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Particles in English Phrasal Verbs: Telicity or Perfectivity

Updated on June 10, 2014


In his book Tense and Aspect Systems, Dahl mentions that “perfectivity is often taken to be ‘the’ category of aspect” (Dahl 1985: 69). This indicates that perfectivity is usually considered to be the main representative of the category of verb aspect because it is an unmarked member and is therefore often taken as an example to illustrate this grammatical category.

The perfective verbs denote the completion of a moment in the verb situation - the beginning, the final moment etc. everything else is less important (the crucial thing is the completion of a moment of the verb situation) - it cannot be less important, everything is included in the situation.

Aspect deals with the difference between the unlimited duration of a situation (IMPERFECTIVE VERBS) and its momentariness, i.e. limited duration (PERFECTIVE VERBS).


Comrie states that telicity is an aspectual notion which distinguishes whether a situation has a perfect or imperfect meaning. He defines a telic situation as one in which the event is a process that leads up to a defined terminal point or a process which cannot continue, whereas an atelic situation is when the event does not have a terminal point or is a process which continues indefinitely (Comrie 1976: 45).

Essentially, telicity can be defined as the property of the verb phrase (or of the sentence as a whole) which indicates that an action or an event has a clear endpoint or a goal; when the goal is reached, the situation comes to an end. A verb phrase that has an endpoint is said to be telic, whereas a verb phrase that does not is said to be atelic.

Telicity and Perfectivity

States and activities are atelic, whereas achievements and accomplishments are telic. The terms atelic and telic both refer to durative situations. However, the situation described by a telic verb is the one involving a process that leads up to a well-defined terminal point, beyond which the process cannot continue (Comrie 1985: 45). Telic and atelic situations are distinguished by restrictions on the form of the temporal adverbials they can take. Following Dowty (1979: 56-57), only activities allow adverbials with for, while accomplishments take adverbial prepositional phrases with in, for instance, John walked for an hour vs. John painted a picture in an hour. Accomplishment verbs occur with the structure take an hour to V: It took John an hour to paint a picture, whereas the same construction with activities only denotes the time that elapsed before someone actually began to perform the activity. Finally if someone stops Ving, he has Ved. For example John stopped walking means John did walk, while John stopped painting the picture doesn’t tell us whether the painting is finished or not.

In the case of phrasal verbs, it is the particle which turns an atelic event into a telic one. “They (the particles) may add the concept of a goal or an endpoint to durative situations which otherwise have no necessary terminus” (Brinton 1985: 160). The research performed by Giddings (2001) shows that there are exceptions. Her analysis of the data collected for the particles down and out showed that the particles do not add the feature of telicity to an atelic verb if the verb already encodes a directed motion event. This can be seen in the following examples: It rained (down) for hours, Blood gushed (out) from the wound. She reports a few cases in which the particles remove an aspectual feature from the verb, but does not give examples. As becomes clear from a few examples given above, the phrasal verb particle irrespective of its telic function can retain its spatial meaning. More frequently, though, it becomes the source of a large variety of semantic extensions through metonymy and metaphor. To what extent its meaning is easy to understand depends a lot on the learner’s ability to perceive the conceptual metaphor behind the phrasal verb. Several studies (Boers 2000, Kovecses and Szabó 1996) have shown that learners are capable of recognizing metaphors behind phrasal verbs.

Telicity is neither a necessary, nor a sufficient condition for perfectivity. This means that there is no connection between perfectivity and telicity, hence, these two aspectual phenomena should be carefully kept apart. We will argue that the semantic impact of perfectivity is indeed in the realm of point of view, or perspective. This realm is governed by the relations of Reference time and Speech time.

Phrasal Verbs

A phrasal verb consists of a verb and a preposition or adverb that modifies or changes the meaning; 'give up' is a phrasal verb that means 'stop doing' something, which is very different from 'give'. The word or words that modify a verb in this manner can also go under the name particle.

Phrasal verbs can be divided into groups:

1) Intransitive verbs

These don't take an object

They had an argument, but they've made up now.

2) Inseparable verbs

The object must come after the particle.

They are looking after their grandchildren.

3) Separable verbs

With some separable verbs, the object must come between the verb and the particle:

The quality of their work sets them apart from their rivals.

The discussion of the semantic and syntactic nature of phrasal verbs in English has been a prominent one in both traditional and more recent research concerning verbal typologies and aspect studies in English. This issue has troubled various language philosophers and linguists, yet to this day many of the questions posited remain only partially answered. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the approach to the very term PHRASAL VERB is not a uniform one. Moreover, a closely related issue of ASPECT has not yet been dened as a universal category. Instead, it is treated as a grammatical phenomenon which is language specic and in that respect internally variably consistent and systematic (cf. Anastasijević 1968; Bauer 1991; Benson 1989; Bolinger 1971; Brinton 1988; Comrie 1976; Palmer 1988; Riđanović 1976).

Particles in Phrasal Verbs

Grammarians have been concerned primarily with grammatical category of aspect, whereas philosophers of language and semanticists have been interested in verb semantics – typologies of AKTIONSART. Traditionally, aspect is one of the verb categories in English, and it is linked with the notion of completion. However, the aspectual meaning of particles such as up, down, off, out, or away is better understood as an aktionsart meaning, namely, that of expressing the goal or endpoint of a situation.

