New Word: Crazy Compound Verbs

New Word #104

The problem with English is that it is very whimsical. Just when you think you’ve got a hang of it somehow and figured out certain hidden patterns, you are surely to have a new encounter that will completely overthrow your previous understanding. This whim, unpredictability, and mood swing is difficult to deal with. In comparison, the seemingly endless vocabulary, the unfathomable subtlety, the tiniest differences being elevated to needless importance are much easier to deal with.

And its caprice is very well reflected in compound verbs or phrasal verbs. When I first faced compound verbs, I liked them since they seemed rather friendly and intuitive. For example, “going on” and “ongoing” are very easy to understand. If something is ongoing, of course there is something that is going on. The same easiness can be found in “going out” and “outgoing”, “coming in” and “incoming”. However soon I found that there are a big bunch of such phrases and the meanings can be quite confusing–the position of the adverb before or after the verb makes a big difference; the verb can fuse with the adverb or separate with the adverb; the meaning can be same, similar, differing a little, completely different, or exactly opposite.

If these phrases are not often used, it will not be so troublesome, but it turns out–as the whimsical fate always has it for hapless non-native speakers like me–that they are very often used and cannot be avoided.

For example, “overtake” means to catch up or become stronger than; however “take over” means to take control of something. Also “overrun” means to spread, overwhelm, go beyond, but “run over” mainly means to run a vehicle over something. However sometimes “run over” also means to overflow or go beyond, kind of similar to overrun. And finally “overlook” means to pay no attention or ignore while “look over” means the exact opposite–to inspect carefully.

Here I only listed a few of such pairs, but there are a lot of them out there that are waiting to catch us off guard and throw us into confusions.

“pushover” and “push over”

  • pushover: A person who’s weak and can be overpowered and influenced easily.
  • push over: This phrase is often used in “push somebody over the edge” to indicate that something has pushed this person into insanity.

turnover and “turn over” and overturn:

  • turnover: this word is often used to indicate a cycle of obtaining, leaving, being replaced. For example, “the high turnover rate of staff” means the job is not good and people leave this job after a short period of time.
  • turn over: It has many meanings, mainly means to start or to change position.
  • overturn: turn upside down and it is often used in serious cases like an overturned vehicle or an overturned legal case by a high court.

“downturn” and “turn down”

  • downturn: decline
  • turn down: reduce (especially music volume) or reject (like a job offer or promotion etc.)

output” and “put out”, “inputand and “put in”

  • output: the amount of production
  • put out: lay out something for display, or extinguish (the fire)
  • input: contribution to a group effort, or the process of entering data
  • put in: This phrase has many meanings: appoint, interrupt, submit

“offhand” and “hands off”, “hands on” and “on hand”, “handout”, “hand out”

  • offhand: casually, without consideration, dismissively
  • hands off: don’t touch
  • hands-on: direct experience. For example, hands-on experiment
  • on hand: present
  • handout: printed pages or something given out for free (by a government)
  • hand out: distribute something, like food, pamphlets etc. It also means to give verdict or inflict punishment.

turnaround, “turn around’, “U turn”, “round turn”, “turn round”

  • turnaround: a sudden change of event
  • turn around: move to face the opposite direction
  • turn round: same as turn around
  • U turn: turn around to face the opposite direction. It also means a complete reversal of the course.

“put off” and “off-putting”

  • put off: postpone
  • off-putting: unpleasant and not wanting to get involved

“let out” and “outlet”

  • let out: release
  • outlet: a hole or a pipe for material to be released. Most often, this phrase means a shopping mall for discount goods that have a good brand name attached.

“take in” and “intake”

  • take in: This phrase has many meanings. One is to deceive somebody, and another is to take on responsibility or to provide accommodation.
  • intake: This word means the amount of material being inserted. It can be food one eats, water that flows into a pipe etc.

“upset” and “setup” and “set up” and “set upon”

  • upset: to become unhappy, worried
  • setup: a trick to deceive people; the way things are arranged
  • set up: establish something, for example a business
  • set upon: If you are set upon by somebody, it means you are attacked viciously by somebody.

20 thoughts on “New Word: Crazy Compound Verbs

    1. Haha, yes, they are a little tricky, aren’t they? I remember those days when I was in an English class. I think if we were allowed to express our thoughts in class, we would have a lot to say about English. LOL.


  1. “The seemingly endless vocabulary, the unfathomable subtlety, the tiniest differences being elevated to needless importance are much easier to deal with.” so true. I have an issue with the language because of this especially growing up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment you put out, which thankfully puts out the fire of frustration and dismay that I have had for language for so long. It’s hard to find an outlet for the frustration. Fortunately there’s you, there’s WP to help me let out steam and vent my feeling. A shout of gratitude for understanding.


    1. You are soooo right. Even if I don’t know, I somehow feel that the slang and the connotations from these words can make a new big mess. I am just very amazed that I haven’t become insane after being tortured by this language for so long.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had never heard the term ‘phrasal verb’ before. I can see how this can be frustrating. And to make things worse all of these phrases can be used to mean many more things than what their strict definitions say when they are put into context.

    For example, you have ‘turn over’ and ‘overturn’ meaning different things and in a business context they do mean different things, but in casual conversation ‘turn over’ is almost always used to mean turn upside down. ‘Overturn’ is seldom used casually. When ‘overturn’ is used it usually means to reverse something such as a law or a court decision, but it can also mean ‘turn upside down.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that’s so true. The overturn is not used casually. That’s so true. And in different context, it means different things. It is extremely confusing to a person who learns it as a second language. LOL. And I don’t know what this is called and google says it is called compound verb or phrasal verb. Whatever it is called, it is very much a mess to me and very confusing.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. LOL. You make me laugh. Only “second language learners know”. That’s so funny. English language is very capricious. It can literally drive me crazy and I am really thankful and amazed that I haven’t gone crazy so far.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. You are right though, English is hard. It borrows words from so many different languages. And there are hidden rules baked into the language like remnants from old English, or cultural variants. I grew up speaking English and I still have to stop people and ask them what they mean on a regular basis. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

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