Phrasal verbs – essential things to know

Josh Evans of Spoken phrasal verb english lesson

Josh Evans, online English teacher from the Spoken Language Learning Platform

There is one topic that English learners seem to ask about more than any other: phrasal verbs. These strange little verbs are a real challenge for learners!

In this English lesson from Josh Evans, you will learn the main reasons that phrasal verbs are difficult for English learners, and how you can make learning them easier.

Josh has taught English in many different settings — all across China, at a university in the USA, and now teaches English online with the Spoken language learning platform.

Take it away, Josh!

All You Need to Know about Phrasal Verbs! (Plus a Bonus Exercise for FB Messenger!)

by Josh Evans, Head of Instruction at

Phrasal verbs get their name from the fact that, unlike other verbs, they consist of more than one word. Here are three examples:

1. “I’m afraid I must turn down your offer.” (turn down = reject)
2. “I’d like to think over the plan before making a decision.” (think over = consider)
3. “You can use the dictionary to look up unfamiliar words.” (look up = search for)

Why are phrasal verbs so difficult to learn?

There are four main reasons why English phrasal verbs are such a challenge for English learners.

1. Phrasal verbs are deceptively familiar

Phrasal verbs combine basic words that you probably already know into new verbs that have a completely different meaning.

For example, let’s look at the phrasal verb from sentence #1: turn down.

Both turn and down are basic words; you learn them as a beginner in English. But when you put them together as a phrasal verb, you get an entirely new, unrelated meaning: to reject.

This is frustrating because you can’t use your basic knowledge to figure out the meaning of a phrasal verb.

2. Phrasal verbs are not logical

Learners often want to know the logic or rule behind a phrasal verb. For example, why do we say turn down in English to mean reject? Why don’t we instead say turn off or turn away to mean reject?

Actually, there is no simple, satisfying answer to the “why” question. We might say turn down to mean reject in English, because the word down has a slightly negative meaning. Nobody likes being rejected, so in some way a “negative” word like down makes sense.

Even so, trying to learn phrasal verbs by looking for logic and rules is an exercise in frustration. This brings us to the third reason phrasal verbs are notoriously difficult for English learners.

3. Phrasal verbs have to be memorized

Since you can’t reliably figure out phrasal verbs using rules or logic, you need to learn them by memorization. And to make things even more confusing, the same phrasal verb can have several different meanings. That gives you a lot to memorize! For example, we can use to turn down in other contexts to mean to decrease. Argh!

“Please turn down the radio. It’s too loud!” (decrease the volume)

There are thousands of phrasal verbs in English, many of which are used very frequently in everyday speaking. Mastering phrasal verbs is an ongoing process that takes time and effort. You certainly can’t learn them all in one lesson!

However, there are some techniques that can make the learning process easier and more fun. At the bottom of this post, you will find a Facebook Messenger exercise where you can try out a free Spoken Sparks exercise for learning phrasal verbs.

But phrasal verbs aren’t just vocabulary for you to memorize! This brings us to the fourth main challenge of mastering phrasal verbs.

4. Knowing grammar makes it easier to learn phrasal verbs

Not many learners get excited about learning grammar. But knowing at least some grammar is very helpful for making sense of phrasal verbs.

For one thing, some phrasal verbs can be split into two parts with other words in between. Let’s take another look at sentences 1, 2, and 3 below:

1. “I’m afraid I must turn down your offer.”
2. “I’d like to think over the plan before making a decision.”
3. “You can use the dictionary to look up unfamiliar words.”

Sentence #1 above could also be

“I’m afraid I must turn your offer down.”

In this sentence, the direct object phrase your offer comes between the first and second parts of the phrasal verb.

Exercise #1
Try separating the verbs sentences 2 and 3 above. Write your new sentences in a comment at the end of the blog post. I’ll provide the answers in a couple of days!

But that’s not all! It gets even trickier, because there are some additional constraints on splitting up phrasal verbs. For one thing, it is best not to split the phrasal verb if the direct object phrase is very long. Compare sentences 4 and 5 below:

4. “I’m afraid I must turn down your very generous and appealing business offer” (GOOD!)
5. “I’m afraid I must turn your very generous and appealing business offer down” (NOT GOOD!)

Sentence 5 is not totally ungrammatical, but it is very unnatural. It would be difficult to say and even harder to understand! If the direct object phrase is longer than a couple of words, it is best to put it at the end of the sentence.

But wait, there’s more!
Here is one last grammar point that throws learners for a loop. Splitting a separable phrasal verb is usually optional. However, if the direct object phrase is a pronoun (him, her, them, it, etc.), then it must split the phrasal verb. Let’s have a look:

6. “I appreciate the offer, but I’m afraid I must turn it down.” (GOOD!)
7. “I appreciate the offer, but I’m afraid I must turn down it.” (INCORRECT!)

Sentence 7 is not just unnatural, it is completely ungrammatical in English.

Tricky, right? To apply some of what you have learned in this phrasal verb lesson, try the following exercise.

Exercise #2
Correct the following sentences. Include your answers in the comment with your answers for Exercise 1!

A. “I’d like to think over it before making a decision.”
B. “You can use the dictionary to look up them.”


Try the phrasal verb exercise on facebook messenger

Click the image and type “Go! ” in messenger to start the phrasal verb exercise.

Phrasal verbs are one of the biggest challenges for English learners at all levels. Phrasal verbs seem like they should be easy because they are usually composed of basic words. However, the meanings of phrasal verbs are different from the meanings of their parts. Sometimes these differences can be pretty subtle too!

