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Mind your language

How I learned to live with ‘meet with’

Ernest Gowers is wrong. This is a phrasal verb with a purpose

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

Don’t tell my husband, but I have been having doubts. (He never reads this column, so our secret is safe.) The doubt is about meet with. I always regarded it is a pleonasm, and a rebarbative one, being of American origin.

Theresa May made a mark, one way or another, by meeting President Trump. She didn’t meet him by chance, she met with him (by appointment), as several British papers said, never mind the American ones. And she didn’t meet with him as one meets with a misfortune.


Meet with and its ampler form meet up with are examples of the ‘phrasal verb’, a term that (though found here and there earlier) was adopted in 1923 by Logan Pearsall Smith, that Anglocentric American. He was a man given to depression and high spirits alternately and was greatly amused by the obituaries that appeared prematurely when he was taken ill with misery on a visit to Iceland. Anyway he was good enough to credit the philologist Henry Bradley for the invention of phrasal verb.

Samuel Johnson rightly observed in the preface to his Dictionary (1755) that there is a ‘kind of composition more frequent in our language than perhaps in any other, from which arises to foreigners the greatest difficulty’. He gave examples of fall on, fall in and fall off, set in, set out and set off. The foreigner could not guess the meaning of each from the meaning of the adverbs or prepositions used.

Are they really prepositions? When Churchill made the joke about things ‘up with which he would not put’ he was satirising schoolmarm pedants prohibiting ‘prepositions’ at the end of a sentence. R.W. Burchfield in Fowler (1996) quoted a scholarly paper that classed all phrasal verbs as examples of verb plus preposition. Burchfield’s reviser Jeremy Butterfield asserts that phrasal verbs with adverbs may be intransitive (a taxi drew up), but those formed with prepositions are transitive (go through some papers).

An objection to some phrasal verbs is that they add nothing to the sense of the bare verb. This is what Ernest Gowers complained of in his own edition of Fowler (1965). What, he asked, did meet up with add to meet? The answer is the element of intention.


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