The Ups & Downs of Learning English

Mark it down: if you’re going to take up the study of English, you’re in for it. You’ll have to sort through a lot of idioms.

“This evening,” I said to my francophone high school student back in Quebec, “we’re going to work on one of the most common English verbs: TAKE. You’re familiar with that one, aren’t you?”

She nodded. Of course she was; it would have been one of the first English words she learned.

So we began and worked our way though the various forms of TAKE:
take in (someone); take in a seam, take something into (a room, an office, etc.)
take out (food); take it out on (someone, when you’re angry)
uptake; take up (a hobby); take someone up on (an offer);
take down (a thing) (notes); take someone down (a notch or two) (physically)
undertake (a project); undertaker (funeral director);
overtake; take over; a business takeover
take from (grab); take a lesson from;
take for (What do you take me for?)
take to (She took to the water like a fish); (leave) (He took to his heels.)
take back (return) (retract a statement); take after (favour);
take on (a task); take someone on (hire) (face up to);
take off (remove) (leave); take off after (chase)

My student appeared rather distressed by this time, so I suggested this was enough to digest for one evening. Then she asked in an uneasy tone, “Are all English verbs like this? Is there a put up, put down, put in, put out, put on, put off?”

“Yep.”

She sighed sorrowfully.

I can appreciate her dismay. The French use prepositions, too, like á (to) and de (from), but I haven’t noticed that they tack all these ups, downs, ins, outs and sideways onto their verbs to create idiomatic expressions like we do. (Perhaps some francophone would like to correct me on this?)

In the book, The Story of English (by McCrum, Cran, & MacNeil,) I learned that Dutch sailors contributed a lot of four-letter words to our English language. The Germanic languages have given us a lot of two-letter words and three letter words as well. Once upon a time the Saxons overran southern England, bringing with them all those fabulous prepositions that would someday add to the complexities of our language. TV hasn’t helped, either.

Once you know them well you can choose the exact phrase with which to get your message across succinctly. Like “Quit horsing around” and “Knock it off.”

If you don’t, you’re up a creek. A foreigner may hear “He takes it out on her,” and think he offers to carry something out to the car for her. Or perhaps he’s taking it away – or stealing it, whatever “it” is – from her. “He was put out with her” sounds like they were both evicted from their lodgings. (I think English wins the prize for tacking the longest strings of prepositions together, too.)

Likewise, for newcomers to pick the right preposition to achieve the meaning they want is like playing Russian Roulette. “He was hitting on her” means something quite different than “he was hitting at her” or “he was pinch-hitting for her.” (Pinching and hitting sounds like they really went at it!)

I hope you’ll remember some of this when you talk to new immigrants. pronounce words–including prepositions–clearly. (We tend to touch them lightly.) And if you’re tutoring, limit your lessons to just a few verb variations. (By our next session my poor student had forgotten most of what we’d gone over and we had to work on it again.)

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