You could look up it

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Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh commented on an odd sentence from the Las Vegas Sun:

He said he was not aware that any of the companies were already engaged in illegal activity at the time that he helped to set up them. [emphasis added]

Eugene's analysis:

The author or the copyeditor was enforcing some (entirely spurious) rule against splitting an idiom such as "set up," and as a result replaced a perfectly normal construction ("set them up") with a weird and jarring one.

My first reaction was different, as I explained in a comment:

I'm inclined to think that a more pedestrian editing error might have been the cause. For example, the sentence might originally have read "…helped to found them", and someone might carelessly have replaced "found" with "set up". Irrational editorial preferences that merely eliminate grammatical alternatives are viable, like which-hunting, but those that create obviously ungrammatical outcomes are unlikely to survive for long.

If there's really an editor at that paper who enforces a "rule" that object pronouns must follow the intransitive prepositions of so-called phrasal verbs, there should be plenty of evidence. You could, so to speak, look up it. I'll check and report back.

It's certainly true that editorial splitophobia is an endemic disease — see "The split verbs mystery" (8/23/2008) and "When zombie rules attack" (8/26/2008) for some documentation. But let's not diagnose a new locus of infection without more evidence.

For a normative sample, let's take a look at the New York Times. Searching their archives since 1981 for the sequence "them up", we get 12,747 results. Nearly all of these are cases of where them is the object of a verb+"particle" (i.e. intransitive preposition) combination:

I can call them up and talk to them about different technologies.
Seal them up with a good caulking material.
…there has been other fragmentary intelligence to back them up.

In the first 50, I found 5 clear examples of other structures

… at the expense of many of its suppliers, most of them up-and-comers.
… the developer will reimburse them up to a total of 10 percent of the loss in value.
Mr. Thaddeus, the astrophysicist, took them up to the roof
You might grow them up in Cold Spring, N.Y.
… dividing 5-to-4 or 6-to-3 in almost half of them, up from roughly a third in the three previous years

And one unclear example:

…city dwellers cook lunches in tiny kitchens and carry them up to rooftops

Assuming that this ratio is typical, we'd have about 0.88*12,747 examples of the "V them up" order, or about 11,000.

In contrast, if we search for the sequence "up them", we get 50 hits. Some of these are completely irrelevant things like

One-up them by seeing someone headed down to Austin first.
… life is trying to match up them two rhythms.
They get to pulling up them fish, nobody wants to come home.

A few are pretty clearly mistakes, apparently a residue of incomplete editorial activity of the kind that I suspect in the Las Vegas Sun case, resulting in either "up them up" or "them up them":

…persuaded Iran to temporarily suspend its most worrisome activities while negotiating a package of incentives for Iran to give up them up altogether.
…may have an effect on the chemistry of contaminated industrial sites, helping to clean up them up.
But he usually got mud on the cuffs and his wife, Sue, suggested he roll up them up to save on cleaning bills.
Warner serves more than a million customers in Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn — hooking them up them has proven difficult.

In most of the hits, "up them" is a prepositional phrase, where them is the complement of up, like

Mr. O'Connor tumbled through walls and tried to walk up them
Those steps are nice and comparatively flat and you could drive right up them
… it isn't only sleeves that have tricks up them.

I found no examples whatever where them is the object of what Eugene called an "idiom" consisting of a verb and an intransitive preposition.

OK, that's the background: 11,000 to 0. Now for the Las Vegas Sun.

Searching the Sun's site via Google for "them up", we get 679 hits. Checking the first 50, I find two where up is part of a following idiom ("up close and personal") or a transitive preposition:

And I don't think our moms, if we ask them up close and personal, would condone how we do health care for very long.
…people who have relationships with the Culinary all year long are making deals with them up in Carson City.

All the rest are the normal sort of V+them+up structures ("tying them up", "hold them up", "clean them up", etc.). So adjust the count to about .96*679, or about 650.

Searching via Google for "up them" produces quite weird results. We get the Tarkanian story that Eugene Volokh commented on. We get two irrelevancies and typos, namely

Put Up or Shut Up? Them's fightin' words.
A parent can only do so much for their child, after a while, it's up them to make the right choices …

There's one example, in an unedited comment full of other typos and brainos, which doesn't tell us anything about copy-editing notions at the paper:

I am guessing for each Califorian that ACORN probably has sign up them at least 10x's.

