For some students, phrasal verbs are the most frustrating aspect of English vocabulary. There are simply hundreds of them, some of which are easy to guess when you hear them but easy to get wrong when you try to use them. With others, the overall meaning seems completely unconnected with the meaning of the specific individual words which make it up, as in the ‘fed up’ example used in the title. Today’s post aims to break down (simplify and explain) the concept of phrasal verbs and help you get to grips with (understand) the basics of their use.
What is a phrasal verb?
A phrasal verb is a phrase that’s made up (consists) of a verb and another word or two, usually a preposition but sometimes an adverb. The verb’s meaning changes depending on the preposition that follows it. I have used examples throughout this post (with the more standard alternative in brackets) so you can see how they are used.
They do not exist in my language. Why does English have them? Where do they come from?
As you probably know, modern day English has elements of different languages, for example Latin and French, but its main roots are Germanic. This is how English came to include phrasal verbs when other languages don’t have them.
Are they formal or informal?
Phrasal verbs are generally considered more informal but they are definitely not slang. Certain phrasal verbs are more informal than others but in general and in real life, they are such a natural part of speech that they are used in both informal and formal contexts without the speaker even being aware.
Are they difficult to learn?
As native speakers, we are not formally taught them in school and we do not consciously study them, we just pick them up (acquire them) as we learn our mother language in childhood. It’s not so easy for English language learners. It’s quite common for students to put off (to postpone) learning phrasal verbs until much later in their studies. There is a misconception that phrasal verbs are tricky or difficult for the following reasons:
- This verb structure doesn’t exist in most languages
- Different phrasal verbs may share the same main verb, such as come or have, but the meaning will be completely different depending on the preposition that follows
- To come in, to come out, to come over, to come on, to come about, to come off
- Phrasal verbs can often have several different meanings
- “to come down”
- To come down from the top of something (a ladder, a roof, etc)
- To come down with the flu – to get sick
- To come down from a high – to return to a relaxed state of mind after great excitement
- You can separate some phrasal verbs but not others
- You can say either I took off my clothes OR I took my clothes off
- But you can only say The plane took off from the runway
- “to come down”
English language learners often avoid phrasal verbs altogether because they are unsure when they should use them and for fear of getting the meaning totally wrong by making a simple error such as using the wrong preposition.
Is it important to learn them?
Phrasal verbs are used much more between native speakers than between non-native speakers so if you only communicate with other non-native speakers or English learners, then phrasal verbs will feature less often and are probably not so important. However, native speakers use them all the time. In fact, in any conversation between two fluent English speakers it is estimated that 50% or more of the verbs used will be phrasal verbs. If you need to understand native speaker English, it’s a good idea to learn common phrasal verbs to help your listening comprehension. It’s also worth considering that, when speaking, if you stick to ‘standard’ English in order to play it safe (avoid making mistakes), you will always sound slightly more formal rather than truly fluent.
When should I start learning them?
From the very beginning! You will come across them (encounter them) as soon as you start learning English so you may as well start taking notice of them, keeping a record and trying to use them straight away.
How can I learn them?
Search for new phrasal verbs and study them every day until they are memorised. Look them up (search) in your dictionary – all good ones will have entries for phrasal verbs or look them up online here.
One final thing to keep in mind (remember) about phrasal verbs is that they function like normal verbs and change tense in the same way that main verbs do.
Eg. On the telephone – Me: “I’m hanging up now, Lucy!”
Later – Lucy: “Why did you hang up on me earlier?”
Me: “I hung up because I didn’t want to argue with you.”