Most of you probably find phrasal verbs one of the most frustrating things about the English language.
It’s so easy for native speakers. We use phrasal verbs without thinking. In fact, most native speakers – except for English teachers – don’t even know what they are! But we use them all the time, especially in spoken communication.
So, if you want to understand native speaker English, it’s a good idea to learn common phrasal verbs. You may not feel confident using them yourself but your listening comprehension will improve if you understand them when you hear them.
However, how important is it to learn hundreds of phrasal verbs if you use English to communicate with other non-native speakers of English?
I sometimes think teachers overstate the importance of phrasal verbs and this has the effect of putting you (our learners) under too much pressure. You think you need to learn what they mean and how to use them. And because there are so many, this feels like an impossible task!
But, I’m not sure all of you need to spend so much time studying them.
So, in this post, I’d like to present some of the key issues surrounding phrasal verbs and ask you some questions so you can decide if you need to devote so much effort towards learning how to use them.
Phrasal verbs are used much more between native speakers than between non-native speakers
If you listen to an informal conversation between native speakers, you’ll probably hear lots of phrasal verbs. However, even proficient non-native speakers don’t use them as much as you might think. Many of you are learning English because you want to use it as a Lingua Franca (a language used as a common language between speakers whose native or first languages are different). Phrasal verbs are not so important in conversations between non-native speakers so you may not need to spend so much time learning them.
- Do you need to communicate with native speakers of English?
- Do you want to live in an environment where native speaker English is used by your neighbours and colleagues
- Do you find native speakers use fewer phrasal verbs when they speak to non-native speakers?
Native speakers often avoid using phrasal verbs when communicating with non-native speakers
People generally modify their language based on who they are speaking to. When I speak to an older person, I won’t use the same vocabulary I use when I’m chatting with friends. This feature of spoken communication, known as accommodation theory, means we adapt our language to match the language used by the other person.
- Do your native speaker conversation partners use many phrasal verbs when they speak to you?
- Do they explain or use synonyms for any phrasal verbs you don’t understand?
Phrasal verbs are used much more in informal spoken than in formal written communication
Many proficient users of English rarely use phrasal verbs because they use formal English to communicate.
- Do you need to write formal English for work or study purposes?
- How often do you use informal spoken English?
Phrasal verbs can make communication quicker, easier and more relaxed
Many of my students ask me why native speakers of English use so many phrasal verbs when we can often express our ideas using regular verbs. Phrasal verbs because they make our conversation more natural and fluid. Look at these two sentences.
She learned some Italian by practising it rather than being taught it during her holiday in Rome.
She picked up some Italian during her holiday in Rome.
The second sentence with the phrasal verb is far more concise. It’s true that we can often express our ideas using regular verbs but phrasal verbs help us communicate more efficiently, saving us time and effort.
- Is it important for you to communicate in a concise and efficient way?
- Do you want to communicate in a relaxed way or do you prefer to use a more formal communicative style?
Common phrasal verbs often use common verbs
Most common phrasal verbs are formed using common verbs such as pick, give, make, take, put, come etc.
- Can you think of many phrasal verbs which contain unusual verbs?
- Do you think it is effective to learn phrasal verbs based around specific verbs?
Most phrasal verbs have a twin: a regular verb which has a similar meaning
If I pick somebody up from the airport, I could express this action using the regular verb ‘collect’. I don’t need to use the phrasal verb to communicate. Many phrasal verbs in English derive from Old English and the regular verb equivalent is often a more formal word based on a similar sounding word in Latin.
- Do you learn phrasal verbs by matching them with their regular verb equivalent?
- Do you need to use the phrasal verb if you can express your idea using a regular verb equivalent?
- Does you first language have Latin roots? If so, do you generally use formal verbs rather than phrasal verbs?
Phrasal verbs may have a literal and / or an idiomatic meaning
Perhaps the most difficult thing about phrasal verbs is that a single phrasal verb can have different meanings depending on context.
What does the phrasal verb ‘pick up’ mean in these sentences?
- She picked up the pen from the floor.
- He picked her up from the airport.
- She picked up a little Italian during her holiday in Rome.
Sentence 1 is quite easy to understand. She takes the pen from a down position to an up position. In other words, it refers to a vertical movement.
Sentence 2 is more difficult but many of you would have a good chance of understanding that he takes her from the airport to another place. Again, this use refers to a physical movement.
Sentence 3 is almost impossible to guess. The meaning of pick in this sentence is not clear. Up is not used in a physical sense here.
Some linguists say that a phrasal verb is always idiomatic and the meaning cannot be understood by knowing the meaning of the individual words. I think it’s more useful to say that some phrasal verbs are easy to guess from the context and others are much more difficult.
- How often do you guess the meaning of a phrasal verb from the context in which it is used?
- Do you often use the preposition to help you guess the meaning of a phrasal verb?
- Do you need to spend so much time learning the ‘literal’ phrasal verbs?
Learning lists of phrasal verbs may not be very effective
Many course books list phrasal verbs according to the main verb. I’m not sure that students benefit from learning 20 phrasal verbs with ‘come’. There are too many and they are too similar – students just get confused and worry about using the wrong particle.
Other course books categorise phrasal verbs according to topic or function. This seems to work better but learning 20 phrasal verbs used in cooking can be artificial. When I talk about food, I am likely to use a variety of phrasal verbs and not all of them have a direct relationship with food.
- Do you think learning lists of phrasal verbs is effective?
- How many phrasal verbs do you remember after studying them based around a key verb or a topic?
- Do you make mistakes about which preposition / particle to use?
Learning individual phrasal verbs might be the best way to learn them
Perhaps the most effective strategy to use when learning phrasal verbs is learn them one at a time. When you read or hear a phrasal verb, note it down and check its meaning in a good dictionary. Think of phrasal verbs as synonyms, another way of saying something. Then, create an example sentence that means something to you, based on your personal life or your interests. You can do this by adapting the definition in the dictionary.
- Do you keep a phrasal verb notebook?
- What’s the best way to record phrasal verbs so you can remember them?
- How often do you review the meaning of phrasal verbs you have learned?
- Do you create your own example sentences?
Categorising phrasal verbs according to their type may confuse you
Many teachers may ask you to put phrasal verbs into categories. Many course books or reference books refer to Type 1, 2, 3 and 4.
Are they transitive? Intransitive?
Where does the pronoun go?
Is it possible to separate the verb and the particle?
Knowing the form of each phrasal verb may help some of you produce them accurately. Click here for a short video I made showing the different types.
On the other hand, learning about the different types may actually confuse you. Remember that it’s more important to recognise their meaning when other people use them and don’t worry about producing them accurately. If you make a small mistake with the position of the pronoun or preposition, native speakers will usually understand you (and they might even correct you by repeating the correct form).
- Have you studied the 4 types of phrasal verbs?
- Do you remember which verbs are transitive and which are intransitive?
- Do you find it useful to categorise phrasal verbs according to their form?
To summarise, when you study phrasal verbs, you should think about these 3 questions:
Is it necessary for you to learn hundreds of phrasal verbs?
Do the strategies you use for learning and remembering phrasal verbs actually work for you?
What learning strategies might help you improve your ability to learn phrasal verbs?
So, what do you think?
Has this article convinced you to spend more or less time and effort learning phrasal verbs?
What have you found to be the most effective ways to learn phrasal verbs?