Then there are about 180 reported hits where the search string doesn't appear at all, like Nick Christensen, "Wranglers come up empty in home opener", 11/3/2004. I've checked all 125 alleged hits (the rest seem to be duplicates), and the only examples of "them up" are the four already quoted — Eugene Volokh's find of "to set up them", and the three irrelevancies and typos just listed. So this seems to be some weird sort of Google bug, or perhaps a side effect of a Google "feature" intended somehow to be helpful.

[We can check this by using Bing, which lacks this "helpful" "feature", whatever it is. Searching the Las Vegas Sun site for "up them" gets 5 hits. One is the original Tarkanian sentence; three are the others we've already seen; the last is this irrelevancy (in a quote):

Can Sens. Reid and Ensign round up them votes? I don't know.

In contrast, seaching Bing for "them up" yields 1,060 hits, and the usual check of a sample of 50 shows that they are almost all instances of the V+them+up structure.]

Conclusion: The sentence that Eugene Volokh found is probably an inadvertent editorial error, not a mistaken editorial choice.

[And secondarily, "…helped to set up them" (with the relevant structure and interpretation) really is ungrammatical, i.e. well outside the norms of contemporary English, not just (as Eugene suggested) "unidiomatic". The only (marginal) exception, I think, would be cases with contrastive stress on the pronoun, e.g. "First we'll set up YOU, and then we'll set up THEM".]


  1. Karen said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    I hate this. People pull out their (sometimes mental) thesaurus and substitute one verb for another and then neglect to see if the arguments remain the same. I see it all the time from my students…

  2. Simon Tatham said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 10:32 am

    Well, somebody's got to be the first to say "Someone set up us the bomb!"…

  3. Ransom said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    Or perhaps there was originally a construction with something like "set up the companies engaged in illegal activity". To my ears, such a construction is more acceptable than "set the companies engaged in illegal activity up", but when t.c.e.i.i.a. is replaced with "them", the 'up' needs to move out to the end.

    [(myl) When the object (in a VERB+OBJ+PREP structure) is a full noun phrase, either VERB+OBJ+PREP or VERB+PREP+OBJ is entirely grammatical, with euphony, information structure, and noun-phrase "heaviness" determining preference. When the object is a pronoun, only the order VERB+PRO+PREP is normally grammatical.]

  4. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    An alternative to the "found"/"set up" switch theory is that the writer originally had "set up the companies" and an editor disliked the repetition of "companies". That said, I'd argue it's unidiomatic rather than ungrammatical. It certainly jars on the page, but far less so spoken. I'm kind of surprised your Google search didn't include the exact phrase "set up them". There are plenty of hits, most of them directly comparable to the usage that prompted the post.

    [(myl) Really? There weren't any in my NYT search. It's true that you can find a few on the web at large, but I'm skeptical that any of them were really intentional choices by native speakers. I'm willing to be persuaded that some English speakers are wired that way, but I'd need more than a few more examples (like the Las Vegas Sun sentence) that are likely to be editing errors.]

  5. Robert Morris said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    This could also be an instance of an overzealous copy-editor refusing to end a sentence with what they think is a preposition, although (if it's not an error) the don't-break-up-an-idiom "rule" that you mentioned is probably a better guess.

    On a related note, "he helped to set up them" seems awkward to me but does not stand out as blatantly ungrammatical, perhaps because it is perfectly cromulent if we replace the pronoun with a noun (e.g., "break up an idiom" like I said above—although, of course, it still works either way).

    [In this case, the distribution of pronouns is quite different from the distribution of full noun phrases, in speech as well as in writing.]

  6. Alex said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 10:59 am

    There is another, slightly old-fashioned, rule which may have been in the editor's mind, which is not to end a sentence with a preposition.

    E.g. instead of '… a room to go to.' prefer '… a room to which to go.'

    Hence 'split up them.' rather than 'split them up.'

    Even so, in this case it's as misguided as trying not to split a phrasal verb construct.

  7. mpg said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    Maybe I'm missing something here — couldn't it simply have been due to awkward editing of a sentence that (horrors!) ended with a preposition?

    [(myl) It's certainly possible that this hoary superstition played a role (though the original irrational prejudice against preposition-stranding involves relative-clause structures, and doesn't apply here). But a writer or editor would have to be asleep to accept the result of swapping them and up as an alternative.]

  8. Ellen said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    I'm seriously doubtful that someone would both see "up" here as a preposition and subscribe to the "don't end a sentence with a preposition" rule.

  9. Picky said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    Almost certainly, as you say, an editing error. So shouldn't it be filed under "Not Prescriptivist Poppycock But Another Copy Editor Cockup"?

    [(myl) Or maybe "Putative Prescriptivist Poppycock". But we have too many categories as it is.]

