Learning English As A Second Language: Phrasal Verbs

janharper Jul 28, 2008 School
Learning English as a second, or foreign language can often be confusing. One of the most difficult things to understand is the use of phrasal verbs. These are sometimes known prepositional verbs. It is the prepositions used that cause problems for the learner.

A phrasal verb is made up of a verb + an adverb. For example:

take off,

bring in,

pull off,

It may also be constructed from a verb + prepostion (prepositional verbs). For example:

look into,

run in,

walk to.

The adverbs, or prepostion are often referred to as particles.

A three word phrasal verb is a verb + adverb + preposition. For example:

run out of,

walk out of,

bite in to.

Phrasal verbs are different from other verb + adverb/prepostion phrases because their meaning is often idiomatic.

Idiomatic: cannot be deciphered from the separate parts.

You cannot always work out the meaning of a phrasal verb by knowing the meaning of the separate words. Some have very literal meanings . For example:

turn up my collar : to tip your collar upwards

Most phrasal verbs can be replaced with a one word synonym.

For example:

look into the matter : investigate

think the matter over: consider

There are 5 types of phrasal verb.

Type: 1 verb + adverb + intransitive

She didn't turn up.

Type: 2 verb + adverb + object (transitive)

She didn't turn up the TV.

She didn't turn it up. ( The object can come between the the verb and adverb. )

Type: 3 verb + preposition + object

She didn't look into the problem.

He didn't look into the room. (verb + preposition + object) NOT PHRASAL

Type: 4 verb + adverb + preoposition + object Example:

He didn't get away with it.

Type: 5 verb + object + adverb + preposition + object. Example:

He didn't let me in on the secret.

Take a look at these phrasal verbs and try to discover what the rule is:

I put the meeting off.

I put it off.

I put off the meeting.

I put off it.

The object of this phrasal verb may be placed between the verb + adverb.

It can also go after the verb + adverb, but only in its full form (the meeting), not as a pronoun.

I put off it. INCORRECT.


Phrasal verbs can be graded according to their opacity. This means that some are easier to see the meaning of, than others.

Transparent, or easy to understand phrasal verbs include:

turn up (for example, as in turn up a collar, or turn up trousers that are too long.

look ahead

go out

break up

drink up

cut down on

knock off (stop work)

Then there are another group of phrasal verbs that you may be able to work out the meaning of, if you can read them in context. For example:

bump into (to meet someone by chance)

sign up (to enrol, subscribe)

get around (find a way of coping with a problem)

take over (take charge from someone else, take control)

look forward to (be excited about something in the future)

turn up (arrive)

hit on (chat up)

The third group are not so easy to understand:

make off with (run away with, take away )

put down to (blame, eg Late arrival can be put down to having a flat tyre.)

trifle with (play around with)

make out (infer)

let on (admit)

take in (deceive)

give up (stop trying)

There is no need to try to learn lists of phrasal verbs because the student is already learning them from basic level English without having to study them specifically. Phrasal verbs are a major part of the structure of English grammar, so so it would hard to learn any English without learning them alon the way.

For example:

What time did you get up?

She had to look after her children.

If you don't understand a word look it up in your dictionary.

A note about pronunciation: Stress placement.

With verb + adverb the stress falls on the adverb:

When are you going to call BACK?

With verb + preposition, the stress is usually on the verb:

When are you going to CALL on Sam?

BUT there are some exceptions. This sentence has the verb + preposition but it behaves like a verb + adverb.

Who's going to look AFTER your children?

With nouns that have been formed from phrasal verbs, the stress is on the first syllable just as it is in most words with two syllables. For example:

When is the company TAKEover happening?


Match the statements on the left with a suitable response on the right.

1 I'm worried about what Sam did. a. I've run up against that too.

2. The pages are in the wrong order. b. I know, try to rise above it.

3. My printer only prints black and white. c. I must have mixed them up.

4. I need you to be here tonight. d. Everthing will turn out right.

5. I'm so angry about what he did. e. I'll see if I can get out my date.

Answers: 1 b

2 c

3 a

4 e

5 d

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  • Last Updated : Jul 28, 2008