October 13, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Phrasal verbs: change out & verbal phrases, verbals, dangling modifiers

Posted in dangling modifier, phrasal verb/change out, verbal phrase/verbals at 6:20 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Phrasal verbs: change out

A reader writes:

Since when did “changing out” replace “changing” as in:

Gather up any documentation on upgrades you have had done — for instance, changing out the furnace, adding skylights or replacing appliances.

SOURCE: http://www.nytimes.com/

I’ve seen this usage with other verbs too, but I can’t think of which ones, off hand, except for “swapping out”, which is synonymous with “changing out.”

I thought of ‘switch out,’ too, which also means the same.

I don’t know when ‘change out’ began to be used frequently, sometimes replacing ‘change,’ but it’s definitely become more common in the last couple of decades.

I think it has its place, however. This is why.

I consider ‘change out’ a phrasal verb (as opposed to a verbal phrase—see tip 2) that is an idiom (it could also be considered a colloquialism)  and has a specific meaning. While ‘change’ means to transform or alter, ‘change out’ means to replace entirely one thing for another. I think that distinction has some value in communication.

We’ve talked about idioms and colloquialisms before. Idioms are informal expressions with figurative rather than literal meanings, and colloquialisms are informal expressions that may be geographically bound. I don’t think we have discussed phrasal verbs, however, so let’s give that a go.

A phrasal verb comprises a verb and a particle, that is, a preposition or an adverb (or both), that has a meaning distinct from the verb by itself. ‘Change out’ qualifies, I think. In the example above, ‘changing the furnace’ could mean multiple things such as changing its location, painting it white, or covering it, but by writing ‘changing out the furnace,’ the reader immediately knows that the furnace is being completely replaced.

Grammarians and linguists have different takes on phrasal verbs–some decrying their use completely and some opining that the use of phrasal verbs should be limited to informal writing and oral communication. I am with the latter group; I think we should stay away from these formations in our formal scientific writing.

Garner sets out some caveats for the use of phrasal verbs (paraphrased here): 1) use the entire phrasal verb if that is the meaning you want to convey, that is, don’t leave out the particle if you are intending the new meaning; 2)  if the particle (adverb or preposition in the phrasal verb) does not add to the meaning, thus creating a new meaning, don’t use it (e.g., don’t say ‘meet up’ if ‘meet’ suffices);  3) even though the corresponding nouns are often one word (e.g., pushover, workout), the phrasal verb requires at least two words (e.g., call on, look after); and 4) don’t confuse the definition of the phrasal verb by following it with another preposition (e.g., ‘give in’  rather than ‘give in to’).

[REFERENCE: Garner, BA.(2009) Garner’s Modern American Usage. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.]

These caveats seem reasonable and so does the informal use of ‘change out.’

Tip 2: Verbal phrases, verbals, and dangling modifiers

We are up-to-date with phrasal verbs, so I thought I would mention verbal phrases. Verbals are simply nouns, adverbs, and adjectives derived from verbs (e.g., the crying child, the chastised attorney).

Verbals consist of infinitives (infinitives can function as nouns, adverbs, or adjectives):

To see is to know.

participles (participles generally act as adjectives):

Delighted, we started toward the opera house.

and gerunds (gerunds only function as nouns):

Seeing is believing.

Verbal phrases, then, are phrases with a verbal and some other words.

There is the infinitive verbal phrase (functioning as a noun, adverb, or adjective):

To present preliminary data in a grant was the goal of  our data collection efforts.

There is the participial verbal phrase (functioning as an adjective):

The report, covered with red ink, remained untouched and unread.

And the gerund verbal phrase (functioning as a noun):

Reviewing the grant proposal allowed the authors to correct some careless mistakes.

Verbal phrases not clearly attached to subjects result in dangling modifiers.

Awakened by the screaming sirens, the room seemed too silent.

Dancing unsteadily on the stage, the audience roared its approval of the novice.

Frozen solid, The chef began to defrost the fish.

So, it is wise to be careful where you place your verbal phrase.



  1. lancethruster said,

    I suspect the usage originated or became more popular with the rise of modular components. Repair personnel used to actually fix items; now they just swap out the smallest available sub-assembly.

  2. Anonymous said,

    Is “opine” accepted as common usage today?

    • dlseltzer said,

      Sure. It’s used all the time. Someone who likes to throw his opinions around is said to opine.

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