Chiang Mai, Thailand, at some ungodly hour a.m. and I’m fresh off an overnight bus. It’s mid-November, at the start of the Yi Peng lantern festival, and the tourists are taking over. I’m sitting at an outdoor cafe, staring a hole in my coffee while contemplating the state of my individually-wrapped 7-Eleven banana which, like me, has made the long trip from Bangkok.
Something catches my attention—American English, as spoken by two twenty-something females, probably from California.
“I’m gonna go with … “ She trails off, her eyes still scanning the menu. The waiter looks perplexed.
“She can’t be serious,” I think to myself. “Does she really think this Thai waiter is going to understand what ‘I’m gonna go with’ means?”
“… the banana pancakes.” Better—words he can make sense of. Thank God for context. Her friend takes over.
“Let me go with … “ She too seems to be in mid-decision. The waiter, I imagine, has tuned out the gibberish and is waiting for information he can process.
“ … the muesli.” Eureka! We have an order.
Flash forward a few years and back several time zones to Peru. A middle-aged American man is talking to his local guide about what to wear on a hike.
“So, it gets pretty chilly up there? You think we need to layer up?”
Layer up. I had never heard anyone say that before, yet, as a native English speaker, I immediately knew what he meant—to dress in layers. The guide, however, being a non-native English speaker, was clearly unable to understand this Columbia-clad gringo’s lingo. So why am I telling you this, and how does it relate to UX?
Depending on the product, many of your users may be non-native speakers. If you know this to be the case, you may want to adjust your language to accommodate that segment of the audience. The way we communicate with non-native speakers may be different from how we communicate with native speakers, something my compatriots in Thailand and Peru didn’t understand.
In my experience—which includes spending about half of my adult life abroad and a stint teaching English as a foreign language—phrasal verbs often trip up non-native speakers. So in this article, I’d like to look at phrasal verbs in more depth.
We’ll not only cover how they affect clarity for the non-native audience but also how they can influence your copy’s tone of voice. Stick around to the end, and I’ll even let you know what happened to my Bangkok bus banana, which suddenly sounds kind of dirty. Yikes!
What are phrasal verbs?
It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but for our purposes we can think of them as the combination of a verb and a preposition that makes a new verb with a meaning that is often unrelated to the original verb. In the second sentence of this article, I wrote, “tourists are taking over.” “To take over” is a phrasal verb meaning to assume control or possession of something—very different from the literal meanings of “take” and “over.”
I also wrote that the waiter “tuned out” the customers, meaning he ignored what they were saying—a far cry from tuning a violin or an engine. And I’ve used a few others here so far like “trail off” and “trip up.”
A further difficulty is that, like other verbs, phrasals often have multiple meanings which may not have any obvious relation. Above, I used “take over” a second time in the sentence, “Her friend takes over.”
Here, “take over” doesn’t mean to take control of, but rather to start doing what someone else was doing. The same is true for the verb our California girls used to order breakfast, “to go with.”
We can think of the phrasal verb “to go with” as having a spectrum of meaning. This is from the MacMillan Dictionary:
- to be provided or offered together with something (Does a car go with the job?)
- to exist frequently with something (A fair amount of stress seems to go with jobs like this.)
- to seem good, natural, or attractive in combination with something (Which shoes go best with this dress?)
- to choose or accept something (I think we should go with yellow for the walls.)
Using “go with” to mean “choose” is pretty abstract—you can see why “going with banana pancakes” would be difficult for many non-native speakers. Another complication is that “go with” doesn’t have to be a phrasal verb. Those two words together can still have their literal meaning where “go” is the verb, and “with” is a normal preposition. “I’ll go with Steve” can just mean that I will physically locomote myself and remain in Steve’s general vicinity.
A final complication is that English speakers often make up new phrasal verbs on the fly as in “layer up.” A similar and timely example I recently came across is “mask up,” as in “to don a mask.”
Don't give up
At this point, if you’re saying to yourself, “Oh man, phrasal verbs are a jerk. I’m just never going to use them ever, ever again” well, that’s not going to work. Phrasal verbs are simply a part of the language—they are unavoidable.
As a UXer, you’ve likely considered the great sign in/sign up/sign out/log in/log on/log off debate. (Notice there’s no log up?) I’m not going to get into this issue, but I will say this. In addition to the phrasal “signs” above, in English, you can also sign off (end a message), sign on (agree to participate), and sign off on (give official approval). You see how that’s confusing?
OK, so we can’t avoid them, but I believe we can build a strategy that will help us decide which to use and when, making things easier for non-native speakers and also affording us more control over our tone of voice. So let’s do that.
I like to think of phrasal verbs as having three characteristics we can use to gauge if and when to use them: frequency, formality, and abstractness. Think of them as three sliding scales:
Frequently used <—> Rarely used
Formal tone <—> Informal tone
Concrete <—> Abstract
Placing a phrasal verb on these scales allows me to develop a clear understanding and, hopefully, make a good decision about using it or not.
Phrasal verbs started to show up in Middle English and then exploded in Early Modern English. Today, some are so common that their levels of abstractness and formality are irrelevant. These are words like: turn on, turn off, put on, take off, give up, or put away. For some of them, there’s really no other reasonable way to express the action.
“You there! Make your computer begin to function!” See? That’s never going to work—you just turn it on.