  10. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    Certainly the Google hits mostly seem to be from sources that wouldn't have an editor, but in most cases there's little reason to believe the author isn't a native speaker. It's true that most of them are tech sites, and English is the international language of techies, but still, the general quality of English in the posts seem to be what you'd expect from an English speaker on that sort of site. It could be the prevalence of that construction on those sites is influenced by the noun "setup". This wouldn't really explain its use in the Sun article.

    [(myl) This line of reasoning would be more convincing if you cited a few specific examples. It might well be (for example) that the writers are not native English speakers — or maybe some techies have a new denominal verb "setup", which they sometimes spell "set up" — or maybe they've made some editing mistakes of the type that are signaled by sequences like "This brief tutorial explains how to set up them up on your system", or "When I first experimented with rules and filters, I got very excited and set up them up for just about everything", or "These templates are totally modifiable and if you do not have a clue about how to set them up them, we are there to assist you" — or maybe you're right and there are some people out there for whom VERB+PREP+PRO is grammatical. But it's hard to evaluate alternative hypotheses without some evidence.]

    I don't mean to suggest that it wasn't an error, by the way. I'm just saying it doesn't feel totally ungrammatical to me.

  11. Yuval said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    Meh. Up theirs.

  12. Daniel C. Parmenter said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    I became familiar with this behavior of VERB + PARTICLE combinations during my days as a dictionary coder for a machine translation system and your observation about how such ungrammatical constructions can sound better with stress, e.g.:

    As for cigarettes, I will give up THEM, but nothing else.

    Most other VERB + PRT combinations seem to behave like this:

    *I will call up him.
    *I will look up it.

    The one possible exception I came up with was "look over" e.g.

    I will look it over.
    I will look over it.

    Both of which sound fine to me.

    Am I, er, overlooking something?

    [(myl) Are you sure that you're not interpreting the second one as [look [over it]], with a transitive preposition? That's perfectly grammatical, and also overlaps somewhat in meaning with the "look it over" construction.]

    p.s. In my MT days (starting in the early nineties) we used the WSJ corpus a lot. I read recently that the availablity of this corpus was in no small part thanks to you. And so I thank you. In those pre-and-early Google/Altavista days the WSJ corpus was an enormous help. Thanks!

  13. Cameron said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    Perhaps the editor's superstitions were influenced by German syntax. Expressions like "to set up" are a lot like the charming "separable prefix" feature of German, which prefixes a preposition to the infinitive of a verb, but removes the prefix to the end of the sentence when the verb is conjugated. Thus the English expression "check it out" has been borrowed quite naturally into German as "check es aus" – and the German infinitive construction for that verb would be aus-checken (where the hyphen is only needed because "auschecken" would violate the conventions of German spelling).

    [(myl) The various branches of the Indo-European language family have a variety of ways of combining (intransitive) prepositions with verbs — in English, we've inherited a frozen form of the Latin method (de+scribe, pre+scribe, in+scribe, a+scribe, etc.) as well as our version of the Germanic method. But to ascribe Germanism to the Las Vegas Sun writer or editor in this case is surely over-thinking it (not to be confused with thinking it over…).]

  14. Daniel C. Parmenter said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    Also, my non-native gf makes this type of error "I will look up it" on occasion, supporting the non-native writer hypothesis.

  15. Daniel C. Parmenter said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

    Yeah, you're probably right that the overlap in meaning is fogging me up.

  16. John Lawler said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

    @ Daniel, Mark — There is something strange about the behavior of over in phrasal verbs. I noticed a long time ago that He ran the dog over.He ran over the dog.He ran it over.He ran over it. are all synonymous and grammatical, whereas (4) would be ungrammatical with out, up, in, or any other ordinary phrasal particle. I shring this fact at all.

    [(myl) I'm not entirely convinced. If we pick a VERB+over combination where the literal (spatial) meaning is out of bounds, e.g. "throw over" in the sense of dumping the other party in a romantic relationship, it seems to me that over works just like other prepositions: "He threw her over for a cocktail waitress" — OK; "*He threw over her for a cocktail waitress" — nope. ]

  17. John Lawler said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

    I'd forgotten that lists get flattened here.
    Examples once again, in clear:

    (1) He ran the dog over.
    (2) He ran over the dog.
    (3) He ran it over.
    (4) He ran over it.

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    I think that verb + "up" + pronoun is grammatical when "up" is unmistakably a preposition, just as "over" is in John Lawler's examples (2) and (4). E.g.:"Have you ever hiked up that mountain?" "I haven't hiked up it, but I've gone around it."

