Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Is it Up to Me to Clear Up ‘Up’?


Nell Bludworth (G. N. Bludworth of the Alpha Agora) periodically sends me leads for interesting words or stories about language. Today she sent several items that she has collected, including an old complaint about the meaning of the adverb-preposition-verbal particle UP Here is part of that plaint (you have probably read the rest in your past e-mail).

“There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that is UP.”

“It’s easy to understand UP, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake UP? At a meeting, why does a topic come UP? Why do we speak UP and why are the officers UP for election and why is it UP to the secretary to write UP a report?” And so on.

To get a better grasp on language, you must understand that small (grammatical) function words like UP often have more than one function. Dr. Goodword is commonly criticized for using they in the singular, e.g. “A person can say whatever they can get away with.”

The response is that this pronoun has two functions: (1) to indicate 3rd person plural and (2) to indicate 3rd person indefinite. A good example of (2) is our colloquial use of it in sentences like, “They told me at the police station that I can say that,” even when you only talked to one person at the police station. The critical issue is that the person you talked to is indefinite, that is, his or her identity is unknown or immaterial when you talk about them.

Well, guess what? UP also has about three distinct functions.

1. Up functions as a preposition: “This nonsense about UP is driving me up the wall.” That use is clear if metaphorical: “toward the sky”.

2. Up can function as an adverb: “Why did you bring that up at the meeting?” The adverbial sense of UP is something like “to the surface, to the fore”. It is closely related to the prepositional meaning and can be identical in tandem with verbs like throw (up), to grow (up), to bring (up). Notice whether throw up means to vomit or put up a tent, the meaning is the same: direction toward the sky.

3. Up also functions as a verb particle, a little extender that allows verbs a bit of flexibility (corresponding to verbal prefixes in other language like German and Russian). Notice that “I looked Hortense up in Poughkeepsie,” look . . . up has quite a different meaning from look. The same is true of look (something) over, look out (for), and others. Most verb particles are mobile: they can hook up to the beginning or end of the predicate: “I looked up Hortense in Poughkeepsie,” works just as well as, “I looked Hortense up in Poughkeepsie.”

In its function as a verb particle, UP usually indicates what linguists call the Perfective Aspect, a form of verbs in some languages that indicates completed action. So, in English, is usually translates as “completely”.

If you mop a stain on the floor, you may still be able to see it. But if you mop it up, it is gone completely. If you call someone on the telephone, you might not get through, but if you called them up, you got them. We DON’T say, “I called Jim up yesterday but he didn’t answer.” This sentence sound much better without the up.

Try it yourself: if the drain is clogged or stopped up, can some water get through? If we cleaned up the kitchen, is there still work to be done? If someone stirred up trouble yesterday, is it possible that the trouble went unnoticed? If you are dressed, you could have on skanky clothes but what if you are dressed up? About as complete as you can dress?

What if I shut up now? Could I say a few more words? Well, I guess I did but then I didn’t shut up, did I? Now I will.


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