Talking "private" with phrasal verbs: A corpus-based study of the use of phrasal verbs in diaries, journals and private letters [1]

Paula Rodríguez-Puente
University of Santiago de Compostela


This paper focuses on the analysis of English phrasal verbs in diaries, journals and letters, the three genres of ARCHER 3.1 (A Representative Corpus of English Historical Registers, 1650–1999) which can be regarded as closer to oral or colloquial language. The aim is to investigate whether, just like in Present-Day English, these constructions can be associated with informal, speech-related registers in earlier stages of the language or, on the contrary, their presence in a text type is conditioned by other factor(s) and, if so, which one(s). Results show that, as already noted by Thim (2006), the contents of the text may prompt the use of phrasal verbs to convey predominantly literal meanings. However, this statement applies not only to earlier stages of the language but also to contemporary English. I further argue that the particular idiolects and individual preferences of the authors of the texts are especially important for the frequency of phrasal verbs in a text, as well as the changing characteristics of text types over time.

1. Introduction

In Present-Day English (PDE) phrasal verbs tend to be associated with informal, colloquial, speech-related registers, whereas they seem to be avoided in formal writing (cf. Cowie & Mackin 1978: iv; Biber et al. 1999: 408, 409; Huddleston, Pullum et al. 2002: 284). Based on evidence from the Corpus of Nineteenth-Century English, the studies by Kytö & Smitterberg (2006) and Smitterberg (2008) have also concluded that by the 19th century the frequency of phrasal verbs correlates with the degree of formality of the text. Some studies point out that this was also the case during the Early Modern English (EModE) period (cf., e.g., Visser 1963: section 673; Hiltunen 1994; Nevalainen 1999: 423; Claridge 2000: 185–197). However, this statement has recently been questioned by Thim (2006), who, although not dismissing completely the degree of (in)formality of a text as an influential factor (2006: 302),  argues that in the period 1500–1700 the presence or absence of phrasal verbs in a text is motivated rather by the content of the text which may prompt the use of phrasal verbs to convey predominantly literal meanings (cf. Thim 2006: 303). Following Thim, therefore, one could argue that phrasal verbs have shifted over time from being “stylistically neutral” (2006: 302) to becoming markers of colloquial language, and the change seems to have taken place at some point between the EModE period and the 19th century.

Bearing this in mind, this paper focuses on the analysis of phrasal verbs in diaries, journals and letters, the three text types of ARCHER 3.1 (A Representative Corpus of English Historical Registers, 1650–1999) closer to oral or colloquial language, and which also represent the most private and personal styles of communication as defined by the parameters established in multivariate studies by Biber (1988, 2001) and Biber & Finegan (1989, 1997). My objective is to test whether these text types are stable in the use of phrasal verbs over time and whether there are remarkable differences in the use of these structures between them. I also aim at identifying a possible relationship between phrasal verbs and oral or colloquial styles in earlier periods of the language or other factors which may condition the use of these combinations.

The paper is structured as follows. Section 2 deals with the concept of phrasal verb and its main characteristics. Section 3 includes a description of the corpus used and the main features of the three genres selected. In Section 4 I explain briefly the methodology employed for the selection of examples from the corpus. In Section 5 I present the corpus data analysis and explain the main findings of the study.

2. Defining phrasal verbs

The term phrasal verb or verb particle combination refers to a sub-type of multi-word verbs consisting of a verb plus a particle of adverbial nature (cf. Claridge 2000: 46) which functions as a single unit to varying degrees. Although it has often been argued that only those combinations with idiomatic/non-transparent meanings (e.g. take up ‘assume’ in (1) below) qualify as phrasal verbs (Fraser 1976; Quirk et al. 1985: 1152, 1162–1163; Biber et al. 1999: 403), the existence of a category of literal phrasal verbs (e.g. go out in (2) below) has also been amply acknowledged (Bolinger 1971: 16, 112–114; Denison 1981: 110; Claridge 2000: 47).

(1) Harold took up the challenge. (1974cast.j8b)
(2) We all went out to dinner (1968cros.j8b)

Literal meanings are “the core from which figurative types are ultimately derived” (Claridge 2000: 47), so that all (or at least most) phrasal verbs probably had a literal meaning in origin. Given that this is a diachronic study, I include within the category of phrasal verbs both literal and idiomatic types.

Just as single-word verbs, phrasal verbs can be transitive or intransitive. When transitive, a nominal object can generally stand at either side of the particle (cf. (1a)), whereas a pronominal object must obligatorily precede it, as in (1b) (cf. Bolinger 1971: 10–11; Quirk et al. 1985: 1153, 1154; Biber et al. 1999: 404–405).

(1a) Harold took [up] the challenge [up].
(1b) Harold took it up.

These and other characteristics (cf. Rodríguez-Puente 2009) distinguish phrasal verbs from other multi-word verbs, such as prepositional verbs, which contain a prepositional particle (e.g. look after in (3)), and phrasal-prepositional verbs, which contain both an adverbial and a prepositional particle (e.g. put up with in (4); cf. Denison 1981: 24–33, 1998: 221–222; Claridge 2000: 46–82), both of which are not considered in the present study.