Phrasal verb particles in English form new lexemes when added to the base form of the verb. For example:

wake (to cease to sleep) – wake up (to become conscious again after being asleep)

burn (to cause to undergo combustion) – burn down (to completely destroy by re)

wear (to carry or have on the person as covering) – wear out (to use something so much that it becomes thin or weak and unable to be used)

write (to form letters or words on a surface such as paper) – write off (to decide that

something is unimportant, useless or unlikely to be successful and that it is not worth

further consideration)

break (to cause to separate into pieces suddenly and violently) – break away (to stop being part of a group)

These newly formed verbs may be just semantically modied if compared to the original verb or may have a completely new meaning. In either case, particles act as markers of telic aktionsart, assigning either a goal or some kind of an ending point to the action denoted by the verb (‘the viewing of an action as complete’). (Brinton 1988, 52)

Here are some examples of phrasal verbs in English language:

(1) a) I eat bananas. - I ate up bananas.

b) My memory fades. - The lights fade out.

c) She threw the ball. - She threw away her money.

d) He closed the door. - They closed down the school.

e) They shut off our electricity.

f) Have you thought through the problem?

g) We have read over the documents.

Received opinion: Telicizing effect

Brinton, Laurel J. 1985. Verb particles in English: Aspect or Aktionsart? Studia Linguistica 39:157-168.

“… verb particles in Modern English function as markers of ‘telic’ aktionsart…”

atelic verb + particle = telic PV

drink + up = drink up

Mark drank beer for/*in an hour. AT

Mark drank up his beer *for/in an hour. T

Other patterns?

atelic verb + particle = atelic PV

sleep + away = sleep away

telic verb + particle = telic PV

close + down = close down

Particles do not necessarily have a telicizing effect.

Particles appear in both atelic and telic VPs.

atelic VPs away, around, about, along, on - continuative

telic VPs up, down, off, over, out, through - non-continuative

By looking at these examples one can easily mistake particles in phrasal verbs as marks of perfectivity, which is not the case because all these phrasal verbs can be used in progressive form as well:

(2) a) I'm eating up the bananas.

b) The lights are fading out.

c) She's obviously throwing away her money.

d) They're closing down the school.

e) Look at all those unpaid bills! We are shutting off your electricity.

f) I'm thinking through this problem right now.

g) He's reading over his favourite book.

In English, phrasal verbs can freely occur with verbal periphrases which focus on the beginning, middle, and ending phases of a given situation. They are also compatible with the imperfective (progressive), perfective (simple past),and perfect aspects. All of this, according to Laurel Brinton (1988, 168–9), suggests that verbal particles in English do NOT mark perfective aspect, as was traditionally assumed. The particles actually, typically express a telic notion, which means that they can add the concept of a goal or an endpoint to durative situations which otherwise may not necessarily have a dened endpoint.

An atelic imperfective implies its perfective, but a telic imperfective does not:

(3) a) If one was eating, one has eaten.


b) If one was nishing up (and was interrupted), one has NOT nished up.

c) If one stops wrapping up something, one did NOT wrap it up.

In other words, the particles may alter aktionsart of the given situation, and are therefore taken to be markers of telic aktionsart rather than perfective aspect. For example, a telic particle will convert an activity into an accomplishment as we saw from these examples.

Moreover, Brinton states that particles do not seem to co-occur with state verbs. They may sometimes occur with be or have or some other typically stative verbs, but only if they are used with a non-stative meaning, or when the particles refer to a resultant condition.

(4) a) I’ll be right up.

b) Please hear me out.

c) I had some friends over.


The semantic mechanism which shifts literal meanings of phrasal verbs into semi-transparent or completely idiomatic meanings is an issue which has not yet been settled. Nevertheless, linguists do agree in the conclusion that such shifts exist, and that the boundaries between these shades or levels of meanings are not clear-cut. e corpus of phrasal verbs used in this study is not vast enough for drawing nal conclusions, yet the hypothesis is that particles are crucial in these shifts. e way the particle semantically modies the base verb is probably the key to these semantic patterns.

According to Vendler, in phrasal verbs, e.g. eat (activity) > eat up (accomplishment) – “up” implies goal, telicity, because of the quantity “needs to be eaten” (the particle added the notion of telicity); e.g. find (achievement) > find out (achievement) – particle reemphasized the goal

To sum up: role of the particles – sometime they make the situation telic, and sometimes reemphasize the telicity, but this depends on the verb.


  • Dahl, O. (1987), "Tense and Aspect Systems", Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Milivojevic, N (2005), "Particles and prefixes in English and Serbian", ELOPE, 65-75
  • Novakov, P. (2005), "Glagolski vid i tip glagolske situacije u engleskom i srpskom jeziku", Novi Sad: Futura publikacije, 100-120

© 2014 Tanja Trkulja


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      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      This looks like a very complicated and puzzling Hub Tanja. I am interested in these types of word puzzles but I did not know these words. It was very detailed, had good grammar, etc., except for one word in the title. I gave you a thumbs up and shared it.


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