A Close Look at Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are infamous in the world of English language learning. The concept is relatively simple but their meanings often confuse English students and teachers alike. However they enrich the English language by giving it an endless palette of colour combinations, helping us express ourselves in ways that ordinary language can’t.

By the Cambridge definition, a phrasal verb is “a phrase that consists of a verb with a preposition or adverb or both, the meaning of which is different from its separate parts.”

This means that when combined, the phrase as a whole means something different than the words used in the phrase. Imagine you are making a pizza. By combining flour and water, you begin to make the dough. A phrasal verb is a lot like dough - not the same as flour, but you know it's made from it. This is why they can be tricky to learn - you usually can't understand the meaning of the phrase just by knowing what each word means. Understanding phrasal verbs takes practice and lots of exposure to them being used in context.

What does a phrasal verb look like?

A phrasal verb is formed by:  

A verb + a particle (adverb or preposition)

Find + out

I want to find out more about phrasal verbs.
Find out = to learn by study, observation or research.

Some phrasal verbs consist of a verb + two particles (an adverb and a preposition):

Run + out + of

We ran out of money yesterday morning.
Run out of = to finish something that you need more of.

What does a phrasal verb mean?

Phrasal verbs are like shapeshifters. Their meanings can change - and often depend on the context of the sentence.

Some phrasal verbs have literal meanings:

Look at:

The girl looked at the painting.
Walk across:

We walked across the bridge.

Some phrasal verbs have idiomatic meanings:

Come across (something):

I came across some old family photos while I was cleaning.
Come across = to find something by chance.
Blow over:

I decided to wait until the fight blew over before asking my brother for help.
Blow over = an argument which becomes gradually less important until it ends or is forgotten.

Some phrasal verbs have both literal and idiomatic meanings:

Take out:

I took the book out of my bag
Take out = remove.
Take out:

My dad took me out to lunch.
Take out = to invite someone to go somewhere in a social situation.

What different types of phrasal verbs are there?

Phrasal verbs can be transitive or intransitive. If it can take a direct object, it is transitive. Transitive phrasal verbs can be separable or inseparable.

If the phrasal verb is separable, the object can go after the phrase, or between the verb and the particle.

Take off:

She took off her jacket. (after the phrase)

She took her jacket off. (between the verb and particle)
Take off = remove.

If the phrasal verb is inseparable, the object must go after the phrasal verb.

Look after:

She looked after my dog.
look after = to care for or be in charge of.
Ran into:

I ran into my teacher at the supermarket.
Run into someone = to meet someone by chance.

If a verb is intransitive, it doesn’t have a direct object. Intransitive phrasal verbs are always inseparable.

Clear out:

I need to clear out my closet.
Clear out = to tidy a place by getting rid of what you don't want.
Drop out:

Sara dropped out of university.
Drop out = to stop doing something before you have finished.

Looking for tips on how to effectively teach phrasal verbs in your ESL lessons? Check out our post on teaching phrasal verbs.