This context comes from the book "Black Rednecks And White Liberals" by Thomas Sowell.

Eventually, such strong feeling were aroused among the British public that anti-slavery petitions with unprecedented numbers of signatures poured into Parliment from around the country, from people in all walks of life, until the mounting political pressures forced not only a banning of the international slave trade in 1808, but eventually swept the anti-slavery forces on beyond their original goals toward the direct abolition of the institution of slavery itself.

e : to drive or carry along with irresistible force a wave of protest that swept the opposition into office (Merriam-Webster)

Does it mean, according to this definition, that "the anti-slavery forces were driven ("driven" meaning "compelled to act") further, beyond their original goals toward the direct abolition of the institution of the slavery itself"?

I assume that "sweep on" is not a phrasal verb but a verb and a adverb "on" which means continuously.

  • Am I the only one reminded of the Dr. Seuss book "On Beyond Zebra"?
    – Barmar
    Feb 7, 2023 at 20:37
  • feeling s/b feelings Feb 8, 2023 at 4:44

4 Answers 4


My understanding of the authors statement is that the sentiment against the slave trade morphed into something bigger and not controlled by any individual or group of individuals. The anti-slavery movement had become like a flooding river sweeping up everything in its path and under no one's control.

The 'on' in 'swept...on' I would interpret to mean forward, not necessarily continuously, and the combination of 'on beyond' I take to mean forward and expanding.

The comparison to driven is apt, but the idea of being compelled could be argued to mean that there was a mechanism by which a specific person or organization was somehow the impetus behind the forward and expanding movement, which I believe is not the point the author is making.

  • I think this answer is spot-on with "like a flooding river". The anti-slavery forces were swept on by the current of the movement they had started. They had motivated the British public to pressure Parliament to ban the international slave trade, and the fervor of that public sentiment was so great that it carried the anti-slavery forces on beyond their original more limited goal of banning the trade to banning slavery itself. "books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=swept+on+by+the+*&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=en-2019&smoothing=3"
    – TimR
    Mar 3 at 11:30
  • Sorry, the asterisk in the URL is confusing the editor and I don't know how to fix it. Ngram 'swept on by the *'
    – TimR
    Mar 3 at 11:31

Whether or not 'sweep [NP] on' should be considered as unary (an [obligatorily separable] phrasal verb / multi-word verb [MWV]) can be argued, but I'd say you're right in considering 'on' as a separate lexeme, giving the sense of continuation. While this usage of 'sweep' does require more than a direct object (*The Akkadians swept the Elbonians / ✓ The Akkadians swept the Elbonians into the sea), a prepositional phrase will suffice.

Cambridge Dictionary gives this sense of the adverb on:

on [adverb] (NOT STOPPING) continuing or not stopping [going further]:

  • The referee waved at the player to play on.
  • Read on to discover the amazing properties of coconut water.
  • The police officers shook their heads and drove on.
  • When Jenny walks the dog, she ignores his hunting behaviour and just walks on till he comes back.

A related example with a transitive usage is

  • He urged the team on [to greater things.]

though dictionaries, including Cambridge, do class this as a MWV usage.

One could argue that ' ... swept the anti-slavery forces beyond their original goals ...' already demands the notion of a continued movement, but for some reason, I find the inclusion of 'on' here gives a more natural-sounding reading, and probably reinforces the irresistible tide metaphor.


Your supplied definition of sweep is correct enough. And you are correct that sweep on is not a phrasal verb, not in any idiomatic sense, anyway. But the adverb on does not mean continuously here — it means forward.

Here’s an abridged version of your passage:

The pressures forced a banning of the international slave trade, and [those pressures were so great that they also] swept the anti-slavery forces [forward] beyond [banning international slave trade and] toward the abolition of slavery itself.

So we have something like:

Active voice: Those pressures swept/drove/carried the anti-slavery forces forward.

Passive voice: The anti-slavery forces were swept/driven/carried forward by those pressures.

The flaw in your thinking is in interpreting driven as a passive causative meaning compelled to act, as in:

Active voice: ?Those pressures [compelled] the anti-slavery forces [to act] forward.

Passive voice: ?The anti-slavery forces were [compelled to act] forward by those pressures.


Dr. Sowell's usage sounds a little off to my AE ear.

I think it might have sounded better to me as:

  • but eventually swept the anti-slavery forces beyond their original goals
  • but eventually swept up the anti-slavery forces beyond their original goals
  • but eventually drove the anti-slavery forces beyond their original goals

I think Dr. Sowell may have intended this as a phrasal verb, substituting "swept on" for "swept up."

  • Thanks for the answers guys, but you got too hung up on the "adverb" on. What is more interesting to me is what does "sweep" mean in this context :) Feb 6, 2023 at 17:21
  • @Static Bounce - You already have a definition; for connotation, see 'swept by fervor' and on means forward. Feb 6, 2023 at 19:05
  • Does the word "drive" in the definition for "sweep" which I provided mean "compelled to act"? Feb 7, 2023 at 8:13
  • @HippoSawrUs I don't really understand your comment. Can you clarify? Why would I need a definition for a connotation of "sweep"? And also, there is no definition in this post that includes "swept by fervor" in it. Feb 7, 2023 at 11:51
  • @StaticBounce, agreed, perhaps too hung up on "on." Your tag comment was I assume that "sweep on" is not a phrasal verb but a verb and an adverb and I am responding to the tag.
    – rajah9
    Feb 7, 2023 at 13:40

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