Ideas for learning Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are extremely common in English. Indeed many Latin based verbs (search, investigate for example) while normal in many Romance Languages would be too formal in English to use in certain contexts.

\”I\’m searching for my pen.\” is way too dramatic sounding in English while \”I\’m looking for my pen.\” sounds more natural.

\”Please investigate prices of hotels for me.\” would again sound way too much whereas \”Please look into prices of hotels for me.\” is much more natural sounding.

Phrasal verbs are made up of verb + particle; that is look (verb) into (particle). There are numerous problems with phrasal verbs that make them challenging so how can we learn them effectively?

Context is everything

Every Wednesday, City Language School posts explainers on phrasal verbs to its Instagram and Facebook pages. We always give an example of how the phrasal verb is used and generally add a picture. This is to give the new phrasal verb context. Learning phrasal verbs in isolation or as lists is difficult because quite often phrasal verbs have more than one meaning. If we look at the image below (which can be fund on our Instagram Page) you can see that the phrasal verb is make up. On its own it can have several meanings but when put in context the meaning becomes clear and you can see that they are completely different. There are many, and I mean hundreds, of examples like this. So that\’s the first and probably the most important thing to remember about phrasal verbs – context is key.

It\’s probably better to learn by particle

People will argue over this but if you are going to go down the learn y list route it is probably better to group phrasal verbs by particle instead of by verb. This may not work every time and really, as we have said before, context is key but often (not always) there are consistencies around the meaning of particles, more so than the meanings of verbs. In the put examples below you can see that put has no relationship with the \’normal\’ meaning of the verb put.

put down – kill an animal humanely

put up with – tolerate

put on (a voice) – pretend

If we try the same thing with the particle on it often can mean that an action continues

He keeps on annoying me

Sorry to interrupt you. Carry on speaking.

He is still going on/banging on about the horrible dinner he had last night.

Again this might not always work but if you are going down the list route, it might be worth trying this.

Identify phrasal verbs and build around them

This goes back to our context is everything point above. When you are reading or watching a tv show try to pick out phrasal verbs and figure them out from the context before you go looking them up in a dictionary. It might seem obvious but remember that no native English speaker ever learns phrasal verbs – in fact if you were to stop one hundred Irish people outside our city centre campus and ask them what a phrasal verb was, most of them wouldn\’t have a clue but they use them every day. So you learn them by hearing them and seeing them and again using them in context. With that in mind you should aim to write short texts (perhaps with your teacher) with a view to using phrasal verbs. Perhaps you could think about writing a text and then revising it while replacing verbs with phrasal verbs.

For example:

John and Elisa met at a bar in Dublin. John spoke to her at the bar. Elisa discovered that he was from Italy and came to Dublin to establish a business in data analytics. They have been in a relationship for two years. Sometimes they argue over money but they usually forgive each other quickly.

It\’s a silly piece of text but let\’s try it again. This time with phrasal verbs instead of verbs.

John and Elisa bumped into each other at a bar in Dublin. John chatted her up at the bar. Elisa found out that he was from Italy and came to Dublin to set up a business in data analytics. They have been going out for two years. Sometimes they blow up at each other over money but they usually make up quickly.

Related phrasal verbs

Finally, you could also try matching phrasal verbs or grouping them by meaning or seeing which ones have common ideas.

He threw out/got rid of his old shoes

Or you could also group them by their opposite.

He turned on/turned off the radio.

Again, you can see that none of these are used in isolation so as we have mentioned before, but we will say it again, context is everything. Best of luck.

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