There are thousands of phrasal verbs in the English language, many of them having more than one meaning. Dealing with them can seem like a gigantic task. In this article, Adrian Tennant looks at what phrasal verbs are and why students often find them difficult to learn and use, with a few practical activities given designed to help with their teaching and learning.

What is a phrasal verb?

A phrasal verb is a vocabulary item that consists of a ‘root verb’ such as break, get, put, etc and a ‘particle’ (an adverb or preposition and sometimes both) such as off, away or in. A phrasal verb can have a literal meaning, i.e. pick up to lift something up from a surface, e.g. Be careful when you pick up the bag; it’s heavy. Or, it can have an idiomatic meaning, i.e. pick up to learn a new skill or habit without intending to, e.g. I just picked up a few words of Turkish when I was on holiday in Izmir.

Phrasal verbs should be seen as words (lexical items) in their own right and not simply as a combination of two or three words.

Why do students often find phrasal verbs difficult?

It appears that many of the perceived difficulties students have with phrasal verbs stem from three issues:

1. Mistaken familiarity. Learners may know the meanings of the different components of the phrasal verb and this leads them to a (false) belief that they will know the meaning of the phrasal verb as a whole. For example, students know the words put and off and therefore assume they will know the meaning of the two words when combined in the phrasal verb put off. Typically, they will think of the verb to put as meaning ‘to place’, and they will usually equate the particle off with ‘movement away from something’.  Therefore, they might wrongly infer that to put off will mean ‘to remove’, e.g. I put the umbrella off the table. Because of this, they find it difficult to understand sentences such as, Can we put this off until tomorrow? or The music was so loud, it put me off. The fact that many phrasal verbs have non-literal (idiomatic) meanings is at the heart of the problem for many learners.

2.Multiple meanings. For example, the phrasal verb put off has six different meanings, some of which are quite different: e.g. to delay something; to prevent someone from concentrating; to discourage someone from doing something. The fact that phrasal verbs often have more than one meaning seems to worry students a lot.

3.Duplication of components. The vast number of phrasal verbs are made from just a limited number of words, meaning that students can easily get confused. For example, phrasal verbs with put include: put about, put above, put across, put around, put aside, put away, put back, put before, put behind, put down, put down as, put down for, put down to, put forward, put in, put in for, put into, put off, etc.

In dealing with phrasal verbs it is important to address these issues and make students aware that they need not be too problematic and that, like other vocabulary items, there are ways in which they can be learnt.

How can we help our students overcome these issues?

Knowing any word is a complex thing (as is discussed in the article What do words mean?). Understanding phrasal verbs is no more or less complicated, but can be made more so by thinking the words combine the meaning of the two component parts.

Dealing with the issue of mistaken familiarity is reasonably easy, as the solution lies in making our students aware that phrasal verbs need to be treated as items of vocabulary in their own right and not as a combination in meaning of two separate words.

Dealing with the issue of multiple meanings is also not overly difficult. Multiple meanings actually occur with many items of vocabulary and not just phrasal verbs. Making students aware that words often have more than one meaning is part and parcel of teaching vocabulary. If your students complain that phrasal verbs are difficult because of all the different meanings they have, then just ask them how many meanings they know for words such as book (four as a noun and two as a verb), number (nine as a noun + phrases and two as a verb), or light (three as a noun + phrases, ten as an adjective + phrases, three as a verb + phrases and one as an adverb). By doing this, you will show your students that multiple meanings is not a problem that is particular to phrasal verbs, and they need to be generally aware that when they think they ‘know’ a word, it may well be that they only know a few of its meanings.

The issue of duplication of components needs to be dealt with in two ways. The first is to treat phrasal verbs in a systematic way, which will be looked at in the next few sections of this article. The second is to help students find ways of recording the vocabulary they learn so that they can access it easily, a few ideas of which are suggested in another article in this series, Techniques for teaching and learning.

When should we start teaching phrasal verbs?

We teach phrasal verbs to our students from when they are beginners onwards. For example, the present simple and the topic of daily routines is packed with phrasal verbs, i.e. wake up, get up, put on, go down, set off, get back, go out, etc. There isn’t a set level or age when we should start teaching phrasal verbs; we should teach them as and when they occur.

Should we teach a full lesson on phrasal verbs?

Having a specific lesson, unless it is to help students overcome their fear of phrasal verbs, seems to me to be counterproductive. When a coursebook has a page which focuses just on phrasal verbs, it is implying that they are especially different and difficult and consequently make the situation worse for students rather than helping them. Including phrasal verbs naturally in the context of a lesson seems a much better way of dealing with them. Help students understand that phrasal verbs are items of vocabulary that need to be treated in the same way as other vocabulary,  i.e. we have to know the different aspects of each phrasal verb just as we do with verbs, adjectives, etc. (See the article on What do words mean?) When phrasal verbs come up as part of a lesson they should certainly be dealt with, but not by having a lesson dedicated solely to them.

