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.
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 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.
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 happenedSIMPLE PAST (1) to me when I was shoppingPAST 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.
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 givenPAST 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.
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?
If you have ever taken an English course, you probably learned the phrase “One moment, please” or “just a moment” for politely asking someone to wait for a very short period of time.
Phrases using moment are useful for formal situations. But in everyday conversational English they can sound stiff and unnatural.
Here are three informal ways to ask people to wait for a very short time. Informal expressions like these make your English sound more relaxed and conversational.
(just) a minute
(just) a second
(just) a sec* / one sec
* sec is short for second
Context: Imagine you are at work, sitting at your desk writing an email. You need a very short time – somewhere between 10 seconds and one minute – to finish it. Your colleague approaches and asks you a question. You want to tell him that you can help as soon as you’re finished.
Colleague: Hey, can you help me with the copy machine? The paper’s jammed again.
You: Just a sec, I just need to finish this email.
Colleague: Hey, we’re about to order lunch from the deli. Do you want anything?
You: Just a second, I’m almost done here.
Colleague: Hey, have you got a minute to go over the Henderson Report?
You: Sure, just a minute. I just need to backup this file in case my computer crashes again.
Adding a reason for the inconvenience
Notice that in each example, you give your colleague a reason for the delay (I’m almost done here, etc.). Needing to wait can feel inconvenient for the person who wants your attention. Giving someone a reason for inconveniencing them is a way to “soften the blow” in polite English.
Of course, in face-to-face situations the other person will often be able to see why you need a little bit of time, so you don’t have to give the reason. Your friendly tone of voice and body language will be polite enough.
However, if you are using these phrases on the phone, where the other person can’t see what you’re doing, it’s more important to give a reason for the inconvenience. For example:
Colleague on phone: Hey, could we meet up this week to go over the Henderson report?
You: Sure! Just a sec, let me pull up my calendar.
To pull (sth) up (phrasal verb): In the context of computer programs and digital files, like the calendar in the example above, to pull something up means to make something visible on your computer screen so you can use it.
Here are a couple more examples of to pull something up:
1. We just need a minute to pull up the Henderson report.
2. Could you pull up my account details?
English learning tip
You may have noticed that many of the expressions above include the word just. Just is extremely frequent in English (no. 66 according to corpus data). Just has an intimidating number of meanings and uses.
Trying to memorize and apply every rule about how to use a word like just can drive you crazy. For most English learners it’s more useful to focus on one specific use, and then learn a couple of useful phrases that you can use right away in your spoken English practice. Trying to remember and use newly learned language frequently is the fastest way to make it a natural part of your active vocabulary. When one use is familiar, you can choose another one.
I hope you have enjoyed learning these informal ways to say “One moment, please.” Have fun using them!
If you’re trying to learn English on your own but are feeling overwhelmed by all the options, here are 3 of the best sites for finding free English courses online.
Alison has a huge variety of (ad-supported) free online English courses for learners of all levels. The courses are self-paced, so you can study as quickly or slowly as you like. When you have successfully completed a course, you have the option to pay a fee for a diploma certificate. If you don’t like seeing the ads, you can pay a small fee for ad-free access to all course materials for a full year.
MOOEC has nothing to do with cows or the moo sound they make! It stands for Massive Open Online English Course. Whether you are a beginner or advanced learner of English, MOOEC has a course for you. Teachers from universities and colleges create many of the courses, so they tend to be of high quality. There are some short courses, which is great if you tend to get bored or distracted easily. Completing a short course or lesson can give you a great sense of achievement that will motivate you to keep going for the long haul. There are also longer courses that cover various aspects of English more in depth. Here are a few to get you started:
Common Mistakes in English is aimed at intermediate learners and above. You’ll learn how to avoid some very common mistakes in English. It focuses on the kind of mistakes that particularly annoy careful users of English, such as the difference between it’s and its, the correct use of subject and object pronouns like me and I, etc.
