BusinessDay
NigeriaDecides2023

Round up or round off: Demystifying phrasal verbs in English

Phrasal verbs are lexical items that combine verbs with other word classes, such as prepositions or adverbs. Such prepositions or adverbs are found after the verbs, and the ensuing phrasal verbs could generate different meanings. The fascinating thing about phrasal verbs is that their meanings cannot be easily deciphered from the words that make the compounds. For instance, knowing the meaning of the verb, ‘get’, might not really be of help in telling the meaning of the phrasal verb, ‘get round’, which means to coax or persuade someone to do something that s/he initially does not want to do, as in:

Do not think you will get round me that easily.

Phrasal verbs help to achieve succinctness in language use but, matter-of-factly, they constitute a stumbling block for many a second-language user of English. Consequently, this treatise will discuss some English phrasal verbs, especially those that are wrongly used and confused by users of the language.

First, ‘round up’ has, over the years, been erroneously used by many speakers of English, in place of ‘round off’. To complete something in a satisfying or suitable way is to round off that thing, as in:

We should round up this meal with a bowl of ice cream (non-standard).

We should round off this meal with a bowl of ice cream (standard).

We should round out this meal with a bowl of ice cream (American English).

Note that some of these phrasal verbs could take other meanings. As an example, ‘round off’ could also mean to make the edges of something smooth. Hence:

Round off the spars with a soft plastic fitting (standard).

Again, to ‘round up’ includes the activity of driving or collecting a number of animals together for a particular purpose:

The cows are rounded up for milking once a day (standard).

Also, ‘round up’ is used to mean the action of arresting a number of people, as in:

I am sure the police will round up that gang soon (standard).

Moving on, you could wonder if we ‘ask for’, ‘ask after’ or ‘ask out’. The context of usage determines which of the phrasal verbs to deploy at different times. We ‘ask after’ someone when we inquire about his/her health or well-being, as the sentence below shows:

Tell your father I asked of him (non-standard).

Tell your father I asked after him (standard).

You ‘ask for’ someone when you ask to speak to them. The sentence below depicts this usage:

I was not satisfied with the job, so I asked after the manager of the company (non-standard).

I was not satisfied with the job, so I asked for the manager of the company (standard).

Read also: Reporting in English

Lastly, you ‘ask’ a person ‘out’ when you invite him/her to come with you to a place, such as the cinema or a restaurant, especially as a way of starting a romantic relationship:

She asked Steve out to the cinema (standard).

You should ask her out, if you wish to make her your wife in the long run (standard).

Away from that, the readership should keep clear of using ‘sail through’ and ‘scrape through’ arbitrarily, particularly for examinations. Compare these accompanying statements:

John got 90 marks out of 100 marks. (He sailed through the examination; he passed it without difficulty.)

John got 50 marks out of 100 marks. (He scraped through the examination; he passed it with difficulty.)

Mark you, ‘scale’ does not collocate with ‘through’. Hence:

John scaled through the examination (non-standard).

Further, the readership should not mistake ‘buckle up’ (to fasten one’s seat belt in a car, on an airplane, on a bus and so forth) with ‘buckle down’ (to begin to do something seriously). Thus:

It is high time you buckled up to your schoolwork (non-standard).

It is high time you buckled down to your schoolwork (standard).

Additionally, while you can ‘seal up’ gifts, containers and envelopes, buildings and the like are supposed to be ‘sealed off’:

The police have sealed up those premises (non-standard).

The police have sealed off those premises (standard).

Next, it has come to my notice that some anglophones in Nigeria often use ‘pass through’ when they mean to say ‘go through’.

God delivered Angela from what she passed through (non-standard).

God delivered Angela from what she went through (…what she experienced; standard).

I passed through New York (I stopped there for a short time) sometime in February (standard).

In other circumstances where pairs of phrasal verbs are not used indiscriminately and inappropriately, a particular phrasal verb could be misrepresented. For instance, to ‘dispose of’ something is to get rid of the same thus:

He has yet to dispose the refuse (non-standard).

He has yet to dispose off the refuse (non-standard).

He has yet to dispose the refuse of (non-standard).

He has yet to dispose of the refuse (standard).

Emphatically, the third sentence is adjudged incorrect because ‘dispose of’ is an inseparable phrasal verb. A separable phrasal verb, on the other hand, can be deployed in two ways. This latter category can be ascertained in some standard dictionaries by the presence of two-way arrows (). A prime example is ‘tear up’, as in:

She will not tear up the letter (standard).

She will not tear the letter up (standard).

Phrasal verbs are used to pass messages across in an apt and concise manner. Nonetheless, their meanings cannot be easily mastered, thereby necessitating the importance of consulting standard dictionaries. This piece is, therefore, an eye-opener regarding how phrasal verbs should be deployed. Finally, users are advised to read more on this class of verbs.

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