How can we teach the meaning of phrasal verbs?

Some people believe that phrasal verbs can't be treated in the same way as other items of vocabulary. It is all well and good teaching phrasal verbs in context and including them as part of the vocabulary of any lesson they appear in, but we must not ignore the problems (or perceived problems) that students have with them.

Raising awareness is important, but it is not the only thing we can do in order to help students understand the meaning of phrasal verbs. We can also help students by looking at phrasal verbs as metaphors. It is the particles in particular in phrasal verbs which often have a metaphorical meaning. For example, up has a metaphorical meaning to do with increasing something in size, amount, strength, etc. So when someone picks up a few words of a language, they are increasing the size of their vocabulary. Up can also be used metaphorically to imply revealing knowledge or information that was hidden. Here there is the idea that the information was hidden below the visible surface and that it is brought to the surface so that it can be seen. For example, phrasal verbs such as look up, bring up and dig up all imply revealing something that was hidden.

By looking at phrasal verbs as metaphors, we can help our students unravel the meanings of many of the idiomatic ones. Using a combination of decoding from the context and also from what is known about the metaphorical meanings of the particles, students can become better at learning the hundreds of seemingly similar phrasal verbs that are made up of combinations of some of the most common verbs and particles.

Are phrasal verbs always informal?

The simple answer is, no. It is a misconception that phrasal verbs are mostly used in speech and that they are informal. One of the major problems for students is learning when, where and how to use phrasal verbs. Students whose mother tongue contains similar constructions to phrasal verbs (e.g. German and Dutch) often overuse phrasal verbs. Even when phrasal verbs have a one-word equivalent, it is not uncommon for the phrasal verb to be used even in fairly formal writing.  For example, in an instruction manual you might well find a sentence such as: To put the item together, follow the instructions on page 2 of the manual,  rather than: To assemble the item, follow the instructions...  Meanwhile, other students whose first languages don’t have similar constructions will tend to avoid using phrasal verbs where they would be natural and appropriate.  

On the other hand, you are unlikely to find the following sentence in a letter of complaint: I would appreciate it if you could chew over all the facts and get back to me by the end of the week. Here both chew over and get back aren’t really appropriate and a sentence such as I would appreciate it if you could consider all the facts and respond to me by the end of the week would be better. Learning when phrasal verbs are appropriate is part and parcel of learning about each phrasal verb, and is no different from learning any other vocabulary item – context and appropriateness are part of knowing a word.

What about the grammar of phrasal verbs?

Phrasal verbs can be transitive, intransitive and sometimes both. When the phrasal verb is intransitive, it’s straightforward as there is no object so the two parts stay together, i.e. As we got older, we grew apart.

When we come to transitive phrasal verbs, the situation is far more complex. Sometimes the object can come between the verb and particle, or after the article, i.e. You should take your jacket off or You should take off your jacket. At other times the object has to come between the verb and particle, i.e. Can you tell the twins apart? And sometimes the object must come after the particle, i.e. Oh no! He’s forgotten his keys. Can you run after him and give them to him?

Working out whether a phrasal verb is transitive or intransitive can be quite difficult and there are no hard-and-fast rules. One way of finding out is by reading as much as possible and trying to notice things; it’s also good to use a dictionary. For example, although three-part phrasal verbs such as come up with, get on with and look up to are transitive and aren’t split (so the object comes after the second particle), there are a small number of three-part phrasal verbs that take two objects – the first comes after the verb and the other after the second particle, i.e. I’ve decided to take you up on that invitation.

Some practical ideas

Picture prompts

Drawing simple pictures to illustrate the meaning of phrasal verbs is one way of helping students. The pictures act as a clue and the visual stimulus helps students remember the meaning. Your pictures don’t need to be professional, as long as they show the meaning of the phrasal verb.

Replacing single words with phrasal verbs

Write a short text and elicit from your students all the single words that can be replaced with phrasal verbs. Underline them. Ask your students to replace each one with a phrasal verb that has the same meaning; (you could provide your students with a list of the missing phrasal verbs). For example:

Earlier today police ended their search for two young boys missing since Sunday. They are now trying to find a young woman seen in the area. A police spokesperson said that they would investigate all the leads that they had and that they hadn’t abandoned hope of finding the boys alive.

Phrasal verbs: ended = call(ed) off, abandoned = give(n) up, investigate = look into and find= track down

Thinking of metaphors

Choose a number of phrasal verbs that are idiomatic and explore the meaning of the particles to help explain the overall meaning. For example:

Up – often has the meaning of ‘to complete something’.

What do these phrasal verbs mean?

1. So, to sum up what I’ve been saying …
2. I told you to eat it all up before you can leave the table.
3. Try not to burn up all your energy. You don’t want to be too tired tomorrow.

Recording phrasal verbs

Help your students find an appropriate way to record phrasal verbs. Sometimes it’s nice to use a spidergram as it allows you to add more phrasal verbs with similar meanings, or more meanings for each particular phrasal verb.