Verb idioms are variously referred to as group verbs, multi-word verbs or phrasal verbs, or action/being referent idioms. Some begin with verbs and end with adverb particles or prepositions [e.g. get at (reach), get off (escape), get through (succeed), hails from (belongs), go for (attack), make up for (compensate), etc]; others begin with full or bare infinitives (verbs) and end with nouns, as exemplified below:
- to bear in mind/call to mind (to remember).
- carried the day (won).
- to make a clean breast (to confess).
- to fan the flame (to aggravate matters).
- to upset the apple-cart (to spoil plans).
- to blow off steam (to release tension).
- to pass the buck (to shift responsibility to someone else), etc.
For purposes of pedagogic convenience and clarity, we shall treat verb idioms under two broad subdivisions as follows:
- Adverb particle -/preposition-ended verb idioms.
- Noun-ended verb idioms.
The adverb particle-/preposition-ended verb idioms are treated here under phrasal verbs while the noun-ended idioms are considered under action/being referent idioms.
1) PHRASAL VERBS
A phrasal verb is a combination of:
- a verb and an adverb particle (e.g. make out).
- a verb and a preposition (e.g. turn down) or
- a verb and an adverb particle and a preposition (e.g. put up with).
Although a phrasal verb-takes the pattern of a phrase, it functions as a single verb and can, therefore, be replaced by a single verb wherever it occurs in a sentence. By the three patterns of combination identified in the formation of phrasal verbs, we can consider phrasal verbs under the following categories;
- Primary Phrasal Verbs (or Phrasal Verbs I).
- Secondary Phrasal Verbs (or Phrasal Verbs II: Prepositional Verbs).
- Tertiary Phrasal Verbs (or Phrasal Verbs III: Phrasal Prepositional verbs).
a) Primary Phrasal Verbs
A primary phrasal verb comprises a verb and an adverb particle. The adverb particle is usually a short adverb of place or motion, such as in, on, off, up, down, away, out, over, through, out, and across. Sometimes, these adverb particles are referred to as prepositions that are used as adverbs. There are, however, a large number of prepositions that are not normally used as adverb particles (e.g. among, as, except, like, of, during, into, since, until, with).
Notably, a primary phrasal verb may be transitive or intransitive. When transitive, it takes an object. But when intransitive, it takes no object. Another remarkable feature of a primary phrasal verb is that its adverb(ial) particle is mobile, capable of taking different positions (front, middle, or terminal) in the sentence; for instance, “Obiageli turned off the tap / Obiageli turned the tap off”. Other examples of primary phrasal verbs include: turn down (reject), write off (declare unwanted), cheer up (be comforted/become happier), fall of (diminish in quality, goodness or value), run over (crush).
It is, however, pertinent to add that some primary phrasal verbs are used idiomatically while many others are not used idiomatically. Those that are considered as idioms are only a minority, and wherever they occur, each of them is treated or learnt as a single expression, not to be understood in terms of the meanings of its parts. Below are a good many examples of idiomatic phrasal verbs:
- to bring about events/bring events about (cause)
- events come about (take place)
- to give someone/somebody away (to betray)
- to run someone down(to disparage someone)
- to sit in (on a meeting) (to observe/as an observer)
- to put someone down (to humiliate someone)
- to take someone in (to trick someone)
- to do someone in (to kill someone)
- to rip someone of (to rob/cheat someone)
- to rip something off (steal it)
- to rattle something off (recite fast)
- to run copies off (print out or duplicate copies)
- to look on (watch without intervention)
- to bawl someone out (reprimand)
- to ring (someone) up (on the telephone)
- to call someone up (invite).
b) Secondary Phrasal Verbs (Prepositional Verbs)
A secondary phrasal verb, otherwise known as a prepositional verb, is a combination of a verb and a preposition. It can be replaced by a corresponding verb and it is always used transitively in the sentence (e.g. Ngozi looks after her old parents.)
