How to learn English Phrasal Verbs

Discover the best way to learn English phrasal verbs. Today I will give an introduction to phrasal verbs and talk about the best way to learn phrasal verbs in English.

What is a phrasal verb in English?

A phrasal verb is a combination of a verb + preposition (sometimes: verb + adverb). The preposition or adverb modifies, or changes, the meaning of the verb, giving the phrasal verb a unique meaning.

There are thousands of phrasal verbs and almost every verb in English can be used in a phrasal verb.  So, it’s important to have a strategy for learning phrasal verbs.

An example of a common phrasal verb is get up, meaning get out of bed after sleeping. This is very easy to understand and is widely used. However, there are many phrasal verbs in English which can often be very difficult to learn. Sometimes phrasal verbs are “understandable” in the context of the sentence, but sometimes they have an abstract meaning.

Let’s look at the examples below of some phrasal verbs with the verb get:
*Note: Some of them make more sense,and they are what I call “understandable phrasal verbs.”

“UNDERSTANDABLE” PHRASAL VERBS

Get on the bus, train, plane, bike (to enter)
Get off the bus, train, plane, bike (to exit)
He went to the cleaner to get back his laundry. (to retrieve)

“ABSTRACT” PHRASAL VERBS

She gets along with everybody. (to be friendly with)
He gets off on seeing others suffer. (to find pleasure in)
I was so angry that I thought of ways to get back at her.  (to seek revenge)

SEPARABLE PHRASAL VERBS

Another phrasal verb with get is to get across. One meaning of get across is ‘to convey or signal a message’.

Get across is what we call a separable phrasal verb:
We can say: get + across + object
or
We can say: get + object + across

Phrasal Verb Examples

I finally got across the message that I didn’t want to be with her.
I finally got the message across that I didn’t want to be with her.

They are both correct. A native speaker would likely separate them in this case as a matter of style and fluency. Please note, not all phrasal verbs can be separated.  

When the direct object is a pronoun, it must be placed in the middle of a two-word phrasal verb.

Phrasal Verb Examples:

Wrong: I picked up him from the airport.
Correct: I picked him up from the airport.

Why you need to learn phrasal verbs

Students often ask me if learning phrasal verbs in English is really necessary. The long answer is yes. The short answer is, also, YES!  Read on to find out why learning English phrasal verbs is key to developing fluency, starting at the lower levels and all the way through advanced levels.

It’s important to learn real English, the English that is spoken and used by native speakers. Native speakers use phrasal verbs very frequently in speech and writing. One problem I have encountered is that many ESL books don’t do a very thorough job in teaching or addressing this important topic. Another problem that I have seen is books addressing phrasal verbs in a very rigid way and not stressing the importance of use and context.

Let me give you some examples of one phrasal verb with several different meanings:

  1. “I needed both hands to open the lock, so I put my phone down.” If you heard this sentence you may understand it correctly. Used in this context put down means to place on a surface.
  2. “Tom stopped talking to Mark because he put down his girlfriend.” Put down in this sentence means to insult.
  3. “When I was a child my dog was very sick so the vet had to put him down.” Used in this context put down means to humanely euthanize, also sometimes said put to sleep.
  4. “When I bought my house the bank asked me to put twenty percent down in order to secure the loan.” Used in this context put down means to make a down payment or pay a deposit.

All of the examples above show very a commonly used phrasal verb which has multiple meanings when used in different contexts.  A native speaker would use all of these without hesitation and may not even think that non-native speaker might have a difficult time understanding the meaning. In fact, I have heard some native speakers comment that phrasal verbs are “easy to understand” and assume that ESL students have an easy time learning them. You and I, however, know that this is not the case.

There are thousands of phrasal verbs in English. Read on to discover the best way to learn phrasal verbs in English.  

Best ways to study phrasal verbs

Below, I will highlight some of the best ways for a student to approach and learn phrasal verbs. Don’t give up, read all the way to number four! (Hint: Number 4 is the most important.)

1. Learning phrasal verbs by verb

One way to tackle phrasal verbs is by systematically studying phrasal verbs by learning them verb by verb. For example, start with one of the most common phrasal verbs like get and try to learn all (or some) of the different combinations and their meanings. Once you have mastered that verb, move on to the next verb.

Note: This approach may be tedious and boring for many students. Don’t overwork yourself; learn a few a day and practice using them in context.

I have made your job a little easier. I have already made these lists, categorizing phrasal verbs by verb, and will be posting them soon. Subscribe to receive notification when each phrasal verb list is posted.

 

2. Learning phrasal verbs by topic

Another good way to learn phrasal verbs is by learning them topic by topic. This method may be a little more practical for many students. Learn, for example, phrasal verbs you can use when speaking about money, relationships, or travel etc. This way you will be able to speak about these topics freely and incorporate suitable phrasal verbs.

Note: Make sure to learn the exact meanings within the context and don’t use them if you are not sure of the meaning.

Stay tuned for lessons categorizing phrasal verbs by topic. I will be posting them soon. Subscribe to receive notification when each phrasal verb list is posted.  If you have any questions, in the meantime, just ask. I am here to help.

 

3. Listen, read, and learn phrasal verbs in context

If you are just going to use one approach when it comes to learning phrasal verbs, use this one. A great way to study, digest, and then regurgitate phrasal verbs correctly is by paying attention, identifying, learning and then using phrasal verbs that you hear or read.  This can be one of the most rewarding approaches as you can focus on only phrasal verbs that you come across and then practice using them until you are confident and can move on to the next one.

Note: Although you will be learning fewer phrasal verbs per day, you will need to pay attention all day, not only in English class. Underline phrasal verbs that you come across in books or on signs. Write down the phrasal verbs you hear on TV, in movies, or during a night out with your friends.

 

4. One, Two, Three, Four!

Now that you have read one, two, and three, don’t forget about four! Really, the best way to learn phrasal verbs is by incorporating all three of approaches above, perhaps leaning a little bit more towards the method that you prefer. Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic pill to help you conquer phrasal verbs, only good old-fashioned study and determination.

Note: A good way to stay on top of all the new phrasal verbs that you will be learning is by using your phone to snap pictures of them in your book or notebook. You always have your phone with you. So, when you get a free moment for example on the beach, waiting for a bus, or a quiet moment at home just take out your phone and review the pics.

How to pronounce phrasal verbs

Pronouncing phrasal verbs correctly is just as important as learning how to use them. Sure, you can always take an accent reduction class to learn from an accent coach, but why not first learn for yourself.  

As I have already covered how to pronounce phrasal verbs in another article I will be brief. In short, when a phrasal verb is used as a verb, stress the preposition. When a phrasal verb is used as a noun, stress the verb. By learning how to pronounce phrasal verbs correctly more people will understand you. In turn, you will be able to understand phrasal verbs in speech more easily.  

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this and have learned a little bit more about phrasal verbs. Please let me know if you have any questions, I will try to answer them as best as I can. Don’t give up, learning a language can be very challenging but it is also very rewarding.  

Continue reading our Irregular Verbs List.

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