This Elementary English Course is aimed at beginner to elementary learners. It is quite comprehensive, with more than 90 lessons and 18 hours of content.
One disadvantage of online self-paced courses is that you generally don’t get any interaction with a teacher or other learners. Of course, if you complement your online studies with speaking practice with a teacher or tutor on italki, then you get the best of both worlds! But if that isn’t possible for you, FutureLearn provides opportunities for teachers and learners to interact. Many of the courses have specific start dates, so you will be learning together with with a group of other learners. It looks like a great way to connect with other learners to practice your English.
If you would rather study on your own and at your own pace, there are some self-paced, self-guided courses on FutureLearn as well. Most of the courses are provided by colleges and universities, and it is possible to purchase a certificate of completion once you have completed a course (even if the course itself is free).
It’s of course possible to study and learn English on your own, without a course or a teacher. If that’s what you’re doing and it’s working for you, then keep on truckin! But some learners need the structure and security of a course to keep them on track (which is totally OK, by the way). If you are feeling overwhelmed by options and having trouble structuring your English learning, the links above are a great starting point. Have fun and good luck!
Learning to speak English fluently is faster and easier if you can get a lot of feedback, wouldn’t you agree? But getting quality feedback on your spoken English can be tough, especially if you live somewhere with little or no access to native speakers of English. In another article I explain how to find native speakers for speaking practice online. That article focuses on free resources. But having had experience with both free and paid conversation practice for my own language learning, I’ve realized that “free” often comes at a price. Yes, it’s good to take advantage of free resources for English learning. But if you are serious about improving your English fluency as efficiently as possible, here are some reasons that paying for an English teacher online can be better than relying on free resources.
Time and Energy
There is a reason we have sayings like “you get what you pay for” and “nothing is really free.” Free has a hefty price tag: the cost of your time and energy. The older I get the more I realize that my time and energy are my two most precious resources. Wasting them hurts. In my experience, relying on free conversation partners and language exchanges ends up costing a lot more time and energy than the dollar equivalent of what I would pay for a teacher or tutor. Here’s why:
Active speaking time
Most language exchanges involve splitting your time 50/50 with your partner. Normally you only get to spend half the time being the learner. You also have to spend half the time as the teacher. You do get some English practice, but you also have to help your partner learn your own language. That means that for half the time you probably won’t even be speaking English!
Compare that to a lesson with a professional teacher or tutor where you get to speak English the whole time. The focus is 100 percent on you and your learning. A good teacher will be aiming to give YOU the lesson YOU need. They don’t do this only from the goodness of their hearts. Most sites that connect English teachers and learners encourage the learners to write public reviews about their teacher. No teacher wants a bad review, believe me. Free exchanges can be fun, useful, and rewarding, but they come at the cost of 50 percent of your active speaking practice time.
Another potential problem with free language exchanges is a lack of structure. If you don’t need any structure and just want to practice your spoken English kind of randomly, then it doesn’t matter. But if you learn better with a structured approach and a logical progression to your lessons, then a good teacher will be able to help you get organized with your English learning.
Correction and feedback
When you’re trying to improve your English conversation, getting feedback on your performance and progress is crucial. A qualified, professional teacher will be able to identify important problems with your English and help you overcome them. They will be able to explain things that you don’t understand in a way that makes sense. They will be able to give you exercises and tasks that help you improve in specific areas.
Professional teachers spend years learning how to help people learn English efficiently. With native speakers who aren’t teachers, it’s really hit or miss when it comes to feedback. Of course, if you are at a lower level where any practice is good practice, then a free language exchange can still be fantastic. But once you’re at the dreaded “intermediate plateau,” you know, where you are speaking fairly fluently but still making lots of mistakes, you will really benefit from targeted feedback.
It can be extremely time-consuming to search for and connect with free language exchange partners. Sometimes you get lucky and find one right away. But most of the time you’ll need to send messages to many potential partners before you can get to the “let’s meet on Zoom” scheduling stage. And then there’s the risk that they won’t even show up.
