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Important information about phrasal verbs


A phrasal verb is the combination of a standard verb such as make or put with one or two particles. In some cases the particle is an adverb such as away, together; in others it is a preposition such as through, in. Here are a few examples of the many hundreds of English phrasal verbs: pass away, pull together, fall through, make do with, put down to.

[ Return to the Phrasal Verbs index. ]

The difficulty of phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are one of the most difficult aspects for learners of the English language. There are three main reasons for this:

  1. In many cases the meaning of the phrasal verb cannot be deduced from its elements, i.e., it is being used idiomatically. For example: a learner who knows that to tick is to make a checkmark may have difficulty in understanding the sentence The teacher ticked off the student for being late, in which the phrasal verb to tick off means to reprimand or to express disapproval.
  2. Many phrasal verbs are polysemous; i.e., they have more than one meaning. The phrasal verb to put down has the literal meaning of putting something down on the table or floor. But it also has the idiomatic meanings:
    • to make someone feel small, to criticize and humiliate them
    • to kill as in the sentence I had to have my cat put down.
    • to stop, quash, put an end to as in the sentence The police put down the riots with unnecessary brutality.
  3. There are difficulties with the grammar of phrasal verbs, particularly with the position of the particles. Look at the following examples:
    She put down the baby. iconShe put the baby down. icon
    The teacher put the student down. iconThe teacher put down the student. icon
    The student put her bad grade down to tiredness. iconThe student put down her bad grade to tiredness. icon

The importance of phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are very important for learners because they are so prevalent in everyday spoken and informal written language. Not only do learners need to understand the more common phrasal verbs, but they will also need to use them themselves. If they don't, and use a more formal synonym, they run the risk of sounding pompous or ridiculous to native speakers. Imagine, for example, your friend telling you Oh, do desist from talking! instead of Oh, do shut up! or Oh, do belt up! or Oh, do pipe down!

Selection principles

The phrasal verbs listed on this website are those that, in the opinion of the webmaster, are among the most useful for English learners to learn first. Only idiomatic phrasal verbs that are likely to cause difficulties to language learners have been included. The definition listed for each phrasal verb is generally very short and should be regarded as the first step in the learning process. The example sentences are the second, more useful step in the process of understanding the verb and the contexts in which is is used. The third step is to look at the additional information that is listed for some verbs.

The Collins Cobuild Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs is recommended for learners who want to more examples of this difficult but important aspect of English grammar. There is a comprehensive list of phrasal verbs on the UsingEnglish website.

For teachers: There is an analysis of phrasal verbs in: Lui, Dilin. "The Most Frequently Used English Phrasal Verbs in American and British English: A Multicorpus Examination." TESOL Quarterly 45.4 (2011): 661-688.

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