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Phrasal Verbs

Among the first words encountered by non-native learners of English are one-syllable verbs like make, get, take, go, put and prepositions or adverbs such as in, on, up, down, for, out, over. These words are very easy to understand when used in isolation; sentences such as He made a cake or She climbed up the tree cause no difficulties at all. The great problem for the learner is when they occur in fixed combinations called phrasal verbs. The English language is full of such verbs and in many cases their meaning cannot be guessed from the component parts. A beginning learner of English hearing the sentence He took off his hat should have little difficulty understanding what it means; but she may have problems with the sentence The plane took off (The plane rose into the air) and she is unlikely to have any idea of the meaning of He took off his teacher (He imitated his teacher). Similarly, she will no doubt understand He put a picture up, but how can she begin to make sense of He put me up (He gave me a bed for the night)?

The fact that many phrasal verbs have more than one meaning, cf. take off in the previous paragraph, makes life more complicated for the learner of English. Consider as a further example the phrasal verb with the components put and down. Each of the following uses has a different sense:

Not only this, very many phrasal verbs have not just two but three components. Such verbs are often particularly difficult to understand because the learner hears a string of words, each of which she knows very well, but which in combination do not make any sense. Here are some common 3 part verbs with their meaning and an example:

It is not enough, however, to simply understand phrasal verbs. Because they are so common in every-day conversation, second language learners who wish to sound natural when speaking English need to know how to produce them correctly themselves. But using a phrasal verb correctly is not only a matter of knowing its meaning; the learner also has to learn its grammar. The particular meaning of the phrasal verb often determines the order of its component parts in a sentence. So, for example, you can say both Could you put up my parents .. and Could you put my parents up .. when the meaning of put up is give a bed for the night. But if the meaning is show or produce, there is only one possible order of words. It has to be for example He put up a good fight but was finally defeated; it is not possible to say He put a good fight up .. . Similarly you can say He put the light out or He put out the light meaning extinguish or turn off. But when put out has the sense of doing something inconvenient in order to help someone else, only one order of words is correct. It has to be Donít put yourself out; it is not possible to say Donít put out yourself.

Quiz

Each of the following sentences contains a commonly-used phrasal verb. Try to guess the meanings of the ones you donít already know before looking at the answers below:

1. Itís up to him. 2. Heís not up to it.
3. Heís in for it. 4. Heís got it in for me.
5. I donít get on with him. 6. I donít take to him.
7. He takes after his father. 8. He took me in with his story.
9. He took it out on me. 10. He took me up on my offer.
11. He is put out you didn't come. 12. He turned down my suggestion.
13. I think he's gone off me. 14. He turned up late again today.


Answers

  1. Itís up to him. - Itís his decision.
  2. Heís not up to it. - Heís not good enough or strong enough to do it.
  3. Heís in for it. - Heís in trouble for something heís done.
  4. Heís got it in for me. - He makes my life unpleasant. (Heís always getting at me.)
  5. I donít get on with him. - We donít have a friendly relationship.
  6. I donít take to him. - I donít like him
  7. He takes after his father. - He is similar to his father
  8. He took me in with his story. - He deceived me with his story.
  9. He took it out on me. - He was feeling angry about something and made me suffer as a result.
  10. He took me up on my offer. - He accepted my offer.
  11. He is put out you didn't come. - He's annoyed you didn't come.
  12. He turned down my suggestion. - He rejected my suggestion.
  13. I think he's gone off me. - I think he doesn't like me any more.
  14. He turned up late again today. - He arrived late again today.

If you didnít know what to make of these sentences (i.e. you didnít understand them), donít let it get you down (i.e. donít be despondent); you could just do with (i.e. you need) extra practice!


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