All About Phrasal Verbs

All About Phrasal Verbs

Settle down, sit back and get ready to take in another blogpost brought to you from London School of Languages, and if you haven’t caught on by now, today is all about phrasal verbs. Now whether you are a seasoned teacher or just starting your journey, the broad scope of this post means that there is bound to be something new or useful to take away to help in your classes. In short, it will cover what phrasal verbs are, their history, the challenges they pose and of course, how to help with teaching them. Let’s crack on!

What are phrasal verbs?

As you may know, a verb refers to a word that describes an action, condition or experience, so by implication a phrasal verb implies a group of words that also describe an action, condition or experience, hence the term multi-word verb is also used to denote a phrasal verb. The group of words always consist of a main verb accompanied by either an adverb (The economy is looking up) or a preposition (Bob looked after the dog), usually referred to as particles, and in some cases the phrasal verb includes both (She looked up to her aunt). What makes things a little tricky is that the same word can function as an adverb and preposition, and sometimes verbs just happen to be followed by a preposition, but they are not classified as a phrasal verb. Other features worth mentioning are whether an object is required or not (prepositions – always, adverbs - it depends), if you can separate the particle from the verb or not (adverbs only) and that their meaning is often idiomatic, that is to say, it cannot necessarily be worked out from looking at the words alone. Who would have thought My alarm went off meant waking to an alarm beeping loudly?! For a more detailed analysis of the types of phrasal verbs please check out the recent webinar on our platform conveniently titled All About Phrasal Verbs, as well.

Have phrasal verbs always existed?

Not really, even though phrasal verbs now permeate all walks of the English language, this wasn’t always the case. Back when Old English was dominant, verbs usually had a prefix that did the job of the particle of today, for instance bærnan (to burn) could be changed to forbærnan (to burn up). Then in the 11th century, the Normans conquered England, and this had a profound effect on the English language. Not only were a lot of French words incorporated into English, descovrir eventually became discover for example, but the syntax also underwent a shift towards subject-object-verb word order, which likely encouraged the prefixes of Old English to switch sides. This influx of new Latinate words is believed to be the reason why many phrasal verbs often have a competing verb of Latin origin to express the same idea, such as make up being a synonym of fabricate. It also relegated the non-Latinate verbs to the ranks of informality since French was considered the language of status at the time, an attitude which even pervades to this very day.

As time marched on and helped by the new syntax order, Early Modern English saw a huge increase in the number and use of phrasal verbs. In fact, Shakespeare was a proliferate user of them in his plays, and their use across all sectors of society was growing. And it is this momentum which has carried through to the present-day, where new and unofficial phrasal verbs are appearing all the time, particularly in line with modern technology and current trends. Not long ago a magazine headline like “Nepo babies somehow always fail upwards” would have mystified its readers, while being asked to sign in on a website and knowing that it isn’t asking for your signature demonstrate the evolution of language. And managing to stay up to date is but one challenge to help our learners overcome, read on to find out more…

What difficulties do students have when learning phrasal verbs?

This part can be split into two camps: comprehension difficulties and production difficulties. The former refers to simply understanding the message. Phrasal verbs can cause major problems with comprehension because students are likely to know the individual words, yet when they are combined to form a phrasal verb an entirely new meaning comes into existence and one that must obviously be learnt as its own syntactic unit. On top of that, the meaning itself is often metaphorical or idiomatic which lessens the chances of being able to work it out from context. Another challenge with understanding is that the same phrasal verb can have an array of meanings, usually running the gamut from fairly literal to idiomatic. Take for instance he eventually came round, without any additional context we’re not sure whether he regained consciousness, was late in arriving, or has now changed opinion. Even more astounding, the Cambridge dictionary of phrasal verbs claims that pick up has 24 different meanings!

Lastly, when the particle is separated from the main verb by a long object complement, as in Can you please drop the extra boxes of white wine and glasses off?, students may miss the particle which completely alters the entire meaning of the sentence. Indeed, long object complements are often difficult for anyone to retain, there’s just too much information to store before having to then revise what was just heard or read. So as a rule of thumb, keep your object complements short or place them after the particle (as long as they’re not an object pronoun!).

The second issue relates to the productive skills of speaking and writing, that is, what can happen when our students try to actively use phrasal verbs? Seeing as phrasal verbs are made of multiple words, it’s not surprising that things can go awry. Typical errors include forgetting to use a particle, using the wrong one (there are so many combinations after all) and mixing up the word order, particularly when an object pronoun is in play. A slightly more abstract concern but definitely worth mentioning, is the issue of avoidance. Now, this is a valid coping strategy in the sense that a student may still get the meaning across, but what it might unintentionally result in is incorrect register by sounding too formal or making more mistakes as they attempt the roundabout way of explaining something. And of course, students are unlikely to ever improve if they never make any attempt to use phrasal verbs. The question remains then, how can we help our students with phrasal verbs?

Teaching tips for phrasal verbs

Below is a list of helpful tips to keep in mind when teaching phrasal verbs.

  • Exploit the texts you currently use for extra phrasal verbs to add to students’ vocabulary, audio transcripts are particularly useful. Be aware this may mean having to explicitly point them out, but better that than students overlooking them.
  • Ask clear CCQs (concept checking questions) to ensure meaning is understood, especially of the idiomatic phrasal verbs. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the words – remember it’s the meaning that is critical here.
  • Help students to conceptualise the particle. This means to understand exactly how and why the adverb or preposition alters the meaning of the verb – perhaps some are not as idiomatic as once thought!
  • Avoid teaching phrasal verbs according to the verb, the differences are so minor it is easy to get confused. Instead, an effective way is to teach them according to theme such as relationships, as this offers a greater scope for creative tasks like stories and putting them to use in a realistic context.
  • Ensure learners record new vocabulary properly. This can include register, collocations and an example, which is especially useful for phrasal verbs that are idiomatic as well as those with more than one meaning.
  • Phrasal verbs are made up of different parts so are tailormade for matching tasks like dominoes and Pelmanism. Options include matching the verb and its particle(s), its meaning, the Latin equivalent, its translation, and completing a sentence to name but a few.
  • Encourage exposure to English out of the classroom. Phrasal verbs are frequently used when speaking so any watching of TV series or listening to podcasts can provide valuable input opportunities and as a result, help students’ move the language into long-term memory.

And that wraps up today’s blog about phrasal verbs. Hopefully there was something useful which makes a positive difference when phrasal verbs next feature in your class. One final challenge – how many phrasal verbs can you spot in today’s post?!

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