A phrasal compound is the use of two or more words to form a single thought. Some examples in English include "middle of the road," "put off" or "accident prone." Phrasal compounds can function in a sentence as verbs or adjectives. These compounds can be challenging for non-native English speakers because they are often idiomatic.

Phrasal Verbs Defined

Phrasal verbs are one type of phrasal compound. They can be formed by combining a verb with an adverb, with a preposition, or with both. They are more commonly referred to as compound verbs. The phrase "put on" is an example of a phrasal verb consisting of a verb and a preposition. Phrasal verbs provide flexibility in how speakers structure their sentences because the words making up the phrase can be split up or kept together without changing the meaning of the compound verb. For example, you could say "He put on his clothes" or "She put her clothes on."

Phrasal Adjectives Defined

Phrasal adjectives, also known as compound adjectives, come in multiple types of combinations, including nouns and participles, adjectives and participles, or nouns and adjectives. Unlike phrasal verbs, the parts of phrasal adjectives cannot be separated and placed in different parts of the sentence, without changing the meaning of the compound adjective. In the sentence, "He took a middle of the road policy on politics," the phrasal adjective "middle of the road" is modifying or describing the noun "policy." For the sentence and the adjective to make sense, the parts must stay together.

Punctuation and Phrasal Verbs

A common question regarding phrasal compounds is whether they need hyphens connecting their separate parts. With a phrasal verb, you do not need to use a hyphen since the parts can be moved around in the sentence. You would not write: "We had to stop-off at the market on our way home." However, if your phrasal verb functions as the noun in a sentence, then it does need to include hyphens, such as in the following sentence: "Our stop-off made us late to the party."

Punctuation with Phrasal Adjectives

With compound adjectives, the location of the adjective in relation to the noun determines whether or not you include hyphens. For example, if the adjective comes before the noun you would include hyphens: "The up-to-date balance was lower than she anticipated." On the other hand, if the same phrasal adjective came after the noun as in the following sentence, you would omit the hyphens: "Her balance was up to date."

Idiomatic Meaning

Idioms are phrases or sayings that are known to native speakers of English, even though their literal meaning differs from the understood definition. While not all phrasal compounds are idiomatic, some are and cause confusion for English language learners. For example, the phrasal verb "putting me off" does not mean the same thing as the words taken by themselves. The phrase means to ignore or to avoid someone. When taken separately, the words suggest someone is moving you off of something, such as the couch or the counter.