Listen to Oscar Brown Jr.‘s jazz classic The Snake. A kind-hearted woman and a snake express their opposing desires, using the same phrasal verb: take in. One of them intends rescue and retrieval, the other is thinking of treachery. Their intentions shape their mouths when they form that in – but the woman isn’t paying attention:
The glory of the phrasal verb is the kaleidoscope of meanings that inhabit the tiny space provided by just one verb and one preposition. The woman feels sorry for the snake. She wants to take him in – she uses take in to mean ‘rescue and bring into my home.’ Oscar Brown Jr gives take and in an equal weight when he’s representing the woman’s voice. She’s thinking about the act of rescuing the snake and his eventual safe refuge in her home. She’s also thinking about how pretty the snake is, but that’s another story.
When Oscar sings the part of the snake, he changes his emphasis. The snake wants to get inside the woman’s home. That’s why he emphasizes the preposition in so strongly and persuasively. If the snake had been interested in encouraging her to pick him up, he would have emphasized the active part of the phrasal verb: take. Snakes have a reputation for subtle use of language.
If English isn’t your first language, the chances are that you learnt phrasal verbs in interminable lists. You probably worried about getting them right in exams. Now it’s time to relax and liberate your phrasal verbs so that they can do their proper work. Make them work for you. Don’t get stuck with the one and only pronunciation that you learnt in English class. Like most things in the English language, phrasal verbs pack a variety of meaning, depending on where you put the stress. Enjoy your phrasal verbs. Don’t leave all the fun to the snake.
If you’re a native English speaker, be glad, very glad, that we don’t study phrasal verbs in school. We’d have stopped using them long ago if we’d had to think about them like this.
Native speaker or not, it’s interesting to think of the emotional information communicated by the subtly different stress on in used by the snake and by the woman. You can hear Al Wilson’s Northern Soul cover of the same song here. He makes the woman sound more foolish and his snake sounds meaner. The Belle Stars’ cover version is more sympathetic to the woman. Same lyrics, same phrasal verb, different intonation. Powerful stuff.
Of course, to take in also means ‘to deceive’. Never trust a snake with a phrasal verb.
© Sing Better English, 2014