(3) She looks after the children. (1973trev.f8b)
(4) I’ve put up with a lot. ‘endure’ (1964berg.f8b)

3. A note on the corpus and genres selected

ARCHER 3.1 (A Representative Corpus of Historical English Registers) is a multi-genre historical corpus which covers the period from 1650 to 1999. [2] The data in this paper were obtained from the British variety, which is divided into seven fifty-year sub-periods across which eight different genres are represented (drama, fiction, journals/diaries, letters, medicine, news, science and sermons). Notice that, although journals/diaries form a single category, these have been separated for the purposes of this paper (cf. below). In total, the British section of the corpus amounts to 1,253,557 words.

According to Biber et al. (1994: 3), the genres in ARCHER can be divided into two major groups: written vs. speech-based and formal vs. informal. However, clear-cut distinctions are hard to make, so that the defining parameters with which texts are usually characterised are better described as dimensions because, rather than representing poles, they constitute a continuum (cf. Biber 1988: 9). Therefore, although there are no records of spoken registers from earlier stages of the language, those genres situated closer to the informal end of the continuum, namely diaries, drama, letters and, to some extent, journals, can be said to be closer to oral language, and thus they become the only available means for a historical linguist to approximate spoken English from earlier periods of the language. [3] Moreover, diaries, journals and letters represent the most “personal styles of communication” (Biber & Finegan 1997: 255) in which typically colloquial features, such as phrasal verbs, are well attested, because it is in private, intimate contexts, as well as with close relationships that “people are more likely to be at their ease and drop their guard, also linguistically” (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2005: 131). [4]

Nevertheless, the three genres at issue present particular characteristics. First of all, Late Modern English (LModE) letters must be looked at with caution. Although, in principle, they may seem to belong to the private sphere, during the 18th and 19th centuries they were very often read out aloud to friends and relatives (cf. Tieken 2005: 129). For this reason, they are sometimes the result of a very conscious process of writing, which follows various conventions typically acquired at home (Nevalainen 2001) and laid out in the many letter-writing manuals which appeared in the EModE period and became popular during the 19th century (Tieken 2009: 2–3).

In turn, diaries and journals, although combined under one single text category in ARCHER 3.1 (and earlier versions), also present important differences. Diaries can probably be considered the texts closest to the colloquial and familiar language in the sense that they report private events and personal thoughts, which are generally not intended to be read by anyone else. [5] Journals, however, include accounts of journeys written in a more narrative style and often with an eye on publication. [6] Moreover, whereas diaries are usually restricted to a report of the daily events often in a telegraphic, plain style, journals tend to include reflections, comments and examinations of the events reported (cf. Kielkiewicz-Janowiak 2003: 342) and are more narrative-like and elaborated (Yáñez-Bouza 2007: 333).

Thus, following Yáñez-Bouza (2007), who found remarkable differences in the use of stranded prepositions between diaries and journals (2007: 333–341), for the purposes of the present paper the occurrences of phrasal verbs in these two text types have been analysed separately. [7] Table 1 below displays the total number of files and words corresponding to the three text types analysed.

Diaries Journals Letters Diaries, Journals & Letters
Total files Total words Total files Total words Total files Total words TOTAL FILES TOTAL WORDS
1650–99 1 2,192 9 19,182 25 12,659 35 34,033
1700–49 6 12,475 4 8,968 28 12,093 38 33,536
1750–99 4 8,688 6 13,155 26 12,091 36 33,934
1800–49 5 10,667 5 11,073 25 12,576 35 34,316
1850–99 7 15,713 3 6,973 26 10,705 36 33,391
1900–49 4 8,971 6 13,095 29 12,434 39 34,500

6 13,236 4 8,989 28 11,259 38 33,434
Total 33 71,942 37 81,435 187 83,817 257 237,194

Table 1. Total files and number of words of diaries, journals and letters in ARCHER 3.1

This Table makes obvious one of the methodological problems stemming from the division of the genre journals/diaries, namely the fact that the distribution of text types in the corpus turns out quite unbalanced. Notice, for example, that in the first corpus subperiod there is one single diary, namely The Diary of the Rev. Henry Newcome (1661), as opposed to nine journals. This implies that the data for the diaries in this period are clearly biased by the particular idiolect of Rev. Newcome, so that any conclusions derived from this analysis must be taken with caution.

4. Methodology

In the first instance the searches for phrasal verbs were carried out automatically, using WordSmith Tools (Scott 1999). Given that ARCHER 3.1 is not morphologically tagged, the procedure required further manual analysis in search for individual particles. To this purpose and for the sake of comparison with earlier periods, I made use of the list of EModE particles in Claridge (2000: 46), which is based on lists provided by previous scholars (cf. Bolinger 1971: 17ff; Cowie & Mackin 1978: lxxx; Fraser 1976: 5; Quirk et al. 1985: 1151), and which includes the following 34 items: [8]

aback, aboard, about, above, across, after, ahead, along, apart, around, aside, astray, asunder, away, back, behind, by, counter, down, forth, forward(s), home, in, off, on, out, over, past, round, through, to, together, under, up

Moreover, given that the number of files and words in the three text types analysed is quite unevenly distributed (cf. Table 1 above), especially among diaries and journals, the frequencies of phrasal verbs have been normalised in all cases and statistical analysis has been applied too (Chi-square test). [9]

5. Corpus data analysis

The analysis yielded a total of 1,775 examples of phrasal verbs distributed over the seven sub-periods as shown in Table 2.