With phrasal verbs like these, the onus is on the non-native speaker to know them. If your user can’t understand, “Turn the TV off, put your hat on, pick up your keys, and let’s go!” there’s nothing you can do.
So for the most common phrasal verbs, there’s not much to consider—you have to use them, unless you want to sound like an alien.
For other phrasal verbs, you may want to check their frequency. A Google search with quotation marks should do the trick. You can compare them to one another to get a sense of how frequently they’re used. Here are some examples:
Phrasal verb (infinitive form)
To find out
To look for
To turn on
To speed up
To throw away
To beef up
To mull over
To clam up
It’s not an exact science, but you can get a general idea of frequency this way. Obviously, the higher the frequency, the more likely non-natives are to know it, and the less you have to worry about using it.
On the other hand, while “clam up” can be an expressive way to communicate a hesitancy to speak, it might be best to avoid using it in an interface.
One more thing to consider regarding frequency is primary vs. other meanings. Remember, phrasals often have multiple meanings where one may be common and others less so. “To work out” has 160,000,000 results on Google. But how many are for exercising vs. solving a problem vs. coming to a successful end? Google won’t help you with that.
In general, phrasals carry an informal tone—but not always. The higher frequency ones are more likely to have a neutral tone. On the other end of the scale, we have phrasal verbs that sound slangy—things like chill out, hit up, freak out, etc.
So depending on the tone of the product you’re working on, you can use phrasal verbs accordingly. Here are two examples from this very article where I did or didn’t use a phrasal to influence the tone.
I wrote that phrasals are “likely to trip up non-native speakers.” I could have said confuse, be difficult for, etc., but I went with “trip up” because it matches the tone of this article, which is pretty informal.
Later, when I was defining what “mask up” means, I didn’t write “to put on a mask” but instead used the more formal “don.” Even though this article has an informal tone, in this instance, I was giving a formal definition, so I used the more formal word.
Side note: phrasals can also help us vary our vocabulary. In the previous paragraph, when talking about my word choices, I first used “went with” and then “used” just for the sake of variety. And if you’re saying, “Wow, this article is getting pretty meta,” I guess you’re right—I’m just trying to “meta up” the whole thing.
Phrasal verbs are by their very nature abstract and metaphoric. Some more than others, though. I can put a pen on a table—the literal, non-phrasal meaning. I can also literally put a hat on my head, and if I do, chances are I’m wearing it.
From here, it’s easy to see how we got to putting on a sweater and then eventually “to put on” just means to don or start wearing any article of clothing. Not so abstract and not so hard for English learners to understand. But most phrasals aren’t that straight forward.
Consider “turn up.” Sure, its most common usage, to increase volume, is fairly concrete. Radios once had knobs that you physically turned to adjust the volume, and up for increase and down for decrease makes good metaphoric sense.
But when “turn up” means to appear, arrive, or be found, the semantic connection isn’t clear. And a lack of semantic connection is common in phrasal verbs: put up with (tolerate), get over (recover), or pull off (succeed in doing something difficult).
So when considering whether non-native speakers will understand a phrasal, think about how far removed the meaning is from the verb alone. “To pick out” is pretty clear—”pick” is like “choose” and “out” could metaphorically represent distinction.
Yet “to pick over,” meaning to closely inspect a group of objects before choosing one, is less clear. Sure, the concept of choosing is still in there, but this meaning has an extra layer of abstractness, making it harder to conceptualize for the non-native speaker.
Putting it all together
Let’s stick with “pick out” versus “pick over.” The former is used frequently (18,900,000 results), has a neutral tone, and isn’t terribly abstract. I’d say “pick out” is fine to use in an interface with a large non-native audience. “Pick over,” however, has a low frequency (127,000 results), still has a neutral tone (maybe slightly more informal), but is pretty abstract. I’d say, skip over “pick over.”
I wanted to test things out a bit with a real live non-native English speaker. Luckily, I happen to have a friend and colleague who fits the bill. I found this example online:
Turns out that, though he was able to make Cool Whip Family Guy jokes, he did not know what “to whip up” meant. And that’s a problem. If you’ve got a big ol’ headline up there, but your audience can’t understand it, that’s a lot of clicks you’ll be losing.
Many content creators and digital products set a reading level for their copy. This can be good practice and a 7th-grade reading level gets thrown around a lot. However, setting the reading level won’t solve your phrasal problems. Phrasal verbs and other common idiomatic expressions may well suit a 7th-grade reading level, yet their more literal and higher reading level equivalents may be easier for non-native speakers.
Imagine you’re giving pilot lessons to your nephew who’s in 7th grade (hey, you never know). You tell him, “Pull up!” He knows what you mean. Now imagine it’s your Peruvian tour guide. When you tell him to pull up, he just looks at you funny, but when you change it to “increase the altitude,” it’s clear.
There’s no one, simple solution to which phrasal verbs to use, when, and with whom. But if you consider the frequency, formality, and abstractness, you’ll at least have somewhere to start. That, or just ask your foreign friends 🙂
Finally, a promise is a promise. You’ve made it to the end, so here is the banana that made the long bus ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
This banana is a great representation of how I felt that morning—bruised and slimy. Lucky for me, I had a travel companion who persuaded me that this glistening beauty was best left uneaten.
Till next time, signing off.