Never Trust a Snake with a Phrasal Verb

phrasal verb is a gift to a singer. The prepositions, the up,the in, the out or the over of phrasal verbs, are all ripe for attention. Tiny words repay your interest in spades when you sing.

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


7 thoughts on “Never Trust a Snake with a Phrasal Verb”

  1. You are right, I had to embrace those interminable lists in high school, and of course it wasn’t easy (well, isn’t today either). But to me, what it is even harder is understanding prepositions and how to properly use them. So yes, you can imagine how much I’m loving this.

    I bet I’ll have Oscar’s more suggestive in dancing in my head all day long.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Pati – those horrible phrasal verb lists are the kind of thing they’d use to make Patrick McGoohan lose his mind in The Prisoner Nobody in Britain would use them if we’d had to learn them at school! We don’t think of them as verbs with different prepositions. They just seem to be the ‘right’ way to express things. Probably because we learn them at home, from hearing our parents and relatives use them, or from ordinary speech out in the world.

    The difference between the ‘para’ and ‘por’ of Spanish make English speakers’ heads spin. That’s your revenge!


    1. Haha… It’s the same in Spanish. Once, a girl asked me the difference between “para” and “por” and I went crazy trying to explain it to her. It’s like you say, it feels right (or wrong) but you can’t find an easy way to tell the difference.

      I sent the link to this post to my husband. I knew he would like the song and he did… but who wouldn’t? 😉

      (BTW, I love the title of this entry)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it’s almost impossible to justify the ‘why’ of your own language with logic.

        That question always makes me feel like one of those room-size computers in 1960s films – where the hero feeds the question ‘Why?’ in (usually on a long piece of paper) and the computer starts shuddering and smoke starts pouring out of it. The ‘why’ of your own language is impossible to answer, isn’t it?


  3. love his changed voice when singing the snake’s part!

    and yeah… i swear i’m a native speaker but living in germany and thinking/speaking/reading in german REALLY messes up my prepositions. ha. to the point where (just once) someone told me that my english skills are very good. hahahha!


    1. Same thing happened to me when I lived in Greece, long ago. I was on an island and speaking Greek most of the time, so when I wrote letters home to the UK I’d notice myself writing in the way a Greek person would write English. It was an odd sensation because the words seemed to form in my head in a ‘Greek’ way.

      I can imagine English prepositions lose their unquestioned logic when you’re living in a language that imagines space and movement differently. Suddenly you can’t remember the right preposition for the right language. It’s like coming back to the UK if you’ve got used to driving on the other side of the road – you’re on a country road without markings and suddenly you can’t remember which side of the road you’re supposed to be on.


      1. Wow you are so interesting! Will love to spend more time reading ur thoughts and experiences! So refreshing and interesting and yes parrallel to my life too!


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