 If a power failure interrupted the gossip in a
 hospital ward, you might say that the shutdown
 shut up the shut-ins.

 One party in a long-standing dispute might
 challenge his adversary to show up and put
 up or shut up.

 To increase the revenue from television, the
 league decided it would pay off to put off
 the playoff.

Although they are far less prevalent than preposition-verb compounds, preposition-noun compounds also offer examples of syntactic covalence, such as the following:

flame up (v), flameout (n), bottom out (v), top off(v), monkey around (v), horse around (v), outman (v), outgun (v), cave in (v), beef up (v), gloss over (v)

Preposition-adjective compounds offer other examples:

warm up (v), warmup (n), black out (v), blackout (n), rough up (v), cozy up (v), tidy up (v), green up (v)

It seems plausible that brown became a verb in our vocabulary after first appearing as the compound verb brown up, i.e., while we now say "brown the biscuits," we used to say "brown up the biscuits." If so, we may soon be saying "green the lawn" instead of "green up the lawn." Preposition-adjective compounds include the curious instance of antonymic prepositions compounding with the same adjective to yield two different verbs with the same meaning: slow down and slow up.

In a number of compounded nouns and verbs, the preposition element has the acrobatic ability to vault from one side of the verb element to the other, providing two compounds with the same elements but different meanings. For example:

upset, set up; inset, set in; upstart, start up; output, put out; upbringing, bringing up; input, put in; intake, take in; outbreak, break out; back out, outback; shot up, upshot; shoot off offshoot

Such transformations can fuel sentences like the following:

If you watch an apprentice mechanic get a motor running, you see the upstart start up the motor.

If a computer user is disgruntled with her results, she is put out by the output.

Just as there is no inherent sin in splitting an infinitive, there is no inherent sin in splitting a compounded verb. However, the freedom of locution that lets you split the verb is sometimes vetoed by the object of the verb. For instance, you can say "hang up the phone" or "hang the phone up"; you can say "climb up the ladder," but not "climb the ladder up"; you can say "put in the coins" or "put the coins in;" you can say "dive in the lake," but not "dive the lake in"; you can say "take down the picture" or "take the picture down"; you can say "walk down the road," but not "walk the road down."

If, in the days to come, you find yourself immersed in fashioning sentences like the examples used above, you can't say I didn't warn you. Don't feel guilty, though. It is a harmless pastime and can be a lot of fun.

Walt Starkey

Yorba Linda, California
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Starkey, Walt
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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