You never know how motivated other learners are, or how serious they are about following through with their commitment to you. But professional teachers make their living from connecting with students for lessons. If they don’t teach, they don’t pay their bills.
Sites like italki save you a lot of time by making it easy to search for, find and schedule lessons with paid teachers and tutors. You can even get “on demand” or “instant” tutoring. That means you can search for a teacher and be having your first lesson in a matter of MINUTES.
Would you rather spend days trying to schedule a session with a free conversation partner? Or would you rather be up and running quickly with a qualified teacher or tutor?
When you are an independent learner, it can be hard to stick to a regular schedule and consistently show up and do the work. Maybe you find yourself constantly putting off doing the things you need to do to improve your English fluency. Maybe despite your best intentions, you just can’t seem to get started. I am constantly fighting my own battles with procrastination, so I totally know how you feel.
If you have trouble getting motivated to speak or study English, then being accountable to another person is a fantastic motivator. This is one of the biggest advantages of working with a paid English teacher. Having some skin in the game in the form of your hard earned cash is highly motivating. You don’t want to waste your money by not showing up for a scheduled lesson, or by phoning it in if you do show up, and not doing your best.
Another great motivator is the feeling of not wanting to disappoint your teacher. Personally, knowing that my italki tutor is expecting things of me and holding me accountable is a huge motivator. I don’t want him to feel like I’m wasting his time. This helps me stay on track with my language practice even on days when I really don’t feel like it.
How much speaking practice have you done this week?
If speaking fluent English is your goal, you should be getting at least a half hour of speaking practice two or three times per week. That’s a bare minimum. How is that going for you?
If you’ve been spending your time and energy on chasing after free English learning options, then I suggest you try this experiment:
Sign up for italki or any language learning site of your choice.
Fill out your profile with a short description of yourself and your English learning goals. Here is my own italki profile as an example.
Browse the paid teachers and tutors until you find a few that look like a good fit for you.
Book lessons with the two or three that look like the best fit for you.
Spend some time preparing for your lessons, at least writing down a list of things you want to talk about
Show up for your lessons and do your best to get as much out of them as possible.
You’ll be amazed at how fast your speaking will progress after just a few lessons.
Free or paid isn’t really the point. Just do SOMETHING.
If you simply can’t afford to invest any money in your English learning, that’s OK. I totally understand that it’s not possible for everyone, especially with the current state of the world due to the coronavirus. But you can still try the experiment above with free English conversation partners. You will probably have to reach out to at least 15-20 people before you hit pay dirt. But you will still be getting to practice your spoken English, which is crucial for learning to speak English fluently. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is.
There’s never a perfect time to start
Maybe you’ve thought about paying for some lessons with an online English teacher or tutor for a long time, but keep putting it off. Are you waiting for the perfect time to start? Honestly, truly, there is no “perfect time.”
Don’t wait until you feel confident about your spoken English. Don’t wait until you feel super motivated. Motivation and confidence are fickle. You can’t depend on them to push you to improve. Successful language learners don’t wait until they feel like it before they practice or study. They don’t wait until they feel confident. They know that feeling a little anxiety means that they’re pushing themselves out of their comfort zone, which is where real learning happens. They fit English into their daily routines and find ways to get their English learning in, even if it’s only a few minutes a day.
If you’ve been wasting your precious time wondering where, when, or how you are going to get to start speaking English, it’s time to stop. Stop waiting until you feel confident, motivated, and inspired. Commit to taking action TODAY. Whether you choose to go with free or paid English conversation practice, the most important thing is that you stop searching, questioning, wondering, and worrying — and start DOING.