At the end of the day, you will have to put in some hard work to memorize them, just like other vocabulary. Fortunately there are many good tools to help you out with this! Try out the Facebook Messenger Exercise below to practice a Spoken Sparks phrasal verbs session!
Go to the Facebook Messenger Phrasal Verb Exercise! Just message “Go!” in Messenger to begin.

Finite verb forms in English

Why should you care about finite verb forms?

Finite verb forms in English contain a lot of information. They mark number, person, tense, and mood, all of which contribute to meaning.

Finite verbs are also the the part of the verb phrase that has to agree with the subject (in person and number). In the example below, the subjects are green and the finite verbs are in bold.

If my neighbor’s stupid kids don’t turn down that awful music soon,   I   am going to lose my mind.

Subject-verb agreement is an important part of English grammar. When you make mistakes with subject-verb agreement, it makes it harder for people to understand what you mean. Unless the context is very clear, listeners don’t know if the mistake is in the verb form or in the subject. For example, where is the error in the sentence below?

The package you ordered have arrived. X

We don’t know for sure which is correct:
The package you ordered has arrived (one package).
The packages you ordered have arrived (more than one package).

Even if the meaning is clear from the context, subject-verb agreement errors tend to draw more than their fair share of attention, distracting and even annoying the listener. So it’s worth making the effort to get them right!

Finite verb forms

All English verbs have finite forms for present and past; for example, go vs.went, and stop vs. stopped. (NOTE: A few irregular verbs (put, set, cost, etc.) have present and past forms that are the same.)

All non-modal English verbs (except be) also change form for the third person singular in the present tense (he/she/it goes).

All of this might seem confusing, but the pattern is really pretty straightforward. Look at Table 1 below, and you’ll see it’s a lot simpler in table form.

  • I walk
  • you walk
  • he/she/it walks
  • I walked
  • you walked
  • he/she/it walked
  • we walk
  • you walk
  • they walk
  • we walked
  • you walked
  • they walked

Finite forms of be

The verb be is the naughty problem child of the finite verb family, because it doesn’t follow the regular pattern of most other verbs. (See Table 2 below.)

Table 2. BE
  • I am
  • you are
  • he/she/it is
  • I was
  • you were
  • he/she/it was
  • we are
  • you are
  • they are
  • we were
  • you were
  • they were

The two most frequent verbs in English – be and have

Be and have are extremely frequent in English — in fact, they are the two MOST FREQUENTLY OCCURRING verbs. It’s not just because being and having are generally common things to talk about. The finite forms of be and have used in many English tenses, for example: Continue reading…

Narrative tenses in conversational English – past, present, and future

Telling stories is a huge part of conversational English, so being comfortable with narrative tenses is important for English fluency.

Most English lessons about narrative tenses in English focus on the following 4 tenses:

Past simple
Past perfect
Past continuous
Past perfect continuous

But did you know that you can use present tenses in English conversations even when you are telling a story about the past? This is often overlooked in ESL / EFL lessons about narrative tenses.

English teachers often say that when you tell a story about something that happened in the past, you should only use past tenses. That is generally true for formal narratives, such as fiction writing or telling structured stories/anecdotes. In more “formal” stories speakers tend to stick to past tense verb forms.

But what about informal conversations? Do you have to stick to past tenses when you, for example, tell your friend about the terrible accident you narrowly avoided while driving home from work a couple of days ago?

In conversational stories, you don’t have to stick to past tenses. You can shift between past, present and even future verb forms. Native speakers do this all the time.

But that doesn’t mean that anything goes! You can’t merrily shift between past and present with no rhyme or reason. Native speakers don’t randomly choose verb tenses when they telling their stories. There are solid grammatical principles driving their choice of verb forms.

While writing the transcript for one of the Better at English podcast episodes, I noticed some great examples of past-present narrative shifts. So let’s look at a few!

Most of the conversation is me telling my friend about an exciting experience I’d had earlier that day while shopping for office supplies. (Yes, I get excited about office supplies!).

Conversation extract 1

Lori: Something kind of funny happened SIMPLE PAST (1) to me when I was shopping PAST CONTINUOUS (2) for office supplies today.

The excerpt above is a good example of using the past continuous (2) to give background context for the important events that make up the story. The important events (1) are given in the simple past. You can see this relationship in the timeline below.

narrative tenses simple past and past continuous

(1) Past simple and (2) past continuous / progressive

So far the conversation is within the realm of standard narrative tenses. But have a look at this next example:

Conversation extract 2

L: My boss had given PAST PERFECT (3) me a list of office supplies to buy on my way home from a teaching gig, because I drive SIMPLE PRESENT (4) right past the office supply shop.

The first verb (3) is in the past perfect. It makes sense because when we tell stories in English we use the past perfect as “the past in the past,” to talk about events that happened before the events that make up our real story. In story time, I received the list BEFORE I did the shopping. You can see the relationship between (1), (2), and (3) in the timeline below.

Narrative tenses

(1) Simple past, (2) Past continuous, (3) Past perfect

But the above example also includes a simple present verb (4): “because I drive right past the office supply shop.

What grammar rule is behind that sudden shift to the simple present?

The answer might not be immediately obvious.

“I drive right past” tells the listener that it’s something I do regularly. It’s a repeated action that extends beyond the past of the story time and into the “now” of the moment of speaking. This use of the simple present (4) can be represented Continue reading…