Learning and using phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs (two-part verbs such as “go up” or “go on”) are typical in spoken English and informal writing.

You’ll hear them in conversations, or on radio and television, and see them in emails, tabloid newspapers and some magazines.

Very often in English, there’s a more formal equivalent to a phrasal verb, such as a “latinate” type verb. For example, instead of “go up”, you can say “increase”; and instead of “go on”, you can say “continue”. But if you use a more formal word, you can sound “too” formal for the situation! In fact, because phrasal verbs are so common in spoken English, using them will make you sound more natural when you speak English.

But phrasal verbs are not easy to learn and use, for these reasons.

1. The number of phrasal verbs

The Longman Phrasal Verbs Dictionary contains 5000! While you don’t need to know each one of these, the fact is that we use a lot in everyday speech. This means that you should try to learn and use at least some!

2. You don’t always hear the whole verb

In conversation, native speakers tend to stress “information words”, such as nouns, verbs and adjectives. We tend not to stress grammatical words like pronouns or prepositions. When a verb is made up of a verb and preposition or particle, this means the second part is often hard to hear. In these examples, the words in bold are the stressed words.

“She’s bringing up those children on her own.”
“I’ll put you through now.”

3. The meaning isn’t always logical or obvious

You “turn on” or “turn off” a light, but while you “put on” clothes, you “take them off”. You can’t often work out the meaning of a phrasal verb from the verb or particle / preposition part.

4. One phrasal verb can have more than one meaning

make up = invent
make up = restore friendship after an argument
make up (noun) = cosmetics

take in = understand
take in = deceive
take in = accept lodgers into your house

take off = get undressed
take off = succeed
take off = when a plane leaves the runway

5. The grammar changes depending on the type of phrasal verb

This is particularly the case for word order. For example, you can say “give it up” but not “give up it”; “look after them” and not “look them after”.

This is because “give up” is an example of a phrasal verb which can be separated. In “give up”, give is the verb, while up is a particle.

You can say “give up chocolate” or “give chocolate up”.

But if you use a definite pronoun (it) as the object, the definite pronoun goes before the particle.

He gave up chocolate.
He gave it up. (NOT “he gave up it”.)

“Look after” is an example of a phrasal verb that cannot be separated. With “look after”, look is the verb, while after is a preposition. With these types of phrasal verbs, the preposition introduces an object. You don’t just “look after”, you “look after someone” or “look after something”. (i.e. “He looks after the children every day.”)

When you use a definite pronoun (i.e. them) as the object, it goes after the preposition.
“He looks after the children.”
“He looks after them.”

Other phrasal verbs don’t have objects at all.

For example, “go on” (“Please go on!”) or “come back” (“He came back late.”)

Ways to help you understand and use phrasal verbs

1. Sometimes the particle can help you understand the meaning
For example, “back” gives you the idea of something returning.

“Go back” = “return to where you came from”
“Come back” = return home
“take back” = withdraw a comment

“Up”, for example, gives you the idea of upward movement.
In “lift me up” you can imagine a child asking her parents to hold her up so she can see something.
In “go up”, you can imagine a price increasing.

Understanding the particle doesn’t always mean you understand the whole phrasal verb. For example, “Take up” can mean “start doing” (as in “take up a hobby”) and “make up” can mean “become friends again after an argument”.

2. Use the context to help you understand
You can sometimes understand the phrasal verb from the words and phrases around it.

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

3. Learn phrasal verbs along with the more formal equivalents

If you find learning lists difficult, try to learn phrasal verbs in themes – such as to talk about work, health, holidays, etc.

4. While you’re still learning how to use a particular phrasal verb, you can avoid mistakes by not separating them and not using a definite pronoun.

“I’ll look into the matter immediately.”
“I’d like to take up your offer.”
“He’s giving up smoking for a month.”