How to learn phrasal verbs

Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lessons post. This week we are looking at how to learn phrasal verbs. Our Lunchtime Lessons are free Online English classes where we look at areas of English which are often difficult for students.

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 We used one of our blog posts as materials for this class. You can find a direct link to the blog entry clicking on the button below 

Direct link to blog post used as materials in video

How to learn phrasal verbs

Welcome to today’s lunchtime lesson, and today we’re doing a bit of a skills and vocabulary focus. We’re going to be talking about how we can learn phrasal verbs. It’s going to have a little bit of a Christmas twist because we’re going to be looking at some phrasal verbs which are related to Christmas today as well. .
How do you now if a verb is a phrasal verb?

 So the first thing to talk about  is how do you actually know if a verb is a phrasal verb? And there’s quite a good little trick for this. You have to think about whether the preposition after the verb changes the meaning of the infinitive of the verb. Look at these two examples

  • I arrived in Paris
  • the plane took off at five pm

 So if we look example 1, if I take away the preposition of in, and I say I arrived Paris, that doesn’t actually change the meaning of the verb arrive. The meaning of the verb is the same with or without the preposition. So in this case, this is a dependent preposition,  like in these examples – listen to music. On the news. think about something. So in all of those examples, if you take away the preposition, it still has the same meaning.
 OK, if we look at this example

  •  the plane took off at five p.m.

 if I take away OFF, that does change the meaning of the verb. So in this case, it is a phrasal over because that preposition affects the meaning. So it would be like in these examples – turn off the lights, put on a jacket, look after children. In all of those examples, the preposition is affecting that  main verb, and that’s how we know if it’s a phrasal verb or not.
Phrasal verbs are not grammar
The other really important thing to consider about phrasal verbs is that phrasal verbs aren’t grammar although they’re very often taught in  English course books as a grammar thing. But they’re really not grammar, they’re vocabulary, OK? And you need to think of them as vocabulary. So these are things that you should not do when you are learning phrasal verbs.

Things not to do

  • Don’t get obsessed with the type of phrasal verb. So I’ll go over this in more detail in a second. But basically, does it take an object? Can I separate it? What’s the order? Because that’s kind of approaching them from a grammar perspective, which is what we don’t want to do and that’s not the most important thing about phrasal verbs.
  • Please don’t read these horrible lists that you can get or  these books that are like three thousand phrasal verbs, and they’re organized alphabetically and they just have these endless lists of phrasal verbs with definitions and they’re horrible. So please don’t use those for two very logical reasons. One, you will never learn them. And two, they make you very depressed because it’s just this big, long list of horrible phrasal verbs. OK, the other mistake that people do is they try to learn all the meanings of a phrasal verb, because phrasal verbs can have more than one meaning. That’s not a constructive way to learn because you don’t learn, you just forget.
  • Another mistake that people do is that they try and take one verb and learn the phrasal verbs with all the different prepositions surrounding them. For example, the verb ‘take’ –  you might try and learn: take after, take down, take off, take away. But that’s not going to be helpful for you because, again, you’re not going to remember those those definitions. Clearly there’s too much to work on.
  • Finally try to not have a negative attitude towards phrasal verbs. I know a lot of people  are like  “oh, God, phrasal verbs. I hate them”. They’re quite a fundamental part of the English language. And if you want to use English with native speakers (we’ll talk about this shortly in more detail) , it’s something that you’re just going to have to learn how to do.  So try and have a positive attitude instead of a negative one.

 You have to approach them in context
 The key thing with phrasal verbs is that you have to approach them in context, so this is why these horrible lists are useless, because they don’t give enough context. And it’s the same reason that trying to learn all of the phrasal verbs that start with ‘take’ is not useful because you don’t have enough context. So the mantra is “language without context isn’t language”. And the reason that it can be impossible to learn phrasal verbs without context is this:
So here’s one verb – ‘make up’. Here are four different sentences which  all use the verb ‘make up’, but in each one, it’s got a different meaning.

  • That isn’t true, you made it up –  what I’m saying here is that we invented it.
  • I need to make up some missed classes – I need to recover the classes that I’d already paid for. So it’s something that I was entitled to that I need to get back.
  • I don’t like girls who are really made up. I prefer the natural look –  so they wear a lot of makeup.
  • They had an argument, but now they’ve made up – so they were friends, they had an argument and now they’ve become friends again.