So you’re keen to try an English speaking lesson with a teacher on italki or some other site that offers online English lessons. Great! But you’re finding that fear or anxiety is holding you back. I felt like that too, and I hope that by sharing my story it will encourage you to give online lessons a try. Getting up the courage to speak English IS hard for lots of folks. Maybe you recognize the feeling. You want to speak English fluently. You know that the fastest way to get fluent is to actually speak. But you’re so nervous and worried about things not going well that you never actually do it. Not to be boastful, but I am a world-class badass at anxiety-based procrastination.
You know me here in my role as a language teacher. But I’m also a language learner (of Dutch, at the moment).
With my teacher hat on I’d be the first to tell you that to get better at speaking you have to, well, speak! And to be honest, I’d be (secretly) rather annoyed if you didn’t take my advice and start speaking as soon as you possibly could.
But as a learner I would have a terrible time taking my own advice (even though I know it’s awesome). So I completely understand how you can desperately want to do something and still feel a crushing resistance to the idea of actually doing it.
Yes, fear is the reason I put off booking an italki lesson for an embarrassingly long time. I wanted to do it, needed to do it, intended to do it “someday.” But I was being held back by a whole army of irrational fears, mainly fears about looking and feeling stupid. Fears about having another person see how imperfect and unpolished I am. And to be absolutely frank, I didn’t want to put myself through the exhausting mental effort of actually having to SPEAK TO A REAL LIVE PERSON. It felt better to just keep on reading, listening, and practicing out loud to myself.
Listening and reading (which I do a lot of) are easy and comfortable compared to speaking, by several orders of magnitude. No wonder so many English learners have trouble practicing their spoken English. Even if they have access to native speakers, they need to be brave enough to actually do some speaking!
I finally found my courage on a day that I was feeling extra strong, motivated and energized. When your motivation is high, it’s best to do something hard that will set you up for future successes. I knew that getting my first lesson booked was the perfect “hard thing” for me to do that day. So I forced myself to go to italki, find a teacher, and book a lesson.
Once I’d confirmed the booking, I felt a huge sense of relief. Yes! I did it! (I think I actually did a little victory dance.)
That feeling of exhilaration lasted until a couple of hours before my lesson. It finally sunk in that I was really going to have to speak in Dutch for half an hour (or risk feeling like a failure). The anxiety and nerves came rushing back. But now that I had an appointment to keep. There was no way for me to chicken out and avoid the discomfort. To maximize my chances for success, I made sure to prepare for the lesson in advance.
Preparing for my first italki lesson
A couple of days before the actual lesson I chose a conversational situation to focus on. I did my best to imagine the kind of vocabulary and phrases I would need in this particular situation. Then I created a Google doc and wrote down all the vocabulary and phrases I could think of, and used the best grammar and vocabulary I could. I made notes of any areas where I was particularly uncertain, and wrote down some questions I wanted to ask my teacher. Finally I made sure to share the document with my teacher in advance so he would understand my goals, and so that we would both be able to type corrections, additions, and comments during the lesson.
What happened at the lesson
The day of the lesson came and I made sure to be ready on Skype a few minutes in advance. The ringtone sounded and there was no way back, so I took a deep breath and answered. I was super nervous (with sweaty palms and everything!) in the beginning, but was surprised to find that it didn’t last long at all. My teacher was super friendly, easy going, and had a great sense of humor. We spent the first few minutes just breaking the ice with basic “get to know you” conversation. Then we dove into the focus of the lesson.
After our few minutes of “ice breaking,” my teacher and I went through the document I had prepared in advance. He helped me with the tricky vocabulary and grammar that I had not been able to figure out myself. He listened to me practice my key phrases and gave me pronunciation tips for the spoken forms. He also answered the questions I had about usage, adding in extra bits that I hadn’t thought of myself. And we did all of this in Dutch! (Of course, I broke down and used bit of English when I just couldn’t find the word or when the grammar was 100% beyond my grasp, but he spoke Dutch the whole time.)
Our lesson was 30 minutes, and by the end I was exhausted from all the concentration and focus. But even so, the time just flew by. At my beginner stage I think an hour would have been too tiring for me. In fact, if I have one criticism of italki it would be that not many teachers offer 30-minute lessons. 60-minute lessons are great if you can concentrate for that long, but it would be nice to have the option of shorter lessons.
