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If you want to brush up on your English, you can’t just kick back and chill out. No, you need to sort yourself out and come up with a plan or you’ll end up running out of motivation.
Check out the words in bold in the sentence above. Can you see what they have in common? They’re all phrasal verbs!
In my experience as an English teacher, some students love phrasal verbs and others hate them.
Which side are you on? If you hate them, perhaps after reading this article, you’ll have a change of heart.
What exactly is a phrasal verb?
Let’s break it down.
What is a phrasal verb?
- A phrasal verb is a verb that is made up of two or three words
- The first word is a verb
- The second word (or third word) is a preposition or an adverb
- Putting the words together gives a new meaning
For example, to chill something is to make it colder, But when we add ‘out’ to form ‘chill out’, it gives a completely different meaning. It means ‘to relax’.
Why are phrasal verbs so difficult for English learners?
There are many reasons why phrasal verbs present a challenge to learners.
1 It is hard to guess the meaning.
Let’s look again at the phrasal verb chill out. It means to relax… but the root verb means to make something colder.
What is the connection between making something colder and relaxing? And why ‘out’? Why not ‘chill up’ or ‘chill down’?
Please take my advice - don’t kill yourself trying to understand the etymology of phrasal verbs.
Why do we say ‘a piece of cake’ when something is easy? It doesn’t matter - it’s a fun and useful phrase that can help you to express yourself in English. A phrasal verb is a kind of idiom and you should treat it like an idiom.
2 There are so many phrasal verbs!
In fact, there are so many phrasal verbs that you can buy a dictionary just for phrasal verbs!
The Oxford Phrasal Verbs Dictionary claims to cover over 6000 phrasal verbs and I’m sure they don’t cover every single one!
But don’t worry; you don’t need to know all 6000+. There are a few dozen very common phrasal verbs and a few hundred quite common phrasal verbs. These are the ones to focus on.
3 Phrasal verbs commonly have more than one meaning
The phrasal verb take off is a good example. Here are seven meanings:
The plane took off (to leave the ground)
I took a few days off (to take a holiday)
We might take the deal off the table (to remove something from a discussion)
This place is boring. Let’s take off. (to leave)
I took off my hat (to remove clothing)
The sales have really taken off recently (to increase rapidly)
The thug took off when he saw the cops coming (to run away)
4 Phrasal verbs can be ‘separated’ in a sentence
Let’s see an example:
George took his hat off.
Notice how the object ‘splits’ the phrasal verb. Some phrasal verbs are used in this way and some not.
There is not an easy rule of thumb for this. You just need to pay attention and get a feel for how each phrasal verb is used.
It gets trickier when the object is longer. Note how there can be many words between the verb and the preposition:
George took his hat, his scarf and his red, leather gloves off.
5 Phrasal verbs are usually based on common verbs
You’ll notice that the first word in a phrasal verb is generally a common, everyday verb such as look, take, give or see.
Wait. Is this a problem…shouldn’t this make things easier?
Well, it can make it harder to spot and write down new phrasal verbs.
English learners often scan a text, looking for new words and phrases to learn. If they see a phrasal verb like pull off, they might just ignore it. After all, everyone knows the meaning of ‘pull’ and everyone knows the meaning of ‘off’
But ‘pull off’ has a new meaning - to achieve something that was difficult to do.
Example: It wasn’t easy to persuade Sally to go out with me, but I pulled it off!
6 There are things that look like phrasal verbs, but which are not
Examine these two sentences. Which one contains a phrasal verb?
1 I looked up and I saw a helicopter.
2 I looked up the word ‘etymology’ on Google.
The answer is number 2. ‘Looked up’ in the first sentence is not a phrasal verb because it doesn’t have a special meaning. The meaning is simply ‘look’ + ‘up’.
‘Looked up’ has a special meaning (an idiomatic meaning) in the second sentence. It means to find something in a reference book (or website).
Do you really need to learn phrasal verbs?
Phrasal verbs are everywhere and you cannot ignore them.
In fact, if you’re trying to avoid phrasal verbs, then I suggest a change in mindset. Instead of avoiding them, why not embrace them?
After all, using phrasal verbs can help you to be more expressive and natural with your English. An advanced level English user should feel comfortable using them.
Let’s look again at our previous example:
It wasn’t easy to persuade Sally to go out with me, but I pulled it off!
Imagine if you wish to express this without the phrasal verb ‘pull off’. You might say it like this:
It wasn’t easy to persuade Sally to go out with me, but I was able to do it with some difficulty!
It sounds much more awkward and less natural.
What is the best way to learn phrasal verbs?
First, let’s look at the wrong way to go about it:
The wrong method is to aim to learn all 6000 phrasal verbs in the Oxford Phrasal Verbs Dictionary.
Another wrong method is to copy lists of phrasal verbs from a website and try to memorise them.
The correct way is to be curious, watch out for new phrasal verbs and create your own wordlists.
Here is the method I suggest:
Step 1 - Buy a notebook or reserve a section of your current vocabulary notebook.
Step 2 - When you practise listening or reading in English, write down any new phrasal verbs that you hear or see.
Step 3 - Don’t translate into your own language. Instead, write down the entire sentence with the phrasal verb underlined.
Remember, it is difficult to guess the meaning of a phrasal verb from its parts. Instead, use context to guess the meaning, or look it up if you get stuck.
Step 4 - After you have encountered a phrasal verb two or three times in your listening or reading, try to use it yourself. For example, try writing sentences with the new phrasal verb or, even better, try using it when you speak.
And here are some further tips:
Tip 1 - I mentioned how ‘look up’ is sometimes NOT a phrasal verb. Some websites and references also talk about ‘prepositional verbs’ and use other confusing terms.
Forget about all of this when you make your wordlist. If it looks like a phrasal verb and it is useful to learn, add it to your list. To make it easier, you could use the term ‘multi-word verbs’.
Tip 2 - As a reading source, I recommend reading short stories, such as the ones in the Chicken Soup series.
As a listening source, I recommend listening to podcasts, such as English Learning for Curious Minds.
Whichever podcast you choose, make sure that it has a transcript. Phrasal verbs are short and easy to miss. If you go through the transcript after listening, you may be surprised at how many you didn’t catch when you listened.
What are the most common phrasal verbs?
Although I don’t recommend memorising wordlists from websites, it is a good idea to check out some lists of common, everyday phrasal verbs. You’ll want to make sure you know all the basic ones.
Here are some web pages that can help you to do this:
You may also want to check out these advanced-level phrasal verb lists:
Here are some phrasal verbs to help you on your way
To kick off your phrasal verb collection, here is a list of all the phrasal verbs from this article!
Brush up on - improve something that you haven’t practised for some time
Kick back - relax
Chill out - relax
Sort (something) out - organise something
Come up with - create or invent something
End up - to face an unexpected situation as a result of certain actions
Run out of - to use all of something and have no more available
Check out - examine something
Break (something) down - analyse something
Go about something - do something (in a particular way)
Kick off - begin