  19. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    Example 1 (possibly edited remote development tutorial): "A tool collection is a set of compilers and debugger to work with your projects. If you don't have any you can find out how to set up them in Installing and Configuring C/C++ Support."

    [(myl) The author is "Sergei Grinev", who appears to be a native speaker of Russian. Note also the anomalous singular in "set of compilers and debugger".]

    Example 2 (promotional copy for EasyFLV software): "No need to hire a software programmer to build web players or set up them."

    [(myl) The "owner/developer" of EasyFLV is "Aritrim Basu", who lives in India, and the copy on the cited page has other features that suggest a non-native author:

    Our user base range from webmasters to strategic marketeers who use video on their website to potentially increase their website revenue.
    Streaming video makes it easy for teaching or tutorial materials.
    The size of the video players are dynamic that is you can set them up for any specific video window size you want.
    Our software will save you lots of time. Simply configure your preferred settings once and use the same subsequently.

    Example 3 (article on leadership): "In conventional management thinking, all the emphasis is on doing things quickly, cheaply and predictably. The ideal is to establish a set of systems and procedures that require little or no maintenance. Once you have set up them, you leave well alone."

    [(myl) The author seems to be a native speaker. But her (his?) website include 113 cases of VERB+PRO+PREP order, and only one genuine example (this one) of VERB+PREP+PRO order — although there are a large number of examples of VERB+PREP+NP, e.g. "Imagine that you are starting up a brand new business. … You did the leadership bit when you set up the business.". So I'm inclined to take your cited example as a slip of the fingers or an editing error.]

  20. Daniel C. Parmenter said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    I think that "up" is only a particle with "hike" if you're talking about skirts:

    He hiked up the mountain.
    *He hiked the mountain up.

    She hiked her skirt up.
    She hiked up her skirt.
    She hiked it up.
    *She hiked up it.

    The skirt case seems to follow the usual VERB + PRT behavior.

  21. Daniel C. Parmenter said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    Okay, that's not really relevant to your claim. Sorry.

  22. Mr Punch said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    I think this is merely terrible writing and editing — so bad that analysis is useless. None of it makes any sense. How could the companies already be engaging in illegal activities when he set them up?

    [(myl) I wondered about that myself. Perhaps if we learned the whole sordid story, it would make sense.

    Linguistically, there are two points of interest here. First, if "splitophobia" really were being generalized to VERB+PRO+PREP constructions, as Eugene Volokh suggested, that would be a kind of apotheosis of prescriptivist idiocy. So it's worth trying to figure out whether such a thing is indeed happening. (And apparently it isn't — but some analysis was needed to make that case.)

    Second, there's the question of whether things like "start up them" are ungrammatical or merely stylistically awkward or "unidiomatic". That obviously depends on how the terms in question are defined. All that I've done so far is to try to show that as a matter of observational fact, the distribution of alternatives is just about as close to categorical as such things ever get. In this analysis, the etiology of the original example plays no central role.]

  23. Thomas Westgard said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    Occam's Razor would point to a typo.

    The separable "up" in English is reflected in modern German with the separable prefix "ab," which is pronounced "up" and is present in a lot of cognates. In verb forms where it is separated, it goes at the end of the sentence, much as it should in modern English.

  24. John Cowan said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    When in doubt why Google lists a page, always click on "Cached", which provides the way Google actually sees the page before indexing it but after converting it to HTML (if necessary). In this case you will be told "These terms only appear in links pointing to this page: up them".

    [(myl) Is there any way to get a search with this helpful feature turned off?]

  25. Breffni said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    The separable "up" in English is reflected in modern German with the separable prefix "ab," which is pronounced "up" and is present in a lot of cognates.

    I can't access the OED at the moment, but I think ab is etymologically cognate with off, and semantically sometimes corresponds to down rather than up – hence abfahren, "drive off", abseilen, "go down a rope".

    Also, the vowel of ab may be like that of up in much British English, but it isn't in my (Irish) English, and I don't think it is in AmE either.

    I'd have thought up was related to auf.

  26. Sarah said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

    I'm pretty intrigued by this discussion, since I was a nanny for a young boy (about 8 or 9) who spoke like this very consistently, and it never failed to puzzle me. He would say things like:

    You need to look up it! (as in, look a word up in the dictionary)
    I don't want to clean up it!

    Nobody else in his family did it, but he always placed his pronoun after "up" in those kinds of constructions. Not only did it sound ungrammatical to me, but to my ear it messed up the stress pattern of his speech. I've never heard another child do it, and I've never seen it in print- until now.