After the lesson
I found that I enjoyed the feeling of the lesson being not quite long enough. That left me with plenty of energy to jot down my post-lesson notes and set up my flash cards to practice the tricky vocabulary and key phrases we had covered. I made sure to book my second lesson right away, while I was feeling motivated and inspired, and to keep me accountable for doing my language practice.
It really helps to have someone holding you accountable when you have to do something difficult, scary, or plain old boring. As much as I love learning languages, actually sitting down to do flashcards, look up words and grammar that I need, etc., is something I still need a fair bit of motivation to do. I feel incredibly fortunate to live in an age where free or inexpensive online resources can help and support us learn just about anything we want to. I only wish I had booked my first lesson sooner. The fear that held me back was totally out of proportion to the actual situation (I hope I will remember this in the future.)
That sums up my first experience with a teacher on italki. There are free options for getting speaking practice as well, which can be a great start if you can’t afford to pay for a tutor or teacher. I’ve listed the best places I know for finding a speaking partner here.
Idioms, oh how I know you love idioms! Here are some of my favorite English idioms that use the word money or cash.
If you come across more idioms on the theme of money or cash, why not leave me a voicemail and tell me about it?
Give you a run for your money
(Right) on the money
Put your money where your mouth is
Money talks, bullshit walks
Cold, hard cash
Give you a run for your money
If someone gives you a run for your money, they compete with you and force you to work hard to beat them or stay ahead.
Microsoft has dominated the home computing market for a long time, but Apple is giving them a run for their money these days.
(Right) on the money
1. I had to guess most of the answers on the test, but most of them were right on the money!
2. Anyone who predicted the success of the iPhone was right on the money.
Put your money where your mouth is
This means that actions are more important than words to show that you believe in, are committed to, or support something.
He finally started volunteering at the local animal shelter instead of just complaining about animal cruelty on Facebook. You could say he put his money where his mouth is.
Money talks, bullshit walks
Like put your money where your mouth is, this means that actions are more important than words. But money talks, bullshit walks is especially useful when real money is involved: money has more power to influence people than words. For example, leaving a $1000 deposit on something you want to buy is more convincing than saying you will come back and buy it tomorrow.
Be careful! Money talks, bullshit walks is a very rude and aggressive way to express this. Only slightly less rude are show me the money and put up or shut up. The general sense of all of these expressions is “prove to me that you are serious, or don’t waste my time.”
[To a close friend] “This girl said she was keen to rent my apartment. But she wouldn’t give me a deposit, so I’m skeptical. Money talks, bullshit walks!”
A product or business that steadily produces a lot more profit than what it cost to start (and maintain) it. Think of buying a cow that produces milk for many years once it is grown. The total cost of buying the cow, feeding it, and caring for it is much less than the total profits from all those years of milk. (In theory, anyway!)
Microsoft’s biggest cash cow is their “Microsoft Office” program suite, but competition from the Google Docs could change that.
Cold, hard cash
Physical money (bills or coins), not checks or credit cards. Also buying something very expensive (like a house) with one payment instead of with many payments over time (a mortgage).
1. Drug dealers don’t don’t accept credit cards; you have to pay them in cold, hard cash.
2. Young tech millionaires don’t have time for mortgages: they pay for their flashy, ridiculously expensive Manhattan apartments with cold, hard, cash. (Example paraphrased from this article. It was too good to resist!)
Did you know that if someone doesn’t like you, the best way to change this is to get them to do you a favor. Crazy, right? This is known as the Benjamin Franklin effect, and the overview provided by David McRaney on his You are not so Smart podcast is fascinating, entertaining and full of examples of most excellent English. I promise you that this podcast is worth a listen if you are at all interested in psychology or social psychology. There is a transcript of this episode available (see below) so you can read along if you like.