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 Spoken.io
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.
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.
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.”
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.