Phrasal verbs

What is a phrasal verb? Phrasal verbs consist of a combination of a verb and another word, which we’ll call a preposition. Some examples are come over, look (something) up. The first word in a verb-preposition combination can be just about any verb. The verbs that most commonly appear in such combinations are listed below:

The second words in such combinations are a bit trickier to label. Many textbooks call the second words ‘particles’. A few traditional books call them adverbs. Many contemporary linguists identify them as prepositions. We follow contemporary linguistic practice and call them prepositions. Regardless of what you call these words, the most common examples are listed below:

With the above 20 verbs and 8 prepositions, you can construct most of the English language’s common phrasal verbs. In addition to the above combinations, there are over 10,000 additional phrasal verbs in English. Studies show that the 100 most common phrasal verbs account for over half of phrasal verb usage in real life. That means that if you’re familiar with the 100 most common phrasal verbs, you’re more than halfway to the goal of understanding all of the cases of phrasal verbs that you encounter on any given day.

A phrasal verb may or may not be followed by a noun phrase.

In the first example above, the verb-preposition combination broke down isn't followed by a noun phrase. In the second example, the verb-preposition combination break down is followed by the noun phrase fresh organic matter.

Sometimes, the noun phrase that follows the phrasal verb can’t be moved.

According to the strictest definition, if the noun phrase cannot be moved, then the verb-preposition combination is not actually a phrasal verb at all. In that case, the verb-preposition combination is instead called a prepositional verb. (Note that if the verb-preposition is not followed by a noun phrase at all, then it is always a phrasal verb.) The distinction between moveable and immoveable noun phrases is therefore a crucial one, as it distinguishes phrasal verbs from prepositional verbs.

When a phrasal verb is followed by a pronoun, additional rules apply. Consider the following examples:

The second example here is ungrammatical. As you can see, a pronoun like it is not acceptable after the preposition in a phrasal verb, but a pronoun can be placed between the verb and preposition of a phrasal verb.

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Phrasal verbs: Three categories

Non-native speakers are often told that their only option is to memorise each phrasal verb individually. Is it really necessary to do all that work? No. Not only is it unnecessary, it’s inefficient. And it’s inefficient for three reasons:

  1. Memorising phrasal verbs is inefficient because there are over 10,000 phrasal verbs in the English language. Memorising each one independently would be unreasonably time-consuming. 
  2. It’s inefficient because memorising phrasal verbs isn’t nearly as productive as analysing meanings and using words in context.
  3. Memorisation isn’t efficient because a huge number of phrasal verbs can be understood from their component parts.

In order to understand phrasal verbs more clearly, we can divide them into three categories:

Transparent phrasal verbs can be fully decoded by recognizing the meanings of each word: the verb and the preposition. Generally speaking, a common sense of the verb is combined with a directional sense of the preposition. In the first example below, the meaning of put combines with the directional meaning of on to indicate that the helmet is placed over the head.

Now let’s consider another example:

In this example, the meaning of send combines with the meaning of back. Send expresses the concept that the mail can be delivered, and back indicates that it can be delivered in a reverse direction, or returned. In the next example, below, the meaning of sit combines with the directional meaning of down. The phrasal verb shows that Amy is lowering her body into a sitting position.

As you can see, the verb-preposition combination sat down is not followed by a noun phrase at all; it is therefore an intransitive phrasal verb. Finally, in the next example, the meaning of take combines with the meaning of outTake indicates that the speaker is transferring the notepad from one place to another, and out indicates the outward direction of that transfer.

The second category of phrasal verbs includes idiomatic phrasal verbs. These phrasal verbs cannot be understood from the individual meanings of the verb and preposition. These phrases are idioms, which means that their meanings are unpredictable, or opaque – they can’t be guessed. In a way, these phrases are similar to individual vocabulary words: the verb-preposition pair has a unique meaning, and we learn that unique meaning the way we learn individual vocabulary words. In the next example, carry out means ‘accomplish’, a meaning that has no clear connection to the words carry or out.

In the next example, give up means surrender, and doesn’t appear to connect to the meaning of give or up.

Finally, in the example below, went off means ‘transpired’, and again, it doesn’t relate to the meanings of went or off.

As you can see in the above examples, most idiomatic phrasal verbs have a synonym that is one word. This one-word synonym is usually more formal than the phrasal verb, and is therefore more useful when you’re speaking or writing in a formal context.

The third category of phrasal verbs contains aspectual phrasal verbs. Grammatically, we use the term aspect to refer to the nature of a verb as completed or ongoing. These phrasal verbs can, like the transparent category, be understood by examining each word. However, the particle in aspectual phrasal verbs has a different meaning to the one you may be used to. These particles indicate either that the verb action has been completed, or that it is ongoing. For this reason, we call these examples ‘aspectual’ phrasal verbs. Most commonly, a completed verb is indicated by the prepositions up, out, off, or down, and an ongoing verb is indicated by the particle on or away. In the example below, up relates to use by indicating that the oxygen is used in its entirety, i.e. that it has been used to the point of completion.

In the next example, up relates to fill by conveying that the dish is filled entirely, to the point of completion. 

In the final example below, on communicates that play should continue, that it is ongoing.

As you can see, many phrasal verbs can be understood by looking at their component parts. But in order to understand phrasal verbs based on their components, you must be sure that you understand the three categories that phrasal verbs can belong to.

So, for English learners, is it really necessary to memorize every phrasal verb? Not at all. Do you still have to memorize the meanings of idiomatic phrasal verbs? Unfortunately, yes. But that’s not so bad in the end, because most phrasal verbs aren’t idiomatic.

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Phrasal verbs: New phrasal verbs

There are many phrasal verbs that you won’t find in any dictionary. This is because we commonly create new phrasal verbs based on the meanings of existing phrasal verbs. Usually, new phrasal verbs are either transparent or aspectual – new idiomatic phrasal verbs would usually be too difficult for listeners to decode. Perhaps you’ve heard examples like the following:

Although both of the above phrasal verbs here are non-standard, new and rare, most native speakers can decode them without much effort. First, we ask if they are examples of transparent phrasal verbs. Can the verb study combine with the directional meaning of the preposition up? Probably not. Can it have an aspectual meaning? Yes. Study up means ‘study completely’, or ‘study thoroughly’. We can follow the same decoding procedure for lawyer up. First, is lawyer a verb? We can understand it to mean ‘get a lawyer’. Can up have a directional meaning? Probably not. Can up have an aspectual meaning? Yes. Lawyer up means something like ‘get a lawyer’ and work with him or her 100%, because you’re going to need it.

In this second example, weird can be understood as a verb meaning ‘become weird’. Can this combine with the directional meaning of out? Probably not. But it can combine with the aspectual meaning: ‘to become totally and completely weird’. 

Inventing new phrasal verbs is a bit like making a joke, or writing a poem. It requires creativity, and it’s a sort of game that you can play with the language – if you know the rules. Walking through the possible interpretations of these new phrasal verbs shows you just how our minds decode standard phrasal verbs as well.

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