None of those are related in meaning. The context changes the definition of each one. And that is why you can really only learn phrasal verbs if you’re learning them in context. Lists are not helpful.
Group them by topic
So what I would suggest is the best way to approach them is that you can think about grouping them by a topic, especially if you’re doing exams. This can be really useful because if you choose topics which are commonly tested in exams, then you have a nice little collection of phrasal verbs related to each of these topics.
 So I could talk about shopping, I might take back an item or try on some clothes or put on a dress. OK, if I’m talking about traveling, I could set off at nine o’clock, or the plane took off, or I would check in to my hotel. If it’s sports, you would warm up before playing a match, join in a football match or cool down after exercise. And if we’re talking about cooking, we might heat up food in a microwave, or chop up onions, or say the sauce boiled over.
So because you’ve grouped these by topic, you’ve already got a clearer idea of the context that we’re looking at the verbs in, and that makes it easier for you to remember them and to understand them.
Create a logic for them.
 So this is another really important thing that we need to do, guys that people quite often make mistakes with. So what I think one of the reasons that it can be really frustrating to learn how to use phrasal verbs is that if you are a logical person, they seem totally insane because they don’t have any logic to them, so create that logic, and that’s where  putting them into these groups can be really helpful.
The 4 types of phrasal verbs
 So before I talked a little bit about the four types of phrasal verb, and I said that you want to try and avoid that. I’ll go over them quickly just so that you know what I’m talking about. But , I want to stress again, this is really not the most important thing. So the four types of phrasal verb – what that basically means is if the verb takes an object or if they don’t, and where that object goes.

  • Type one which has no object and is generally used as an imperative. So it’ll be like, sit down, stand up, shut up.
  • Type two – these always need an object and they are inseparable, so you cannot move the object around. So I would say ‘she looks after children’, but I can’t say ‘she looks the children after’ or ‘she looks them after’. That’s not possible with that kind of a verb.
  • Type three  – you also need an object, but in these ones you can move the object around. So I could say ‘turn down the music’ or ‘turn the music down’ or ‘turn it down’. These are all correct. With type three verbs, if I’m using an object pronoun, I can only use it in the middle. I can’t say ‘turn down it’. It has to be ‘turn it down’.
  • Type four – this has two particles, which basically means two prepositions. These always need an object and are inseparable. So ‘I look up to my big brother’.

So the only ones you really need to worry about are type two and type three, whether the object can get moved around or not, because the rest you don’t need to worry so much of it. But please don’t stress out about that, OK? Because it is not the most important thing. If you say ‘turn down it’ instead of ‘turn it down’, people are still going to completely understand what you’re saying. It will not be a communicative issue at all. And worrying about the order of an object shouldn’t stop you from trying to use this kind of vocabulary. Don’t be scared to make mistakes because sometimes people don’t like to use phrasal verbs because of these reasons.
Why should I use phrasal verbs?
 You should be using phrasal verbs and an advantage to using phrasal verbs is it stops your language being overly formal, especially if you have a Latin based language.  English words that come from a Latin based origin generally have a more formal register. And if your language has a Latin based origin, when you’re trying to think of a word, the first ones that come to your mind will be the ones that look similar to your language. So that means that you will generally be speaking too formally.

 So if you make an effort to substitute these words with phrasal  verbs, it’s going to make your English sound more natural. To give you an example of that guy, compare ‘take off your coat’ to ‘remove your coat’. This is a really unnatural form of speech, whereas the phrasal verb is what we would all say.
It also really helps improve your listening if, of course, you’re talking about native speakers because native speakers use phrasal verbs constantly and all the time. So if you’re using them when you’re speaking, it’s going to mean that you’re hearing them when you listen. And they can also help you sound more fluent because an aspect about phrasal verbs is that they tend to be quite specific, explaining quite a specific action. So it makes you sound more fluent, more to the point. And if you’re taking any Cambridge exams, phrasal verbs are something that are tested a lot, so it’s definitely worth developing them for that aspect of your exams as well.
However, you also need to consider who you need to communicate in English with, so if you have to communicate with people who aren’t native speakers, for example, if you’re planning to use English in your own country to communicate as a lingua-franca with other Europeans, then phrasal verbs aren’t really a priority for you because non-native speakers don’t use them very much. On the other hand, if you are going to be living and working in the UK or in another English speaking country and dealing with native speakers on a regular basis, then you do actually need to work with these verbs and learn them, too.
Things you should do
 So we talked about things you shouldn’t do, some things you should do.

