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Phrasal verbs: Introduction

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

How should you approach teaching phrasal verbs? Lindsay Clandfield explains what phrasal verbs are and gives some practical teaching advice.

Introduction

What is a phrasal verb? Phrasal verb, multi-word verb or two-part verb? 

Definition from the Macmillan Dictionary:

A phrasal verb is a combination of a verb and an adverb or preposition, which has a particular meaning, such as ‘look after’, ‘hurry up’, ‘give in’, ‘chill out’, ‘get away with’ and ‘bring up’.

For example in the sentence ‘Don’t tell me how to bring up my children!’, ‘bring up’ means ‘raise’. An adverb or preposition in a phrasal verb is sometimes called a particle.

 

In one sense, you can say that phrasal verbs are just more words and should be treated as such. However, there are problems also with the grammar. Different phrasal verbs have different grammar. Here is the grammar of phrasal verbs:

There are five types of phrasal verb. These are:

  1. Intransitive (with no object):
    You're driving too fast – you ought to slow down.
  2. Transitive verbs whose object can come in two positions – after the verb or after the particle:
    I think I'll put my jacket on OR I think I'll put on my jacket.
    If the object is a pronoun, however, it must come between the verb and the particle:
    I think I'll put it on (NOT I think I'll put on it).
  3. Transitive verbs whose object must come between the verb and the particle:
    Its high-quality designs sets the company apart from its rivals. 
  4. Transitive verbs whose object must come after the particle:
    The baby takes after his mother.
    Why do you put up with the way he treats you?
  5. Verbs with two objects – one after the verb, the other after the particle:
    They put their success down to good planning.

Formality

Phrasal verbs are more informal and are found in informal texts and in spoken language. Many phrasal verbs have a Latinate equivalent. When students opt for this equivalent, they sound more formal. Conversely, a student who uses an informal phrasal verb in a formal situation (like a business letter) can sound out of place or wrong.

How NOT to teach phrasal verbs

Often learners will tell you with a shake of their head that they really need to 'do some phrasal verbs'. This area of English is often seen as extremely daunting, difficult and tedious. Why? Perhaps it’s because the teaching of phrasal verbs has been daunting and difficult for the teacher, and therefore tedious for the learner.

Try to avoid teaching phrasal verbs in the following ways:

  • By presenting huge lists (in fact, lists of words that cover a page are unimaginative and daunting for any item of vocabulary – imagine having to learn all the animals by looking at a page with their names on it).
  • By focussing always and exclusively on the verb (e.g. phrasal verbs with GET). Often this results in a list (admittedly shorter) of verbs that are unrelated and can be confused.

How to approach and teach phrasal verbs

First of all, stop communicating to students that phrasal verbs are impossible, if this is something you've been (perhaps unconsciously!) doing. This can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The message should be that phrasal verbs are just more words, that they are not that difficult to learn, and that students have already (by an elementary stage) acquired quite a few without realising it (see the first lesson in this series of phrasal verbs for examples of phrasal verbs that students quickly pick up in the classroom).

This still leaves problems for you, as the teacher. How do you teach phrasal verbs in a fun, motivating way when so much material out there is dry and difficult to work with? That’s what this section is all about. We hope it helps!

Introducing phrasal verbs

Who says phrasal verbs are only for intermediate level students and up? The lesson linked at the bottom of the page is for elementary or false beginners to introduce some common phrasal verbs. It can also be used with higher levels who are suffering from 'phrasal verb anxiety' and need to be reminded that it is not that difficult! 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • There is a sixth type of phrasal verb which consisits of the verb plus two particles. These verbs can be transitive or intransitive but the individual components are only separated by the addition of an adjective e.g. to get on with, to put up with, come up with, look forward to etc.

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