Grammar Lessons 101: Understanding Phrasal Verbs

May 30, 2019 by IELTS

With roots in Gaelic, Arabic, Latin, French, and Saxon it is no wonder that the English language can be tricky to learn. While no language is easy to learn, English, with its multitudinous rule exceptions and quirky word spelling, can be especially difficult to master. One particularly challenging aspect of the English language is phrasal verbs.

According to the Oxford English dictionary, a phrasal verb is “a verb that is made up of a main verb together with an adverb or preposition or both. Typically, their meaning is not obvious from the meanings of the individual words themselves.* Phrasal verbs may have a straightforward spelling, but unlike homophones, phrasal verbs tend not to provide us with contextual clues to provide clarity or meaning. For example:

  • The Queen looked down on his vassals. In this example, the literal translation of the words indicates that the Queen is standing at a great height and peering down at her vassals from above. But the meaning of this phrasal verb is that the Queen thinks she is superior to the people she sees as subordinate.

  • I’ll see to the children. In this example, the implication of the phrasal verb is that someone will be providing care for the children. Though to literally see the children is to look at them with your eyes.

  • We broke up last week. In this example, the phrasal verb “broke up” means the relationship has ended. “Broke up” is a colloquialism generally understood by most native English speakers and is also a phrasal verb. To literally break something means to shatter or render it otherwise inoperable; broke is the past tense of break.

To further add to the confusion of phrasal verb usage, phrasal verbs can be intransitive or transitive. When a phrasal verb is intransitive, it has no object, and the elements are never separated. For example:

  • She pulled up outside.
  • They split off from the main party.
  • The article spelled out the need for more security measures.

When a phrasal verb is transitive, it has an object and the elements can be separated — though not always. If the direct object is a noun, you can split the phrasal verb elements:

  • She pulled the car up outside.
  • They calmed him down.

One can scour the Internet and find a veritable unending supply of phrasal verb lists to study. However, simply learning phrasal verbs by rote may not be the best way to learn them. Utilizing contextual memorisation tricks will help you master phrasal verbs:

  • Concentrate on topics. For instance, imagine a scenario like going to the airport. Browsing the list of phrasal verbs, find ones that you might use or hear while at the airport.

Example: We need to check in.

  • Use your music to memorise phrasal verbs. Look up popular song lyrics and let the rhythm help provide appropriate context.

Example: Don’t let me down.

  • Use the Google news tab to find phrasal verbs in current world events.

Example: The economy is picking up.

Phrasal verbs can be confusing at first. But by using a few simple tricks, you will master them in no time. Should you require further assistance in preparing for your IELTS exam, please feel free to explore our website further or visit your nearest IELTS Test Centre.



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