I am trying to create a system for teaching ESL students phrasal verbs based on the concepts contributed by the element. (For example, "up" frequently contributes the idea of finality or completion).

I was wondering if there are any phrasal verb theories that suggest there are elements that do something non-conceptual, or, to say it another way, something other than contributing a meaning.

Some phrasal verbs have obviously developed from others rather than being built on strictly conceptual bases. "Coffee up" is word play on idioms like "drink up", for example.

But others like "hold up" I don't know. I started speculating that, in common usage, "hold up" is used more often in the passive voice, like

Our train is being held up by an accident.

rather than

An accident is holding up our train.

However, the verb "to hold" is transitive, so that our ear wants a direct object after it. "Up" is not a direct object, but perhaps it developed as a DO placeholder?

I am not promoting this theory. This is just an example of the type of theory I am talking about. My question is whether theories like this exist and where I can find them. Thanks.

  • Just a comment about "coffee up": "Drink up" is a command or exhortation to drink the drink you already have in front of you, while [to me] "Coffee up" is saying "coffee's ready [come and get it]". Mar 19, 2015 at 9:49
  • And just to add to ideas about words that indicate completion: if I've already had three coffees in the morning and someone offers a fourth, I might say, "No thanks - I'm coffee'd out." Mar 19, 2015 at 9:51
  • 1
    I think this is too broad. A more focused question on Linguistics would be better. Mar 19, 2015 at 12:33
  • I doubt your frequency speculations about the more frequent passive use will pan out. I don't want to hold you up -- you have a train to catch. Get going! Also, even though these verbs are transitive, that doesn't mean that the "ear" would find it jarring to encounter an "up" instead of an object: I don't want to hold up the parade. Stop the motorcade here and let this band through. These verbs are deeply ingrained in the language, and it's the entire two-part verb that is transitive, not just the "main" word.
    – TimR
    Mar 19, 2015 at 13:12
  • FWIW I say "Hold up" if I want my friends to wait
    – Plato
    Apr 6, 2015 at 22:26

2 Answers 2


Phrasal verbs often have idiomatic combination and meaning that cannot be guessed from the verb alone, or from the adverb or preposition that follows.

In the idiomatic expression (that uses phrasal verbs),

He's been pushing up the daisies for a year.

it matters little whether the "up" in "push up" has a syntactic or semantic purpose.

Nevertheless a phrasal verb does often retain its "literal" meaning that can be guessed by its "elements".

In Longman Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs (Rosemary Courtney)

hold up a adv

  1. to raise (sth.)

"Hold up your hands so I can see them!" is meant literally.

  1. to delay (sth. or sb.) [often passive]

  2. to stop (a vehicle) by force (often during robbery)

Thus, "I don't really mean to hold you up, but I really need to borrow some money!" could be ambiguous without context.

  1. AmE to charge (sb.) too much

  2. to show or offer (sb. or sth.) as an example

  3. to last

"Will my truck hold up through the winter?".

  1. to remain in control of oneself

  2. to show pride in oneself as in hold one's head up

  3. to take someone by force or to threaten as in hold sb./sth. up to/for ransom

  4. to make unkind fun of ; cause (sb. or sth.) to be the object of laughter as in hold sb./sth. to ridicule

Thus, you can only sensibly analyze the parts for definition 1. for the phrasal verb "hold up". Definitions 2 to 7 are disparate in meanings as in idioms. Definition 8 to 10 have their own idiomatic expressions.

By the way, Longman Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs (Rosemary Courtney) does classify phrasal verbs into 25 groups by grammar, but it would be too complicated for fresh ESL students.


Phrasal verbs are also built on context. When you infer a different meaning based on usage, it might be difficult to build an idiomatic framework based solely on the prepositions, verbs, nouns etc. Why not build a contextual meaning first.

He's been waiting for years to ask her out, he needs to "man up".

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