Raw figures Normalised frequencies per 10,000 words
Diaries Journals Letters Diaries Journals Letters
1650–99 29 183 34 132.2 95.4 26.8
1700–49 81 87 35 64.9 97.0 28.9
1750–99 62 75 49 71.3 57.0 40.5
1800–49 63 89 43 59.0 80.3 34.1
1850–99 105 88 84 66.8 126.2 78.4
1900–49 136 135 82 151.5 103.0 65.9
1950–99 128 78 109 96.7 86.7 96.8
Total 604 735 436 83.9 90.2 52.0

Table 2. Phrasal verbs in diaries, journals and letters in ARCHER

Figure 1

Figure 1. Phrasal verbs in diaries, journals and letters in ARCHER

As can be seen, the results are quite unevenly distributed across the three text types and over the seven fifty-year sub-periods. The data show, however, that in the earlier periods journals and diaries tend to show the highest proportion of phrasal verbs, though in alternate turns, whereas the rates in letters remain relatively low. Nevertheless, the tendencies seem to change from the second half of the 19th century onwards, when we witness a general increase in the number of phrasal verbs in letters and an important decrease in journals during the 20th century. Contrary to the situation attested at the end of the 17th century, in the second half of the 20th century letters show the highest rate of phrasal verbs along with diaries. But what is probably most remarkable is that by the end of the 20th century the three text types present quite similar proportions of phrasal verbs.

5.1. Diaries vs. Journals: The need for a separate analysis

The variation in the frequency of phrasal verbs in diaries and journals seems to confirm Yáñez-Bouza’s (2007: 333–341) conclusion that journals and diaries are distinct genres that require a separate analysis. [10]

But how to explain the fluctuation in the frequency of phrasal verbs in these two text types throughout the seven sub-periods in the corpus without any apparent fixed pattern? There seem to be three main reasons, all of which are related to the topic/contents, as well as to the fact that, whereas letters and to some extent journals (cf. Smith 1998) tend to follow a number of more or less fixed conventions, diaries are written in a freer style (cf. Section 3 above), so that both the contents and the format are conditioned by the particular preferences and idiolect of the writers, as well as by their socio-cultural background. [11]

(a) The number of phrasal verbs in diaries and journals may vary depending on the particular format chosen by the writer to narrate the events. As said above, in the first sub-period (1650–99) there is one diary only, namely The Diary of the Rev. Henry Newcome (1661), while there are nine journals, so that the results for the genre Diary are conditioned by the idiolect of Reverend Newcome, who, at first glance, seems to be very fond of phrasal verbs. In fact, I found a total of 29 combinations in his diary, which is the one showing the highest frequency of phrasal verbs (132.2) until the 20th century. However, the high frequency of these combinations in Newcome’s diary seems to be motivated by his highly repetitive style rather than by the fact that he uses a wide variety of combinations. To give an example, the combination get up is repeated ten times in his diary, thus constituting more than one third of the examples in the text; this is so because the Reverend starts every new entry of his diary by telling the time at which he gets up. Moreover, because he narrates his comings and goings to visit people and to preach at various churches, he also makes extensive use of combinations such as, come in (5 tokens), get home (3 tokens), go out (2 tokens) and set out (4 tokens).

The particular way chosen by Newcome to portray his daily events contrasts strongly with, for example, the more narrative style observed in other diaries, such as The Memoir of William Oldys, Esq. (1738), which has the lowest frequency of phrasal verbs (31.4) in the sub-period 1700–49. Mr. Oldys tends to describe his experiences in meeting other people at various places, rather than the trivial and repetitive actions performed during the day (such as getting up). In fact, the entries in his diary are not consecutive in time but only introduced when there is a necessity to narrate something relevant that happened to him.

(b) The particular topics dealt with in the narration are also crucial to determine the frequency of phrasal verbs. For example, journals describing travels, trips and visits of the writers and the people they write about tend to contain many phrasal verbs, which usually serve as a means of backgrounding the narrations and describing trivial actions and activities. Sea journals constitute a clear example because, as noticed by Bolinger, “in no other occupation are directions and resultant positions of such unremitting concern” (1971: 18). In the Journal of Sir Thomas Allin (1666), for instance, which is the sample containing the highest frequency of phrasal verbs in the whole corpus (238.0), I have counted a total of 50 phrasal verbs, which are mostly used to describe the basic activities taking place on board. The particle aboard is precisely one of the most frequent ones in this text.

(c) Moreover, the particular stylistic devices, structures and vocabulary selected by the writer, which sometimes are a reflection of his/her educational background or of a conscious effort to make the narration more formal, may also affect the use of phrasal verbs in a text. A good example of this is the Private Journal of a Visit to Egypt and Palestine (1836) by Lady Montefiore, the journal with the lowest frequency of phrasal verbs in the first half of the 19th century (36.5). This is quite striking because, as said above, journals containing descriptions of journeys tend to present high frequencies of these constructions. However, a closer inspection of this text reveals that, as an educated and learned woman, Lady Montefiore uses a very careful and cultivated language in general. Her sentences are very well structured and full of polysyllabic words of French and Latin origin (e.g. molestation, indisposition, dissatisfaction), and she employs a varied number of adverbs and adjectives in her descriptions.

