Grammar review: Verb+particle versus compound noun


Although the inflections and compound-mania are largely absent from the English language, there are still some vestiges of its Germanic roots. One detail of English grammar that I often see neglected is the distinction between the verb+particle and the compound noun.

Consider the verb phrase "to shut down", which is the one I see misused most often. This is a verb+particle combination and is treated as two words. When you turn it into a noun, however, it becomes "shutdown", one word. This Knowledge Base article, for example, manages to keep its head on straight for most of the article, using the verb+particle for the verb form and the compound for the noun form:

\\computername: Use this switch to specify the remote computer to shut down.

/a: Use this switch to quit a shutdown operation.

But then it slips up towards the end and uses the compound as a verb:

To schedule the local computer to shutdown and restart at 10:00 P.M. ...

In other Germanic languages the distinction is clearer. Consider the Swedish and German verbs for "to make up" (as in, "to make up an alibi"):

hitta på   påhittad
legen zurecht   zurechtlegen

In the verb+particle form, the particle comes after the verb, whereas in the single-word form, the particle comes before the verb. It's therefore more obvious when you have one word and when you have two. English does this only rarely, typically for verbs that retain poetic or archaic appeal ("cast down" → "downcast") and therefore reach back to the language's German roots for their power.

This is one of the reasons why I'm so fascinated by the Germanic languages: The more I learn about the other languages, the more I learn about my own.

Comments (32)
  1. A Geek says:

    The different between a geek and a nerd:  A geek is fascinated that he can survive a day speaking his language without embarrassing himself.  A nerd is fascinated by his language and its roots.

    I’m a geek.

  2. Mark Steward says:

    Other way round, surely?  Nerds are the usually considered to be uninterested in social interaction, while most people are geeks about their own subjects.  (Then again, there’s evidence that this is part of an isogloss across the US, so I don’t think there’s an accepted order.)

  3. Mark Steward says:

    BTW, a lot of the time this distinction between a verbed compound and the original verb + particle is actually used as a distinguishing feature.  Consider "run over" and "overrun" (which depend on slightly different functions of over).  I have no problem with the verb to setup, because it carries different meaning to set up, and I’m fairly sure the meanings will diverge further in the future).

  4. Rob says:

    I had a weeklong ordeal trying to get checkout vs. check out standardized. I’m pretty sure I sometimes cheat on login vs. log in as well. Being in the habit of using runOnWords for variableAndFunctionNames doesn’t help either.

  5. RC5 says:

    > You have simply failed to note the existence of ego boundaries between yourself and the rest of the human race.

    Hacker vs Cracker anyone ?

  6. Miles Archer says:

    No comment on Hacker, but a Cracker is someone from Georgia.

  7. The big question of course is; log on, logon, log in or login? :)

  8. BryanK says:

    On the question of using "hacker" or "cracker":

    Neither.  "Moron" is probably most appropriate.  :-P

  9. . says:

    > The big question of course is; log on, logon, log in or login? :)

    sign in, of course ;)

  10. Dewi Morgan says:

    "weeklong" ordeal? Or "week-long" or "week long"?

    Anyway, regrettably, this entry has my sister’s hearty seal of approval. When I asked her whether it should be "shutdown" or "shut down" she made all the same basic points from your post, including the one about germanic… ack. She interrupts. "’As’," she says. "Or ‘as in’ your post."

    This is why so many linguists are found throttled each year.

  11. Mark Steward says:

    Helen: I think A Geek was making a joke, while I was proposing a model for its common usage.

    Setup, etc. depends on the understanding of word-boudaries, which has definitely changed across the millennia, and probably varies from person to person.  For example, is New Yorker one word or two?  If one, why don’t we write New-Yorker or Newyorker?  If two, what does that mean for the word yorker?

    Thanks to suffixes and prefixes, compound ambiguity has an effect in most (if not all) Indo-European languages.  This is why such a language can’t be learnt in isolation.

    Cheers,

       Mark

  12. J says:

    ""weeklong" ordeal? Or "week-long" or "week long"?"

    Since "week long" is a compound adjective describing "ordeal", you’d hyphenate it as "week-long ordeal".

    When "week long" isn’t a compound adjective, you don’t hyphenate it.  So you’d say "that ordeal was a week long".

  13. Maurits says:

    Both of J’s comments are correct; but in addition, weeklong is a perfectly good word in itself.

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/weeklong

    It can be used interchangeably with week-long.

  14. Claw says:

    English’s Germanic roots such as this are another reason why those who prescribe that preposition stranding must be avoided (as in Latin) are simply wrong.

    E.g., "the computer that I shutdown" vs. "the computer down which I shut" (WTF?)

  15. Loggy says:

    Which is more correct?

    login onto the computer

    logon into the computer

    logon onto the computer

    login into the computer

    log in onto the computer

    log on into the computer

    log on onto the computer

    log in into the computer

    login on to the computer

    logon in to the computer

    logon on to the computer

    login in to the computer

    log in on to the computer

    log on in to the computer

    log on on to the computer

    log in in to the computer

    login to the computer

    logon to the computer

    log into the computer

    log onto the computer

    log in to the computer

    log on to the computer

    logon the computer

    log on the computer

    login the computer

    log in the computer

    some other permutation (sign in/on…?)

