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 
  • Idiomatic phrasal verbs
  • Aspectual phrasal verbs 

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, if you’d like to put on your helmet. [S2A-054 #63] 

Now let’s consider another example:

  • They never send back all mail from these college places. [S1B-080 #97] 

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.

  • ‘Nobody tells me anything’, Amy said slowly as she sat down again. [W2F-005 #58] 

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.

  • I opened my briefcase and took out a notepad. [W2F-004 #133] 

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.

  • I should be grateful if Smith would carry out these investigations. [W1B-027 #90] 

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

  • I learned last season not to give up. [W2C-014 #23] 

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

  • The jury was told the event went off well. [W2C-011 #14] 

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.

  • Oxygen is used up by organisms faster than it can be replaced. [W2A-022 #46] 

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

  • The ideal place for a soap tray is under the shower so it doesn’t fill up with water. [S1B-071 #191] 

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

  • Referee waves play on. [S2A-001 #124] 

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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