The absence of phrasal verbs in the writing of Lady Montefiore seems to be motivated by her frequent use of one-word Latinate equivalents in places where others would have probably used phrasal combinations: e.g. she uses depart for set out, return for come back, continue for go on and obstruct for block up, among others. [12] Moreover, in her writing there is not a single instance of what at the time was strongly criticised by prescriptivists as redundant particles, such as those contained in the combinations fall down, open up, return back or rise up (cf. Wild 2010: 143–151). Therefore, either because Lady Montefiore was affected by her knowledge of Romance languages or because she was influenced by the prescriptions against phrasal verbs, which were so common at the time, and which generally encouraged the avoidance of phrasal verbs (cf. Wild 2010: 94–189), what is undeniable is that phrasal verbs are practically absent from her writing.

5.2. Journals, diaries and letters: Qualitative distinctions

As has been shown, quantitative differences between diaries and journals seem to depend often on the particular preferences of the writer, as well as on the semantic content of the text. Qualitatively, on the other hand, important differences have also been observed. Table 3 below shows the 15 most frequent phrasal combinations used in the three text types analysed.

get up 23 set out 21 go on 20
go on 20 come up 18 come up 10
come home 19 go on 18 find out 9
come in 19 take up 14 give up 9
come up 19 go up 11 set out 9
go out 15 blow up 10 take up 9
go up 12 come down 10 come back 8
come back 10 go away 10 come down 6
go down 9 come in 9 get back 6
go off 8 cut off 8 go away 6
bring home 7 get up 8 go back 6
come out 7 make up 8 put up 6
get back 7 come aboard 7 throw away 6
go in 7 go home 7 go out 5
leave out 7 put in 7 keep up 5

Table 3. Most frequent phrasal verbs in diaries, journals and letters (raw numbers)

As can be seen, whereas diaries contain mostly phrasal verbs describing basic daily activities (e.g. get up, come home, come in, come up), the type of constructions typical of journals seems much more varied, not only describing basic actions, but also referring to more specialised topics (e.g. set out, blow up, cut off, come aboard). This is also true of letters, which moreover seem to favour the use of constructions with non-literal meanings, such as find out and give up, which are among the most frequent ones. Similar results are reported by Hiltunen (1994) for EModE letters, in which he also finds lower figures of phrasal verbs than might be expected, but which contain “combinations that are not used elsewhere and that give a casual impression” (1994: 137). Notice, for example, the combination chuck up ‘give up, abandon’ in example (5) below.

(5) Well I wanted to chuck up everything and just go. (1952rhys.x8b)

The set of verbs used in phrasal verbs is also more varied in journals and letters than in diaries, in which most of the combinations consist of the verbs get, go and come plus a particle indicating movement. The type/token ratios for the three text types are shown in Table 4.

Types Tokens Ratio
Diaries 270 605 0.44
Journals 356 735 0.48
Letters 232 437 0.53

Table 4. Type/token ratio in diaries, journals and letters in ARCHER

As can be seen, diaries show the lowest ratio, which indicates that the phrasal verbs attested in this genre are repeated more often than in the other two text types. The highest ratio is found in letters, which contain a more varied vocabulary.

As regards the type of particles most frequently used in each of the text types, Table 5 below shows that up and out occupy the first and second positions respectively in the three genres. However, it is in journals that we find the widest variety of particles (26 types), followed by letters and diaries.

up 153 up 178 up 120
out 97 out 120 out 81
down 70 off 67 away 36
in 53 down 62 back 34
home 48 in 50 on 34
off 38 on 42 down 33
on 33 away 41 off 29
back 30 back 41 home 13
away 26 about 20 in 13
over 11 home 20 over 10
about 9 over 15 round 7
along 5 aboard 14 about 4
through 5 forward 9 across 3
forward 4 round 8 aside 3
round 4 together 8 ahead 2
together 4 by 7 along 2
around 3 forth 7 by 2
forth 3 through 7 forth 2
across 2 along 5 forward 2
aside 2 across 4 together 2
by 2 ahead 3 apart 1
behind 1 around 2 around 1
past 1 behind 2 astray 1
    apart 1 through 1
    aside 1    
    to 1    

Table 5. List of particles and tokens in diaries, journals and letters in ARCHER (raw figures)

In fact, the particles aboard and to only occur in journals and in relation to nautical terms (cf. (6) and (7)), whereas the only example of the particle astray is attested in a letter (cf. (8)).

(6) My son and Mr. Pate came aboard. (1666alli.j2b)
(7) At 10 a.m. the wind at NW, blowing very hard. Lay to. [13] (1780dunc.j4b)
(8) My publisher has smashed, my cheques go astray, you may have heard. (1904joyc.x7b).

