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Phrasal verbs

What are phrasal verbsa phrase (such as take off or look down on) that combines a verb with a preposition or adverb or both and that functions as a verb whose meaning is different from the combined meanings of the individual words -Merriam Webster  

Phrasal verbs or prepositional/adverbial verbs are verbs composed of a verb and a particle, generally, either a prepositional or adverbial particle to form another verb that usually has a completely different meaning to the verb used when it’s just on its own. Phrasal verbs are usually used in informal and everyday context. In more formal contexts or situations, for example in jurisdiction or medicine, the Latin equivalent of the phrasal verb will always be preferred. Phrasal verbs are most language learners’ worst nightmare and the learning process can often be seen as both tedious and time-consuming, but, in reality, they are not hard to learn and there are many tricks and short-cuts to learning a large portion of them. A lot of phrasal verbs can be learned without memorisation, whereas another portion that is idiomatic will need to be memorised or learned in context. Down below, we will do our best to explain the best way to approach phrasal verbs and learn how to utilise them with ease.

  • There are many, many phrasal verbs, both idiomatic and non-idiomatic. The non-idiomatic ones can be learnt without memorisation or context. Just by knowing the verb and the preposition/adverb particle you can easily deter the meaning.
  • There may be thousands upon thousands of phrasal verbs, but there are only about 20-25 prepositions that form the majority of these phrasal verbs, thus, that is to say, you only need to know the meaning of the preposition and verb and you’ll easily deter the meaning of the phrasal verb, with or without context! This rule applies ONLY to the non-idiomatic ones! 

Let’s take a look now at some of the most common phrasal verbs in English, take note of the preposition at the end, and do the tally yourself. You’ll see that, despite the grand number of these funny verbs, the total number of prepositions that form all phrasal verbs is limited to about 20 odd, thus, it’s really not that difficult when you see it like this.

List of very common phrasal verbs: 
  • turn up
  • put off
  • put down
  • add up
  • get along
  • get away
  • come across
  • blow up
  • give up
  • look up
  • pick up
  • talk over
  • run into
  • drop off
  • grow up
  • wake up
  • show up
  • catch up
  • fill out
  • give away
  • turn down

Here’s a small list composed of arguably the 21 most common phrasal verbs, have you taken note of the total number of preposition or adverb particles? Just from this list alone, it’s 11! 

This is a very small number and the number doesn’t get much bigger for all the remaining phrasal verbs within the entirety of the English language. That is to say, in order to learn all the non-idiomatic phrasal verbs of English, you only need to know the phrasal verb and a very limited number of prepositions or adverbs particles. Bear in mind, this is not taking into account that some phrasal verbs could be both idiomatic and non-idiomatic, that means you would learn, by following this rule, the literal meaning, but not its other meanings that would indeed be idiomatic. Let’s now look at the list again and try to denote or figure out the meanings of this selection of very popular phrasal verbs just by knowing, the verb and the prepositional and or adverbial particle:

  • turn up (verb ‘turn’, means to alter something. ‘up’ means to literally head upwards.
  • put off (verb ‘put’, means to order or impose. ‘off’ means opposite of ‘on’ in most cases.
  • put down (verb ‘put’, means to order or impose. ‘down’ means in a downward direction).
  • add up (verb ‘add’, means to calculate. ‘up’ means to literally head upwards).
  • get along (verb ‘get’ see link  ‘Get’ A complete set of rules  )
  • get away (verb ‘get’, see link ‘Get’ A complete set of rules
  • come across (verb ‘come’, means to approach. ‘across’ means ‘beyond’ or ‘further’)
  • blow up (verb ‘blow’, means to explode. ‘up’ means to literally head upwards).
  • give up (verb ‘give’, means to deliver or transmit someone or something. ‘up’ means to literally head upwards.
  • look up (verb ‘look’, means to observe or find. ‘up’ means to head upwards or increase.
  • pick up (verb ‘pick’, means to choose or prefer. ‘up’ means to head upwards or increase.
  • talk over (verb ‘talk’, means to discuss, chat. ‘over’ means completed, concluded.
  • run into (verb ‘run’, means to pace steadily. ‘in’ means ‘within’ or ‘inside’ and ‘to’ is a preposition of movement to indicate movement.
  • drop off (verb ‘drop’, means to lower.  ‘off’ means opposite of ‘on’ in most cases and ‘out’ or ‘away’).
  • grow up (verb ‘grow’, means to cultivate. ‘up’ means to head upwards or increase.
  • wake up (verb ‘wake’ means to rise from sleep.  ‘up’ means to head upwards or increase.
  • show up (verb ‘show’ means to appear or display.  ‘up’ means to head upwards or increase.
  • catch up (verb ‘catch’ means to capture or net.  ‘up’ means to head upwards or increase.
  • fill out (verb ‘fill’, means to cram or heap. ‘out’ means bound or resolved).
  • give away (verb ‘give’, means to deliver or transmit someone or something. ‘away’ means distant or afar, not in the position of the speaker.
  • turn down (verb ‘turn’, means to alter something. ‘down’ means in a downward direction).

Above we have a full list of very common phrasal verbs, all of which we denote the meanings of the verb and the prepositional/adverbial particle. Now, without translating the meaning, all the above phrasal verbs will be listed and in context so you can see that, with knowledge of the verb and the particle (both prepositional and adverbial) you can easily understand phrasal verbs and get the meaning instantly, that is, the non-idiomatic ones that make up a huge majority of phrasal verbs in English.  Verbs are in blue and the adverb/preposition particle in red.

  • turn up: I turned the volume up. I turned up the volume.
  • put off: I put off going to work today because I’m sick.
  • put down: She put down her opinions and spoke well.
  • add up: I added up the numbers.
  • get along: I get along well with my brother.
  • get away: The prisoner got away.
  • come across: He came across as being a nice guy.
  • blow up: They blew up the building with explosives.
  • give up: He gave up his football career.
  • look up: I need to look up the word in the dictionary.
  • pick up: Can you pick up my kids from school?
  • talk over: We talked over our new plans.
  • run into: I ran into my best friend in the center.
  • drop off: Sam dropped off to the supermarket to get some beer.
  • grow up: I grew up in the United States.
  • wake up: People who work normally wake up early.
  • show up: I showed up for work late.
  • catch up: My friends and I really need to catch up because we haven’t seen each other for ages.
  • fill out: Please, fill out the documents.
  • give away: The governor gave his car away for charity.
  • turn down: I need to turn down the music. The guy is complaining.

I’ll leave it to you to work out the meanings now that you understand that it’s only a question of knowing the verb itself and the particle. Once you’ve nailed these two, you shouldn’t have any problem denoting the meanings of most non-idiomatic phrasal verbs!

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