  16. A Geek says:

    Oh hell, I didn’t mean to start this… but since I did, we are actually in agreement Mr. Steward.  

    The nerd isn’t interested in social interaction (as you say) which is why he might spend his time obsessing over the mechanics and origin of his language (as I say) rather than speaking it.  

    The geek on the other hand doesn’t care so much where or how his language originated, he just doesn’t want to stumble, mumble, mis-speak, or otherwise err and make a fool of himself when he attempts to socialize with females of the species.

  17. The "difference between a geek" and a nerd seems to change every time someone defines it. That is to say, there is no common agreement whatsoever among speakers of English on the distinction between the two words, and therefore there IS no distinction in any useful sense. To introduce a novel pair of definitions ex recto and pretend that *this* is what everybody else means when they use the words, is not your best move if you wish to pose as a sentient being, though I’ll admit there’s a lot of precedent. If your feelings tell you that the word "cow" indicates a creature with wings, you have not actually discovered anything new about bovine anatomy, nor about language. You have simply failed to note the existence of ego boundaries between yourself and the rest of the human race.

    "Setup" is another example of the filthy and repulsive practice of verb/particle merging. A special place in Hell is reserved for people who write that way.

  18. mech80 says:

    I found your last comment particularly poignant – I spent 6 months in Germany after I finished high school, and learning a second language really opened my eyes to my own language.  I suddenly found myself thinking about why things were the way they were rather than just using english without thinking about it.  Learning German really helped my english abilities, even while making me forget so many words :) They came back quickly when I returned, but the comprehension stayed with me.

  19. Cooney says:

    Neither.  "Moron" is probably most appropriate.  :-P

    Which one is Woz?

  20. "The more I learn about the other languages, the more I learn about my own."

    I have a poster of Garfield (the comic strip cat) saying "Bark!" with the caption "Everyone should learn a foreign language."  I agree completely.

  21. AC says:

    Here be England language without inflect:

    Though the inflect and compound mania be large absent from the England language, there be still some vestige of its Germany root. One detail of England grammar that I often see neglect be the distinct between the verb+particle and the compound noun.

    Consider the verb phrase "shut down", which be the one I see misuse more often. This be a verb+particle combine and treat as two word. When you turn it into a noun, however, it become "shutdown", one word. This Knowledge Base article, for example, manage keep its head on straight for most of the article, use the verb+particle for the verb form and the compound for the noun form:

      \computername: Use this switch to specify the remote computer to shut down.

      /a: Use this switch to quit a shutdown operation.

    But then it slip up towards the end and use the compound as a verb:

      To schedule the local computer to shutdown and restart at 10:00 P.M. …

    In other Germany language the distinct be clearer. Consider the Sweden and Germany verb for "make up" (as in, "make up an alibi"):

      hitta på   påhittad

      legen zurecht   zurechtlegen

    In the verb+particle form, the particle come after the verb, whereas in the single word form, the particle come before the verb. It be therefore more obvious when you have one word and when you have two. England do this one rare, type for verb that retain poet or archive appeal ("cast down" → "downcast") and therefore reach back to the language’s Germany root for its power.

    This be one of the reason why I be so fascinate by the Germany language: The more I learn about the other language, the more I learn about my own.

  22. Whatever says:

    Geek, nerd, doesn’t bother me – just don’t call me a dork.  ;)

  23. dp says:

    Is "zurecht" really a particle in the German verb "zurechtlegen", or is it just a <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_verbs#Separable_prefixes">separable prefix</a>?

  24. AndyB says:

    to be honest, even though you say its wrong, you’re treating the language as a fixed specification. Languages are in a permanent state of flux, the only requirement is that people can understand what you meant when you say (or type) something.

    So "shutdown the computer", and "shut down the computer" are both perfectly acceptable in the modern usage.

  25. Shut up says:

    "shutdownthecomputer" is also understandable.

  26. BryanK says:

    Which one is Woz?

    I assume you mean Steve Wozniak; I’d call him a "hacker".  I don’t think anyone could call him a "cracker", though.

    To be more specific:  I was (sort of) proposing the use of "moron" for those who break into things (those that many people want to call "crackers").  "Hacker", I think, should remain the word used for both people making furniture and people writing good code.

  27. David Walker says:

    Yes, I started understanding English (my native language) much better once I started learning Spanish in high school.  Training in a foreign language was even better than the English classes in making me understand English grammar.

  28. Cody says:

    English’s Germanic roots such as this are

    > another reason why those who prescribe that

    > preposition stranding must be avoided (as in

    > Latin) are simply wrong.

    > E.g., "the computer that I shutdown" vs. "the

    > computer down which I shut" (WTF?)

    The "down" in "shut down" is a particle, not a preposition.  Thus, it doesn’t violate a stranded preposition rule.

    Just like the "on" in "I was putting you on." or the "off" in "The report?  I was putting that off."

  29. Johann Gerell says:

    hitta på   påhittad

    Well, in Swedish, "påhittad" is an adjective – and "påhitt" is a noun, if a noun was what you meant, Raymond.

  30. To summarize the goals laid out in my reintroduction , I want a chance to start my TFVC "story" from

Comments are closed.