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March 02, 2011  |  To set up is not to setup (et al.)  |  4995 hit(s)

We were reviewing some drafts of new user interface stuff at work today, and Colleague Tom noted that the title of one of the dialog boxes was listed as Setup Publishing. Momentarily unsure, he sent me a message: "Is setup considered a verb?"

Lots of people think so — search for "to setup" on Google, and you'll see page after page of results where people are using setup as a verb. You can do a similar exercise with "to login" and likewise find many, many instances of login as a verb.

Perhaps unusually, this is an instance where I actually do think that single-word spellings like these for phrasal verbs (as some of us learned to call them) are not sensible. Rather than simply calling them wrong, tho, let me justify this view with two pieces of evidence.

1. In many (not all) verbs like to set up and to log in, the prepositional bit (up, in) can move around in the sentence. Consider:

He needs to set up the computer.
He needs to set the computer up.
*He needs to setup the computer.
He needs to set it up.
*He needs to setup it.

The spelling in the marked (closed-up) examples doesn't represent the syntactical flexibility that's shown in the others.

For login, consider these:

She needs to log herself in.
*She needs to login herself.

Second one doesn't work, eh?

2. When you conjugate or otherwise do grammar-ish things to the verb, you do that only to the verb bit; the preposition bit is left unmolested. Consider:

I was setting up the computer.
I was setting the computer up.
*I was setupping the computer. (Thanks to Tom for that excellent example.)

Or even just these:

She sets up the computer.
*She setups the computer.

He logs in at the library.
*He logins at the library.

People will occasionally decide that a hyphen is just the thing -- to log-in, to set-up. This seems to acknowledge that the constituent parts of phrasal verbs are distinct. But in American usage, anyway, this is really no improvement.

I won't go into the detail about the technical definitions of a what constitutes a word (because I don't know enough about it, frankly), but it seems clear from these examples that when set up and log in are used as phrasal verbs (along with other examples, like sign up, write out, check in, and turn off), they're most logically spelled as two words.

Any disagreement?

As an aside, it's a general trend. Searching for one-word variations of phrasal verbs, I found these:

to warmup
to workout
to passout
to turndown

To reiterate, tho, I think that these one-word spellings are not the way to go.

Brian   02 Mar 11 - 10:40 AM

Preach it, brother! You'll obviously get no argument from me on this one. In fact, it's one of those issues that I just fix "silently" now (or have the copyeditor do it) rather than trying to explain the rule to the author, because it's a quick fix, the author usually doesn't object when I do it, and writers tend to either forget or over-correct when I do explain it. (The which/that distinction is another one of those.) But honestly: "two word: verb; one word: noun (or adjective)" shouldn't be that hard to remember.

The counterargument, of course, is that if a rule confuses so many otherwise intelligent people, then maybe there's something wrong with the rule. And having a term spelled with a space sometimes, and others not, when it means essentially the same thing, is a needless distinction. But your counterexamples are golden, and I'm going to call this "the setupping rule" from now on. Because it's a short step from there to "backupping" and "loginning," and that way lies madness.

mike   02 Mar 11 - 10:52 AM

Ah, yes, to backup -- another classic example.

As you know (see various preceding examples), I do generally subscribe to the notion you bring up, namely that if an orthographical error seems to be deep-rooted among ordinary writers, the rule that makes it wrong might want re-examination. That's one of the reasons I find myself surprised that I have as strong a view on this as I do. But like you, Brian, I think Tom's example of setupping was the critical point for me. :-)

jebbiii   07 Mar 12 - 7:06 AM

if you think about the actual usage, a sentence like "We set up the fishtank" can be perceived as an oddity of the language, since it appears to create a prepositional phrase "up the fishtank" which does not exist or make sense. Having a structure like setup is actually a cleaner, more intuitive phrasing that a novice to English or a computer would understand. Like split infinitives and ending prepositions, this will no longer be a problem in 10 or 20 years.

mike   08 Mar 12 - 3:02 PM

jebiii -- phrasal verbs are very common in Germanic languages. Here's a list, for example:


Speakers don't seem to parse the "prepositional" portions of phrasal verbs as actual propositions.

As evidence that these aren't "real" prepositions, in German the prepositional component is often a prefix. For example, the infinitive of wach auf (wake up!) is aufwachen.

It doesn't seem likely to me that spelling needs to change to clarify for native speakers what role the preposition is playing in a sentence that contains a phrasal verb. And as Brian says, writers don't object to separating the verb from its preposition, since the sentence still makes perfect sense with the two separated.