  • If you’re worried about how to use the object, the easiest way to do that is when you write down or record your phrasal verb. Just make a note of where the object should go. So, for example,  if I’m talking about the the verb ‘take after’, I would say ‘take after someone’ and I record it that way. But ‘put something on’, I would  record it in the middle so I know that ‘put something on’ is one of these type two verbs. If you check it in a dictionary, that’s how it will show where the object goes. But remember, that is not the most important thing.
  •  A really good tip is to try and learn the opposite of a phrasal verb at the same time as you learn your new phrasal verb. The reason that that’s great is that it actually makes it much easier to remember a word if you know the opposite, and you’re doubling your vocabulary at the same time. Not all phrasal verbs  will have an opposite, and the opposite of a phrasal verb is not necessarily another phrasal verb. So just keep that in mind. We’re going to see some examples of that in a second.
  •  Make sure any time you learn a new phrasal verb that you record it in an example sentence which gives it context because you have to learn that verb for the context you see it presented in. So ‘take after someone’, recording a verb like this with no more information is not helpful because it doesn’t give you any information. I would also recommend, where you can, making it a personalized sentence, because that way you can relate it to your own life and that makes it easier to remember .
  •  And what I really recommend is doing some responsible translation. I’m going to stress that word again – responsible translation. Translation is a fantastic tool. Of course you should be translating, it is totally natural, you’re working in a different language, but you have to learn how to do it well. So translate phrasal verbs for your language, but make sure that you’re translating them correctly for the context that you’re looking at. Do not use the first definition in the dictionary because very often that is not how that phrasal verb is being used. So please be careful with that.

Do some practice
So we’re going to try and do some practice with this, and we’re going to use a little blog entry that I did about Christmas.  I’d like you to read that text and the context here, of course, is Christmas. All of these verbs are related to things that we do at Christmas. So I’d like you to read through the text and see if you can understand the meaning of the words from the context. What we’re going to do afterwards is discuss them together and we’re going to see if we can think of an opposite for each of these. I’ll give you a few minutes to read and then we’ll come back to the task.
All right, so the answers

  • I’d like to meet up with friends, so that’s when you see your friends, you arrange to see your friends
  • put up the tree is when you decorate your house or your Christmas tree.
  • Wrap up presents is to fold it in paper so that no one knows what it is.
  • Light up a fire, so it’s when you have a fireplace and you put the fire on
  • I love getting into the Christmas spirit, becoming involved in something or becoming interested in something.
  • Hang up your stockings. You put them on the mantelpiece the same way that you hang up a coat.
  • Santa comes down the chimney, so he enters through the chimney.
  • We sit down to eat Christmas dinner. So you’re in a sitting position or you get into a sitting position.
  • We sing along with Christmas carols, you sing with a recorded song or other singers.
  • Boxing Day is a great place to snap up a bargain. So that’s when you get something quickly for a good price.
  • And the last one is taking down the tree, that’s the opposite of putting up the tree and that’s removing the the decorations

Now, if we think about now learning the opposite, it would look like this. You’ll see that some of these don’t have an opposite. So the verbs meet up with, sing along, snap up, get into  – those verbs don’t have a natural opposite and that’s fine. You don’t need to worry about that. But a lot of these do, and in these examples, most of them are actually phrasal verbs.

  • So the opposite, like we saw earlier of putting up a Christmas tree is to take down a Christmas tree.
  • You wrap up a present and you unwrap
  • the opposite of lighting up afire is putting one out.
  • You hang up your stocking, but you take it down as well.
  • And to come down the chimney, the opposite would be to go up the chimney
  • To sit down – the opposite would be to stand up
  • and like we saw earlier, the opposite of take down is to put up.

So if you’re learning these simultaneously, it makes it much better to understand. And then what I would do is I would add a third column. And in that third column, that’s where I would add the translation for your language.Then you have a really nice organized table of phrasal verbs for a specific context, in this case Christmas, you have any opposite verbs that work – in this example, I haven’t I haven’t put the object in the middle, but if I wanted to record that information, then I would record it as well. So I would say ‘take it down‘ or ‘take something down’, because it’s one of these verbs that you can separate. And then finally, you would finish with the translation for the context you have seen them in in your language. And then it is a really great resource that you can go back and you can re-visit.

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