But how do we know when a preposition retains its prepositional properties in a phrasal verb and when it stands as an adverb particle in the verb idiom? The answer is that a preposition used as an adverb particle in any phrasal verb can change positions like an adverb without ambiguating or harming the sentence as in put up your hand and put your hand up. But the preposition in a prepositional verb, retaining its prepositional quality, maintains an immobile, controlling position before its object, as in I will look after you, not “I will look you after.” Other examples of secondary phrasal verbs include:
- go for (attack)
- go into (investigate)
- make out (understand)
- take after (resemble)
- take to (like)
c) Tertiary Phrasal Verbs (or Phrasal Prepositional Verbs)
A tertiary phrasal verb is made up of a verb, an adverb particle, and a preposition. Like other phrasal verbs, it performs the function of a single verb and can thus be replaced by a verb. It is used transitively, and being an idiom, its meaning must be learnt as a whole.
It should be noted that the addition of a preposition to a primary or secondary phrasal verb implies a wide range of structural and semantic differences, as shown below:
It is pertinent to note that not all combinations of verbs and adverb particles/ prepositions are idiomatic. Consider the following examples:
2) ACTION/BEING REFERENT IDIOMS
Action/being referent idioms are another set of verb idioms. They refer to action or being on the part of a noun or nominal in the sentence but they are not usually substituted with single verbs. Rather, they can be replaced with semantically corresponding phrases. In form, most action/being referent idioms begin with infinitives or verbs and end with nouns. Below are some examples:
- to hang in the balance: to have an equal chance of success or failure.
- to go off the rails: to begin to behave in a bad, unacceptable way.
- to paint the town red: to have a good time, celebrating (something) in a party mood.
- to shed crocodile tears: to pretend to be sorrowful.
- to tell cock-and-bull story: to tell a foolish story that one should not believe.
- be on the ball: be alert, be competent in one’s work.
- have the ball at one’s feet: have a good chance of attaining success.
- keep the ball rolling: keep the conversation, etc. going.
- turn one’s blind eye to something: pretend not to see something.
- make bad blood between persons: cause ill will/enmity between persons.
- make one’s blood boil: make one very angry.
- make one’s blood run cold: fill one with fear or sorrow.
- to build castles in the air: to day-dream, to conceive impossible ideas.
- to assume airs: to show off: to affect superiority.
- to air one’s opinions: to express one’s feelings in public.
- to keep a person at arm’s length: to avoid the person.
- to take up arms: to go to war; to fight.
- to receive with open arms: to welcome cordially/amiably.
- to bite the dust: to face defeat in battle; to die.
- to make a clean breast of something: to confess totally.
- to break the ice: to be the originator; to take the first step.
- to breathe one’s last: to die.
- to breathe freely again: to be no longer in fear of anxiety.
- to let the cat out of the bag: to reveal a secret.
- to rain cats and dogs: to rain incessantly.
- to live like cats and dogs: to be quarrelling and fighting always.
- to clip someone’s wings: to limit or restrict his activities.
- to keep an eye on something: to watch it carefully.
- to be at one’s wit’s end: to be utterly confounded.
- to make both ends meet: to spend within one’s income.
- to save one’s face: to avoid insults disgrace.
- to show the white feather: to show signs of cowardice.
- to have something at one’s finger-tips: to know something very well.
- to fish in troubled waters: to take advantage of a troubled situation.
- to put one’s foot down on something: to put a stop to it.
- to keep one’s head on: to remain calm/unperturbed.
- to lose one’s head: to be extremely excited.
- to have one’s heart in one’s mouth: to be deeply frightened.
- to show a clean pair of heels; to run away.
- to have many irons in the fire: to have one’s hands in many things at once.
- to strike while the iron is hot: to do something at a favourable time.
- to be on one’s last legs: to be at the brink of destruction or ruin.
- to be wide of the mark: to miss the point completely.
- to lead by the nose: to lead blindly.
- to turn up the nose: to express disrespect or contempt.