Therefore, diaries and journals have proved to be distinctive not only quantitatively but also qualitatively. At the same time, important quantitative and qualitative differences were found between letters, on the one hand, and diaries and journals, on the other.

5.3 Letters as a case in point

As mentioned earlier in this section, in the oldest periods analysed, letters tend to show a much lower frequency of phrasal verbs than diaries and journals, although the rates of these constructions tend to increase in this text type over time. These low figures seem to be motivated by two main reasons, namely the topic of the text and the variation underwent by letters as a text type over time.

First, the number of phrasal verbs in letters may be influenced by the contents of the text, as pointed out by Thim (2006). Letters present lower figures of phrasal verbs, because they contain fewer descriptions of places, trips and travels than journals, and do not report on repeated daily activities to the extent that diaries do. In fact, when they include descriptions and narrations, the number of phrasal verbs tends to be higher, as is the case with a letter written by Lewis Carroll to his sister Elizabeth in 1851. [14]

Secondly, it must be noticed that letters have evolved as a text type from the 18th century to the present day, as shown in the multivariate analyses by Biber (2001) and Biber & Finegan (1989, 1997), where 18th-century letters are found to be “expository, descriptive, or argumentative in purpose” as opposed to PDE letters, which are “personally involved and interactive” (Biber 2001: 105). For this reason, many 18th-century letters “avoided the use of overtly speech-based features, such as contractions and discourse particles” (Biber 2001: 104), and, one could argue, probably also phrasal verbs. [15] This feature of 18th-century letters is possibly related to the fact that, as mentioned above, they were written following the conventions learned at home and proposed in the many letter-writing manuals of the time, whereas diaries and, to some extent, journals followed a freer style.

Biber & Finegan’s (1989) study has also shown that, from the 17th century to the present-day, letters have shifted from being relatively oral to being highly oral. This tendency toward more oral styles in letters may have been prompted by external factors such as the increase in literacy with which letter writing and the written production in general “grew explosively” (Tieken 2009: 3, 8), as well as the introduction of the Penny Post in Britain in 1840. With the latter, postage became much cheaper (Tieken 2009: 2) and this favoured the use of letters as an accessible way of communication for all social classes, even the uneducated, lower-class people, whose language was characterised by “colloquialisms,” “incorrectness” and “old-fashionedness” (McIntosh 1986: 12). [16]

Nevertheless, the shift toward more oral styles in letters has not been a steady one. During the 18th century a slight reversal is witnessed, when trends turned to more literate styles (Biber & Finegan 1989: 512 and passim). My corpus data show that the number of phrasal verbs has increased in letters from the 18th century onwards, although with two major reversals (cf. Table 6 below). The first reversal occurs during the first half of the 19th century, coinciding with the time at which prescriptions against phrasal verbs were stronger. [17] However, the existence of a second reversal during the first half of the 20th century seems to indicate that prescriptivist strictures are probably not the only reason behind the halt in the growth of phrasal verbs. [18]


Raw figures Normalised freq.
1650–99 34 26.8
1700–49 35 28.9
1750–99 49 40.5
1800–49 43 34.1
1850–99 84 78.4
1900–49 82 65.9
1950–99 109 96.8
Total 437 52.0

Table 6. Phrasal verbs in letters in ARCHER (raw figures and normalised frequencies per 10,000 words)

Figure 2

Figure 2. Phrasal verbs in letters in ARCHER

An analysis of the letters which do not contain any phrasal verbs leads overall to the same conclusion. As shown in Table 7 below, the number of letters with no phrasal verbs is much higher in the material produced before 1850 than in that dating from the second half of the 19th century onwards.

Letters with no PVs No. of letters/period Ratio
1650–99 8 25 0.32
1700–49 11 28 0.39
1750–99 3 26 0.11
1800–49 8 25 0.32
1850–99 4 26 0.15
1900–49 2 29 0.06
1950–99 1 28 0.03
Total 37 187  

Table 7. Number of letters containing no occurrences of phrasal verbs

In fact, in the last sub-period analysed (1950–99), there is only one text which makes no use at all of phrasal verbs. It is a letter of J.R.R. Tolkien to his daughter Priscilla (1963) in which he describes a funeral in quite a melancholic, almost poetic tone. However, the absence of phrasal verbs in this letter seems motivated by the topic of the letter and the stylistic features employed in it rather than by a conscious effort on the part of Tolkien to avoid these constructions, which he does use in the two other letters included in ARCHER (1953, 1962).

However, other letter-writers in ARCHER seem to consciously avoid the use of phrasal verbs.  This is the case, for example, of the Irishman Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816): none of his four letters contains a single instance of phrasal verbs (sub-period 1800–49). Just like Lady Montefiore (cf. Section 5.1 above), he seems to replace phrasal verbs with verbs of Latin and French origin, e.g. escape for run away, reserve for keep apart, ascertain for find out and continue for go on. This feature of Sheridan’s writing comes as no surprise if we consider that Irish English tended to be socially stigmatised at the time and that, for this reason, Irish writers, such as Sheridan “were particularly aware of the dangers of non-standard speech” (Görlach 2001: 68). Thus, the replacement of phrasal verbs by Romance verbs in his texts is probably due to a conscious attempt on his part to show a higher degree of formality and education.

