As a Cambridge ESOL Speaking Examiner, I can tell you that one of the things that great candidates do – at any level – is understand and use phrasal verbs. In fact, using them well will make you sound more like a native speaker.
But, using phrasal verbs accurately (or at all!) is one of the biggest problems most people have with English.
It wouldn’t matter so much if you only read academic or serious texts, or didn’t speak English in everyday situations. But if you do have conversations in English, sooner or later you’ll need to understand and use phrasal verbs.
And that’s where the problems start. The three biggest difficulties with phrasal verbs is that they aren’t logical, there are lots of them, and they generally occur in fast-paced conversation.
So, to make life a little easier, I’ve got a guide for you. I’ll show you the different types of phrasal verbs, and how to remember them.
What is a phrasal verb, anyway?
A phrasal verb is a verb in two or three parts. It has a verb, followed by a particle:
“take up” (take + particle up)
“work out” (work + particle out)
Sometimes the meaning of the phrasal verb is easy to guess. So you “turn up” the volume (make it louder) and you also “turn down” the volume (make it quieter).
But sometimes phrasal verbs aren’t logical. So while we “put on” a coat (put it on our bodies), we don’t “put it off”. In fact, the opposite of “put on” is “take off”.
But, before we get in to how you can learn and remember phrasal verbs more easily, you need to know about their grammar. In fact, if you don’t know what type of phrasal verb it is, you won’t be able to use it correctly.
The 4 types of phrasal verbs
When you know its type, you can use it accurately and confidently.
1. With no object
With these phrasal verbs, you don’t need anything else after the phrasal verb:
Watch out! There’s a car coming.
What time did you wake up?
I wanted to speak to her, but she ran away.
2. With an object, which you can separate
With these phrasal verbs you have an object, and it can come before or after the particle.
For example: work out
I need to work out this calculation. (calculation is the object)
I need to work this calculation out.
Or: look up
She looked the word up in a dictionary.
She looked up the word in a dictionary.
But: when the object is a pronoun, it must follow the verb:
I need to work it out. (NOT “I need to work out it.”)
She looked it up. (NOT She looked up it.)
3. With an object, which you can’t separate
With this type of phrasal verb, the object must come after the verb – not after the particle.
He went into the room. (NOT He went the room into.)
4. Three-part phrasal verbs
With these verbs, you have a particle and a preposition:
put up with (= tolerate)
look up to ( = admire)
You can’t separate these parts. So you always “look up to someone”, not “look up someone to”.
4 easy ways to remember phrasal verbs
Because phrasal verbs are so common, you need to be alert to them. Here are four ways you can do this:
1. See and hear them
Fortunately, when you hear people using them, the particle is always stressed.
Get ON the bus.
He looks UP TO his father.
This makes phrasal verbs easier to hear, and of course you can always ask someone what they mean.
2. Read informal English
Because phrasal verbs are used so much in conversation, read informal English. You can read blog posts, tabloid newspapers (the smaller ones with big, red headings) rather than academic writing or serious newspapers.
3. Check the meaning
Use a good dictionary to check the meaning of a phrasal verb. Remember that one phrasal verb can often have more than one meaning. Here’s an example with the verb “take”:
take off = remove clothing
take off = go into the sky (aeroplane)
take off = start to do well (business, company)
take off = imitate a person
4. Learn the meaning of the particle
This is a quick way of being able to guess the meaning of a phrasal verb – especially when it’s a more “logical” phrasal verb. Here are a few examples:
You check in to a hotel when you arrive, so when you leave you check out.
We turn up the volume to make it louder, so when you want someone to speak more loudly, you can ask them to speak up.
If someone is shouting and angry, you could ask them to calm down.
You sit down, and stand up.
Even when the meaning isn’t logical, understanding the particle can help.
So, often we use “up” to mean “increase”.
You add up numbers. (2+2 = 4)
When something is more expensive, the price goes up.
Often, “down” means “reduce”. So when it’s very hot, you want to cool down, or when you want to reduce the amount you spend, you cut down.
Over to you
Do you have any tips for remembering phrasal verbs? Let me know in the comments!