We just got the go-ahead! (Nouns formed from phrasal verbs)

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by Kate Woodford

Here on About Words, we frequently publish posts on phrasal verbs. This week, just for a change, we’re looking instead at a group of nouns that are formed from phrasal verbs. Some of these nouns are usually written with a hyphen between the verb and particle and some are written as one word.

Let’s start on a positive note, with the noun in the title. From the phrasal verb go ahead, the phrase the go-ahead refers to an occasion when you are given official permission to start a project. You get or are given the go-ahead: The council has given the go-ahead for a housing development in the area.

At an event or election, meanwhile, the turnout is the number of people who attend. There was a good turnout in the national election. (One sense of the phrasal verb turn out is ‘to go to an event’.)

A workout (from the phrasal verb to work out) is a period of physical exercise: Running is a great all-round workout.

A number of less positive nouns are formed from phrasal verbs. For example, a break-in is an occasion when a criminal enters a building illegally, usually to steal something: There was a break-in last night at the office and some money was taken. (See the phrasal verb break in.)

Breakdown (from the phrasal verb break down) is a very commonly heard noun. It refers to a situation which ends in failure. We talk about a breakdown in communication, meaning ‘a time when people stop sharing information or thoughts with each other’. We also talk about a breakdown of a marriage, meaning ‘the time when a marriage fails’. ‘Breakdown’ also refers to a time when a vehicle stops working: I had a breakdown in the middle of the road.

Meanwhile, from the phrasal verb mix up, the noun mix-up refers to a mistake that causes confusion. In a mix-up, someone is given or told the wrong thing, or someone understands something incorrectly: There was a mix-up and I received the wrong forms.

Staying on the topic of problems, a setback is something that causes problems in a situation, often making something happen more slowly than hoped. We often say that someone or something suffers or experiences a setback: The tennis champion has apparently suffered a setback in his recovery from a knee injury.

Finally, an outbreak is a time when something dangerous or unpleasant suddenly begins, for example disease or violence: An outbreak of food poisoning has been traced to eggs. (We use the phrasal verb break out with the same meaning.)

We hope that you are not affected by any setbacks or breakdowns this week!

3 thoughts on “We just got the go-ahead! (Nouns formed from phrasal verbs)

  1. Maryem Salama

    Outbreak, the particle comes before the verb unlike the others. Is this a case of using out and over before some verbs such out -do outlive outshine or overgrow overwork Or is it an irregular use of the particle?

    1. María inés de Zabaleta

      Some nouns from phrasal verbs are formed with the particle at the end, e.g. break-in, while others have it at the beginning, e.g. outburst. All of them come from phrasal verbs and the particle does not have a different meaning from the one it has in the phrasal verb. In the case of outlive, the prefix out means longer than or more than, which is not the meaning in outburst. In other cases out could mean better than.

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