5.4 Colloquialisation of genres?

Biber & Finegan (1989, 1997) have also observed a general tendency for all popular written genres, not only letters, to become more oral (i.e., more involved, less elaborated and less abstract) over time, especially from the 19th century onwards. Therefore, the growth of phrasal verbs should be reflected in journals and diaries. A look at Table 8 below reveals that phrasal verbs have grown in diaries at a slow pace from the 18th century to the present day, though we must leave aside the diary of Newcome, which, as said above (cf. Section 5.1), is the only diary available in the period between 1650–1699. [19]


Raw figures Normalised freq.
1650–99 29 132.2
1700–49 81 65.9
1750–99 62 71.3
1800–49 63 59.0
1850–99 105 66.8
1900–49 136 151.5
1950–99 128 96.7
Total 604 83.9

Table 8. Phrasal verbs in diaries in ARCHER (normalised frequencies per 10,000 words)

Figure 3

Figure 3. Phrasal verbs in diaries in ARCHER

Surprisingly, however, this is not the case with journals. Although the frequencies of phrasal verbs increase during the 19th century, they decrease again during the 20th century to the extent that they reach figures lower than those obtained for the late 17th century (cf. Table 9 below). [20]


Raw figures Normalised freq.
1650–99 183 95.4
1700–49 87 97.0
1750–99 75 57.0
1800–49 89 80.3
1850–99 88 126.2
1900–49 135 103.0
1950–99 78 86.7
Total 735 90.2

Table 9. Phrasal verbs in journals in ARCHER (raw figures and normalised frequencies per 10,000

Figure 4

Figure 4. Phrasal verbs in journals in ARCHER

This decrease of phrasal verbs in journals during the 20th century is not in accordance with the information provided in other studies which report on the increase of these constructions in recent years (cf., e.g., Spasov 1966: 18–22; Denison 1998: 223) not only in the spoken language but at all levels of language (cf. Claridge 2000: 104), even “the common and literary levels” (Potter 1965: 286).

These results are, in principle, also contradictory with the findings in Biber & Finegan (1997). However, it must be noticed that Biber & Finegan’s analysis does not consider diaries and journals as separate text types. Moreover, as said above, my analysis focuses on British English, whereas the study by Biber & Finegan applies to both British and American texts. Although phrasal verbs are just one of the many features which characterise a text as being closer to the oral styles, in view of the present results, it seems necessary to question whether journals and diaries are evolving in different directions. [21]

6. Concluding remarks

By way of conclusion, I agree with Thim (2006) in that the occurrence or non-occurrence of phrasal verbs in certain text types can be motivated by the contents of the text, which may prompt the use of phrasal verbs to convey predominantly literal meanings. This seems to be the case with certain text types, such as diaries and journals, although it is not a characteristic exclusive of EModE texts, but also of PDE ones. However, the difference in the frequencies of phrasal verbs between diaries and journals, on the one hand, and letters, on the other, is expectedly more evident in EModE, when the majority of phrasal verbs had literal or concrete meanings, and were therefore more suitable for the narration of events, journeys and daily activities in diaries and journals than for a more literate and formulaic genre such as 18th-century letters.

Moreover, the particular idiolects and individual preferences of the authors of the texts are especially important for the frequency of phrasal verbs in a text, particularly in texts which are composed in a rather free and personal style, as is the case with diaries. Finally, the present paper has also evidenced that in diachronic studies special attention must be paid to the changing characteristics of text types over time since, as demonstrated by Biber (2001, 2003) and Biber & Finegan (1989, 1997), may change over time.


[1] I would like to thank Nuria Yáñez-Bouza and María José López-Couso for helpful discussion and valuable feedback on earlier versions of this paper. For generous financial support I am grateful to the European Regional Development Fund and the following institutions: Spanish Ministry for Science and Innovation (grants HUM2007-60706 and FFI2011-26693-C02-01) and Autonomous Government of Galicia (grant CN2011/011).

[2] However, the great majority of the text samples of diaries, journals and letters in ARCHER from the last sub-period (1950–99) were produced before the 1970’s (31 out of 38). In fact, the most recent of these documents is a diary dating back to 1981.

[3] Yáñez-Bouza classifies journals as “unknown” with regard to register (2007: 232)

[4] Henceforward, Tieken.

[5] There are, however, some exceptions (cf. Nurmi & Nevala 2010: 173).

[6] Cf., e.g., the sea journals by Captain James Cook (Percy 1996).

[7] I am very thankful to Nuria for drawing my attention to the difference between diaries and journals and for providing me with her self-collected data for the elaboration of the present study.

[8] Discussing which of these items qualify as phrasal-verb particles goes beyond the scope of this paper. It must be noticed, however, that I have excluded the particle ashore from Claridge’s list, because, to my knowledge, it is only listed by Bolinger (1971: 18) as a non-productive particle restricted to nautical usage. By contrast, although aboard is also restricted to nautical use, it is frequently cited in the literature as a phrasal-verb particle (cf., e.g., Denison 1981: 9; Quirk et al. 1985: 1151; Huddleston, Pullum et al. 2002: 281) and has therefore been retained.

