10 things you should know about Phrasal Verbs

Whoever and wherever I teach, most students tell me they find phrasal verbs really difficult. As a teacher I found them a nightmare to teach until I asked a group of high-level learners to do some research about phrasal verbs for homework. The next day, we had a great discussion about them and we produced a class poster entitled:

10 things you should know about Phrasal Verbs

Here is the list of what they found. My comments are below:

1. Phrasal verbs are used much more between native speakers than between non-native speakers.

When I speak to my friends from my home town, I use dozens of phrasal verbs. However, I wouldn’t use so many with a native speaker with a different variety of English, such as an American, and wouldn’t use the same ones – many of the phrasal verbs I use with close friends are used colloquially as items of slang.When I speak to expert native speakers of English, I limit my use of phrasal verbs and tend to use regular verbs instead.

Many students learn English because they want to use it as a Lingua Franca or an international language. Phrasal verbs are not so important in conversations between non-native speakers and this has important implications for learning and teaching English.

2. Phrasal verbs are used much more in informal spoken than in formal written communication.

Many students need to learn how to write formal English, for example, if they are working in academia. Do they need to spend so much time studying phrasal verbs if they are going to be writing scientific papers or legal contracts? If they need to use English to express themselves orally, especially with native speakers, they will need to focus on using and understanding phrasal verbs but this may not be a legitimate need for all learners.

3. Phrasal verbs can make communication quicker, easier and more relaxed.

Many of my students ask me why native speakers of English use so many phrasal verbs when we can often express our ideas using regular verbs. I think we use phrasal verbs because they make our conversation more natural and fluid. Look at these two sentences.

She learned some Italian by practising it rather than being taught it during her holiday in Rome.

She picked up some Italian during her holiday in Rome.

The second sentence with the phrasal verb is far more concise. It’s true that we can often express our ideas using regular verbs but phrasal verbs help us communicate more efficiently. They save us time and effort.

4. Common phrasal verbs often use common verbs.

I remember when a Japanese student realised that most common phrasal verbs are formed using common verbs and common particles. High-frequency verbs such as pick, give, make, take, put, come etc. are the basis for most common phrasal verbs. Students don’t have to recall unusual verbs and then use them to form phrasal verbs.

5. Most phrasal verbs have a twin: a regular verb which has a similar meaning.

If I pick somebody up from the airport, I could express this action using the regular verb ‘collect’. I don’t need to use the phrasal verb to communicate. As teachers, we often expect our learners to be able to understand and produce phrasal verbs immediately. Phrasal verbs are difficult because our learners often have to a) translate the meaning from their first language b) translate the meaning into standard formal English and c) decide on the correct word order of the phrasal verb. Encourage learners to recognise the meaning of phrasal verbs in specific contexts before they start using them. Understanding them is more important than producing them.

6. Many phrasal verbs have a literal and idiomatic meaning.

Perhaps the most difficult thing about phrasal verbs is that a single phrasal verb can have different meanings depending on context.

What does the phrasal verb pick up mean in these sentences?

  1. She picked up the pen from the floor.
  2. He picked her up from the airport.
  3. She picked up a little Italian during her holiday in Rome.

Sentence 1 is quite easy to understand. She takes the pen from a down position to an up position.

Sentence 2 is more difficult but many students would have a good chance of understanding that he takes her from the airport to another place.

Sentence 3 is almost impossible to guess. The meaning of pick in this sentence is not clear. Up is not used in a physical sense here. Students have a limited amount of mental or cognitive energy and should consider the best ways to use it. In other words, they will have to spend time and effort learning the third meaning of pick up and may be able to pick up / acquire naturally the other two meanings.

7. Learning lists of phrasal verbs is not effective for many learners.

Many course books list phrasal verbs according to the main verb. I’m not sure that students benefit from learning 20 phrasal verbs with ‘come’. There are too many and they are too similar – students just get confused and worry about using the wrong particle. Other course books categorise phrasal verbs according to topic or function. This seems to work better but learning 20 phrasal verbs used in cooking can be artificial. When I talk about food, I am likely to use a variety of phrasal verbs and not all of them have a direct relationship with food.

8. Knowing which type of phrasal verb can be effective.

Many expert non-native speakers are able to understand a wide range of phrasal verbs but choose to respond using regular verbs. This is perfectly understandable because phrasal verbs are syntactically complex. Are they transitive? Intransitive? Where does the pronoun go? Is it possible to separate the verb and the particle?

Knowing the form of each phrasal verb definitely helps students produce them accurately. As well as providing a clear and memorable example of the phrasal verb in a sentence, I think it is worth spending time explicitly teaching the different types so learners can learn how to use phrasal verbs when they are studying in their own time.

9. Learning them little and often verb according to context is effective.

My experience tells me that the best way to learn phrasal verbs is to take a ‘little but often’ approach. Teach them when they come up and review them regularly. Phrasal verbs should be dealt with in context. Trying to learn them without a clear context does not seem to be an effective way of acquiring them.

You may have noticed that there are only 9 things listed. The final one is the most important of all:

10. Cheer up! Phrasal verbs are not that difficult to learn.

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