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
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. Continue reading…

idiom: to throw (someone) for a loop

The idiom to throw someone/something for a loop means to cause great surprise, confusion, or astonishment. The related idiom to knock someone/something for a loop has the same meaning.

The main idea is that things are going well, circumstances are good, and suddenly something unexpected happens that causes trouble, confusion, surprise, or amazement.

Take the quiz below to check your understanding, or read on for more details!

Example sentences using to throw someone for a loop.

1. Just when you think you have life figured out, something will come along and throw you for a loop. (surprise you with some challenge or difficulty)

2. Here is one last grammar point that throws learners for a loop. (causes learners to be confused)

3. The Brexit vote result threw Wall Street and the global markets for a loop. (caused confusion and/or surprise)

4 Polar bears are getting thrown for a loop as the polar ice disappears due to global warming. (the lack of habitat is causing confusion and trouble for the bears)

As the examples above illustrate, to throw someone/something for a loop is also used in passive constructions with the verbs to get and to be

to get thrown for a loop
to be thrown for a loop

Let’s look at the polar bear and Brexit examples using these passive constructions:

1. Polar bears are getting thrown for a loop by climate change.

2. Polar bears are being thrown for a loop by climate change.

idiom throw for a loop

The disappearing polar ice caps are throwing polar bears for a loop.

1. Wall Street and the global markets got thrown for a loop by the Brexit vote.

2. Wall Street and the global markets were thrown for a loop by the Brexit vote.

Subject verb agreement is important in these constructions. Remember that it is the first verb (the finite verb) that needs to be changed to match the agree with the subject. Try the quiz below to practice using to throw/knock someone for a loop!

Can you use the idiom to throw someone/something for a loop correctly? Take the quiz and find out!

Idiom Quiz: To throw someone/something for a loop


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