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Compound verb

A compound verb is a verb that is compound. The first component of a compound verb is a : the second is a verb. In union, they make up one new verb, one word.

The two components are:

  1. Specifier
  2. Target
    • Verb
    • Extremely rarely non-verbal:
      • Noun (See section "English" below)

For example, the compound verb outlive, the first component out- is a prepositional particle that specifies how, what, when "to live". "To live" is therefore the previously vague recipient and target of the specification.

Most compound verbs originally have the collective meaning of both components, but some of them later gain additional meanings that may predominate the original, accurate sense. Therefore, sometimes the resultant meanings are seemingly barely related to the original contributors.

Twice compound verbs -- a compound verb whose second component is already a compound verb -- are rare in most modern European languages.

The term was first used in publication in Grattan and Gurrey's Our Living Language (1925).


"Compound verb" is often used in place of:

  1. A "complex verb", a type of complex phrase. But this usage is not accepted in linguistics, because "compound" and "complex" are not synonymous.
  2. A "verb phrase" or "verbal phrase". This is a partially, but not entirely, incorrect use. A phrasal verb can be one-word verb, of which compound verb is a type. However, many phrasal verbs are multi-word.
  3. A "phrasal verb[?]". A sub-type of verb phrase, which have a particle as a word before or after the verb.


Many English compound verbs have Latin origin (see Compound verbs in English consisting of Latin prefix and Latin verb). Native English compound verb also exist; however, their pronunciation usually does not diffuse across morpheme boundaries, like the Anglo[?]-Latin compound verbs do.

Compound words with one- or two-letter prefix are solid, that is, they are unhyphenated. Those with longer prefixes may originally be hyphenated, but as they became established, they became solid, e.g.,

  • overhang (English origin)
  • counterattack (Latin origin)

There was a tendency in the 18th century to use hyphens excessively, that is, to hyphenate all previously established solid compound verbs. American English, however, has diminished the use of hyphens, while British English is more conservative.

Adjective-verbs are, for example,

  • highlight
  • finetune
  • foulmouth

Then there are the noun-verbs, such as,

  • manhandle
  • sidestep
  • browbeat

English has a compound verb that contains no verb: to out-Herod, which is used infrequently by the educated.

English syntax distinguishes between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs. Consider the following:

I held up my hand.
I held up a bank.
I held my hand up.
*I held a bank up.

The first three sentences are possible in English; the last one is unlikely, except for Kryptonians. When to hold up means to raise, it is a phrasal verb; the preposition up can be detached from the verb and the sentence recast with it elsewhere, with no change in meaning. But when to hold up means to rob, it is a prepositional verb. The preposition is more or less solidly cemented to the verb, and cannot be moved elsewhere without violating the rules of syntax.

The Oxford English Grammar (ISBN 0-19-861250-8) distinguishes seven types of prepositional or phrasal verbs in English:

  • intransitive phrasal verbs (e.g. give in)
  • transitive phrasal verbs (e.g. find out [discover])
  • monotransitive prepositional verbs (e.g. look after [care for])
  • doubly transitive prepositional verbs (e.g. blame [something] on [someone])
  • copular prepositional verbs. (e.g. serve as)
  • monotransitive phrasal-prepositional verbs (e.g. look up to [respect])
  • doubly transitive phrasal-prepositional verbs (e.g. put [something] down to [someone] [attribute to])


Twice compound verbs are somewhat common in Latin. For example, condēscendrĕ, made of con- ("together") + dēscendĕre ("to move down"), which in turn is made of dē- ("down") + scendĕre ("to climb").

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