[9] Balanced word counts are one of the main aims towards version 3.2 of ARCHER (cf. Yáñez-Bouza 2011).

[10] Statistically, however, the difference between both genres proves significant in only three of the seven sub-periods (in bold): 1650–99: p=0.1285; 1700–49: p=0.0115; 1750–99: p=0.2222; 1800–49: p=0.0732; 1850–99: p=<0.0001; 1900–49: p=0.0019; 1950–99: p=0.4976.

[11] This does not imply that diaries do not follow any conventions at all. However, since they are concerned with private and intimate matters, their contents very much depend on the type of experiences that the writer chooses to narrate, as well as the way in which he/she decides to narrate them, among other things.

[12] See also the edited and corrected version for publication of Captain Cook’s sea journal (McIntosh 1986: 105–106), in which, among other corrections, the editor, John Hawkesworth, replaces the phrasal verb find out by the one-word verb discover.

[13] ‘Come to a stationary position with the head towards the wind’ (OED s.v. lay to 3).

[14] This is the letter with the highest frequency of phrasal verbs in the corpus (162.0).

[15] Notice, however, that Biber’s (2001) study is based on ARCHER 3.1, in which the original spellings have been variously transcribed by the compilers of the corpus. For this reason, measuring the number of contractions of a text does not constitute a reliable way to ascertain its speech-like character in this corpus. The correction of these and other undesirable practices is precisely one of the main tasks towards version 3.2 (Yáñez-Bouza 2011).

[16] According to Görlach, “[p]rivate letters became a major text type in the 18th century” (2001: 211).

[17] It is especially from the second half of the 18th century onwards that negative attitudes towards phrasal verbs start to appear in grammars (cf. Wild 2010: 89ff), some of which prevail until the 20th century (Brinton 1996).

[18] Although the growth of phrasal verbs in letters from 1650–99 to 1950–99 has proved statistically significant (p= <0.0001), the developments between individual sub-periods showed statistically significant results only in two cases (in bold): 1650–99/1700–49: p=1; 1700–49/1750–99: p=0.2161; 1750–99/1800–49: p=1; 1800–49/1850–99: p=0.0068; 1850–99/1900–49: p=0.6892; 1900–49/1950–99: p=<0.0001.

[19] The growth of phrasal verbs in diaries from 1700–49 to 1950–99 has proved statistically significant (p=0.0061), as opposed to the difference between 1650–99 and 1950–99 (p=0.1594). The development over the various sub-periods are statistically significant in three cases (in bold): 1650–99/1700–49: p=0.0014; 1700–49/1750–99: p=0.639; 1750–99/1800–49: p=0.3349; 1800–49/1850–99: p=0.4884; 1850–99/1900–49: p=<0.0001; 1900–49/1950–99: p=0.0003.

[20] The development of phrasal verbs in journals from 1650–49 to 1950–99 proved statistically non-significant (p=0.5271). The frequencies from one to another sub-period are statistically significant in three cases (in bold): 1650–99/1700–49: p=1; 1700–49/1750–99: p=0.0009; 1750–99/1800–49: p=0.0343; 1800–49/1850–99: p=0.0034; 1850–99/1900–49: p=0.1615; 1900–49/1950–99: p=0.256.

[21] Cf. especially the analysis in Biber (2003: 52), which includes phrasal verbs for the first time in his multivariate analysis as a feature of oral registers.


ARCHER 3.1 = A Representative Corpus of Historical English Registers 3.1. 1990–1993/2002/2007/2010. Compiled under the supervision of Douglas Biber & Edward Finegan at the Universities of Northern Arizona, Southern California, Freiburg, Heidelberg, Helsinki, Uppsala, Michigan, Manchester, Lancaster, Bamberg, Zurich, Trier, Salford, and Santiago de Compostela.

Biber, Douglas. 1988. Variation across Speech and Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Biber, Douglas. 2001. “Dimensions of variation among eighteenth-century speech-based and written registers.” Towards a History of English as a History of Genres, ed. by Hans-Jürgen Diller & Manfred Görlach, 89–109. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter.

Biber, Douglas. 2003. “Variation among university spoken and written genres: A new multi-dimensional analysis.” Corpus Analysis. Language Structure and Language Use, ed. by Pepi Lestyna & Charles F. Meyer, 47–70. Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi.

Biber, Douglas & Edward Finegan. 1989. “Drift and the evolution of English style: A history of three genres.” Language 65(3): 487–517.

Biber, Douglas & Edward Finegan. 1997. “Diachronic relations among speech-based and written registers in English.” To Explain the Present: Studies in the Changing English Language in Honour of Matti Rissanen, ed. by Terttu Nevalainen & Leena Kahlas-Tarkka, 253–275. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique.

Biber, Douglas, Edward Finegan, Dwight Atkinson, Ann Beck, Dennis Burges & Jena Burges. 1994. “The design and analysis of the ARCHER corpus: A progress report.” Corpora across the Centuries: Proceedings of the First International Colloquium on English Diachronic Corpora, St. Catharine’s College Cambridge, 25–27 March 1993, ed. by Merja Kytö, Matti Rissanen & Susan Wright, 3–6. Amsterdam & Atlanta: Rodopi.