    [(myl) Interesting. Did he typically put main phrase stress on "up" or "it"?]

  27. Sarah said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    I think he typically put the stress on "up." That's what was jarring about it, because I say "clean it UP" or "clean up the HOUSE" but he said "clean UP it."

  28. David said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    Maybe he had heard "Clean up your room" and "Clean up this mess" and similar sentences so often that he thought "clean up" was a single word.

  29. JC said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    I found the repeated use of "set up" in the article very confusing- especially in the context of businesses that are being accused of wrongdoing. My initial interpretation of "set up" was not establish, but closer to entrap- "He set me up!"

    Having that connotation in mind, all of the sentences become even more confusing. I find it to be an extremely poor word choice in an article like this one.

  30. Karen said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    (1) He ran the dog over.

    That one is only acceptable to me if you mean "over to some place", not "with his car".

  31. Picky said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    Pinker somewhere refers to children using forms such as "a cut-upped egg", but I think they would be younger than 8 or 9.

  32. Walkest said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    Ellen: I'm seriously doubtful that someone would both see "up" here as a preposition and subscribe to the "don't end a sentence with a preposition" rule.

    …really? I have roughly the opposite reaction: I seriously doubt that anyone who subscribes to the "don't end a sentence with a preposition" rule would understand that "up" can be anything but a true-blue preposition all the time.

  33. Ellen K. said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

    Walkest, it seems to me that "up" is much more common without an object or paired with another preposition, than it is with an object. So, yeah, I don't imagine people who apply that rule applying it to "up".

  34. Andrew said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

    Ellen K: yes, but you're assuming people have some degree of grasp of what they're talking about. I'm sure there are people who have heard of the 'no preposition at end' rule, but don't have a clear idea of what a preposition is, other than that it's one of the words which occur on a certain list, of which 'up' may be one. (In support of this, the famous 'line with as many final prepostions as possible', 'What did you bring that book that I didn't want to be read to out of up for?' only works if 'up' is thought of as a preposition.)

  35. Stephen Jones said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    —-"There are plenty of hits, most of them directly comparable to the usage that prompted the post."——

    I've just done a search on the Time Magazine Corpus, the British National Corpus, and the Corpus of Contemporary American English. There is not a single instance of 'set up them'.

    For 'set them up' the TMC has 36 entries, the BNC 18, and the COCA 139.

  36. James Donnelly said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

    British motorcycle racers — older ones, anyway — sometimes observe, "They don't like it up 'em" when describing how they got past another rider by going inside the other fellow's line when entering a corner. Since the other guy probably thought there was no room for this to be done — and usually there wouldn't be room until you made room, going so far as to bash the passee's handlebars with your own on the way past him — the maneuver not only got you in front of him but might well have scared him off his game. The phrase is older than bike racing; I don't know where it comes from (although it seems a widely useful if obvious observation).

    [(myl) Isn't this another case where them/'em is the complement of up rather than the object of a preceding verb?]

  37. Graeme said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 6:09 am

    In Australia, to set something up can mean 'to prepare for a fall', as much as it can mean more formally to found, incorporate or well-resource.

    Perhaps the sub-editor saw ambiguity in 'to set them up' – suggesting the man the subject of the news story had committed some kind of illegality against those corporations, in direct and defamatory contradiction to the purpose of the sentence.

    ps – 'to set up' can therefore mean something v similar to 'to take down'. Are there many other phrases with opposite meanings when read literally but similar metaphorical connotations?

  38. Robert said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 8:32 am

    My complaint is about the verb tenses. Saying "He said he was not aware" means he "was not aware" at the same time "he said." But half way through the sentence I realized he "was not aware" before "he said" and was no longer not aware So I had to go back and reread the sentence with the corrected meaning: He said he had not been aware. And that's only part of the verb tense problems in the sentence.

    Sometimes you can change past perfect to past without really changing the meaning if the time sequence is obvious. But here the wrong verb tense changes the meaning in a drastic way.

  39. jaap said,

    August 10, 2009 @ 1:58 am

    James, the phrase "They don't like it up 'em" was popularised by the British sit-com Dad's Army.

  40. Aaron Davies said,

    August 10, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

    @Robert: correct management of sequence of tenses is a dying art, I'm afraid. Personally, I wish they were nest-able—I've occasionally found myself wanting to clearly express "and prior to that…" in the middle of a past-perfect passage, and found no option but to extend the sentence by half a dozen words. Perhaps I shall begin trying to establish "had had" as a "second-level past perfect" construction. It will certainly make forming "'had' stack" sentences easier…

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