Biber, Douglas, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan Conrad & Edward Finegan. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. London: Longman.

Bolinger, Dwight. 1971. The Phrasal Verb in English. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Brinton, Laurel. 1996. “Attitudes toward increasing segmentalization: Complex and phrasal verbs in English.” Journal of English Linguistics 24: 186–205.

Claridge, Claudia. 2000. Multi-word Verbs in Early Modern English: A Corpus-based Study. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Cowie, Anthony Paul & Ronald Mackin. 1978 (3rd ed.). Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English. Volume I: Verbs with Prepositions and Particles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Denison, David. 1981. Aspects of the History of English Group-verbs, with Particular Attention to the Syntax of the Ormulum. PhD dissertation. Oxford University.

Denison, David. 1998. “Syntax.” The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. IV: 1776–1997, ed. by Suzanne Romaine, 92–329. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fraser, Bruce. 1976. The Verb-particle Combination in English. New York: Academic Press.

Görlach, Manfred. 2001. Eighteenth-century English. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter.

Hiltunen, Risto. 1994. “Phrasal verbs in Early Modern English: Notes on lexis and style.” Studies in Early Modern English, ed. by Dieter Kastovsky, 129–140.  Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Huddleston, Rodney & Geoffrey K. Pullum et al. 2002. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kielkiewicz-Janowiak, Agnieszka. 2003. “Language and society in the diaries of two women in early New England.” Insights into Late Modern English (Studies in Language and Communication 7), ed. by Marina Dossena & Charles Jones, 331–350.  Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Kytö, Merja & Erik Smitterberg. 2006. “Nineteenth-century English: An age of stability or a period of change?” Corpus-based Studies of Diachronic English, ed. by Roberta Facchineti & Matti Rissanen, 199–230. Bern: Peter Lang.

McIntosh, Carey. 1986. Common and Courtly Language. The Stylistics of Social Class in the 18th-century English Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Nevalainen, Terttu. 1999. “Early Modern English lexis and semantics.” The Cambridge History of the English Language: Vol. III: 1476–1776, ed. by Roger Lass, 332–458. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nevalainen, Terttu. 2001. “Continental conventions in Early English correspondence.” Towards a History of English as a History of Genres, ed. by Hans-Jürgen Diller & Manfred Görlach, 203–25  Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter.

Nurmi, Arja & Minna Nevala. 2010. “The social space of an eighteenth-century governess.” Social Roles and Language Practices in Late Modern English, ed. by Päivi Pahta, Minna Nevala, Arja Nurmi & Minna Palander-Collin, 163–189. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

OED = Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd edn. in progress: OED Online, March 2000–, ed. by John A. Simpson.

Percy, Carol. 1996. “English ‘normative’ grammar in practice: The case of Captain Cook.” English Historical Linguistics 1994. Selected Papers from the 8th ICEHL Edinburgh, 19–23 September 1994, ed. by Derek Britton, 339–362. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Potter, Simeon. 1965. “English phrasal verbs.” Philologica Pragensia 8: 285–289.

Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech & Jan Svartvik. 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London & New York: Longman.

Rodríguez-Puente, Paula. 2009. “How to define a phrasal verb? Testing the validity of structural criteria for the identification of phrasal verbs.” Proceedings of the 32nd AEDEAN International Conference, ed. by Marian Amengual Pizarro María Juan & Joana Salazar, 499–505. Palma de Mallorca: Publicacions UIB.

Scott, Michael. 1999. WordSmith Tools version 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Amy Elizabeth. 1998. “Travel narratives and the familiar letter form in the mid-eighteenth century.” Studies in Philology 95(1): 77–96.

Smitterberg, Erik. 2008. “The progressive and phrasal verbs: Evidence of colloquialization in nineteenth-century English?” The Dynamics of Linguistic Variation. Corpus Evidence on English Past and Present (Studies in Language Variation 2), ed. by Terttu Nevalainen, Irma Taavitsainen, Päivi Pahta & Minna Korhonen, 269–289.  Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Spasov, Dimiter. 1966. English phrasal verbs. Sofia: Naouka Izkoustvo.

Thim, Stefan. 2006. “Phrasal verbs in Everyday English: 1500–1700.” Language and Text: Current Perspectives on English and Germanic Historical Linguistics and Philology, ed. by Andrew James Johnston, Ferdinand von Mengden & Stefan Thim, 291–306. Heidelberg: Winter.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. 2005. “Eighteenth-century English letters: In search of the vernacular.” Linguistica e Filologia 21: 113–146.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. 2009. An Introduction to Late Modern English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Visser, Frederick Th. 1963. An Historical Syntax of the English Language, Vol. I. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Wild, Kate. 2010. Attitudes towards English Usage in the Late Modern Period: The Case of Phrasal Verbs. PhD dissertation, College of Arts, School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow.

Yáñez-Bouza, Nuria. 2007. Preposition Stranding and Prescriptivism in English from 1500 to 1900: A Corpus-based Approach. PhD dissertation. School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures, The University of Manchester.

Yáñez-Bouza, Nuria. 2011. “ARCHER: past and present (1990–2010).” ICAME Journal: 205–236.