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The Truth about Phrasal Verbs
verbs are the
source of one of the greatest and saddest misunderstandings for learners of
There is a strong and widespread tendency for students to try to learn the meanings of phrasal verbs 'systematically'. That is to say, they take a word like turn and then try to learn by heart the meanings of:
turn + about
turn + away
turn + back
turn + down
turn + in
turn + off
turn + on
turn + out
turn + over
turn + round
turn + to
turn + up
The result is nearly always the same. The students' heads begin to spin after a very short time, they become confused and frustrated, and very soon give up in despair any attempt to master phrasal verbs. This is a bad mistake. Phrasal verbs are a basic and very important part of normal English vocabulary. Native English-speakers learn all the more common phrasal verbs at an early age.
The situation is all the sadder because in fact there need be no difficulty whatever. The difficulties are all of the students' own making. Or rather, it would be truer to say that it is the fault of their teachers, and even more, that of the authors and publishers of text books on English.
It seems very unlikely that any students of English set about learning words such as
by making the following sort of resolution:
"Today I shall study the -tain verbs. I shall learn what each of
tain + con
tain + de
tain + enter
tain + main
tain + ob
tain + per
tain + re
tain + sus
I can imagine even some students who already know these words getting confused merely by looking at a list of this sort. Yet students who approach phrasal verbs in the way I have described above are doing exactly the same as learning the -tain verbs in this strange way.
Psychologically it need make no difference at all that in one case the particle (the 'little' word) is at the front of the word and attached to it, while in the other it is at the end and separated. It is pure historical accident that the two parts of phrasal verbs are not written together and the parts of words like the -tain verbs are.
Anyone doubtful about this argument should think of German. In German there are what in effect are phrasal verbs. Take as an example the verb geben (give). There are:
and very possibly others that I do not know of. Yet not only are the particles (an-, auf-, aus-, ein-, etc.) often separated from their verb and put after it and after the object; they are frequently separated from the verb far further than the particles normally are in English phrasal verbs. For instance (using the 3rd Person Singular Present of ausgeben):
Er gibt für das Auto zu viel
He gives for the car too much money out.
(He spends too much money on the car.)
But I have still not met any students of German as a foreign language who have dreamt of learning such German verbs by saying to themselves, for instance:
"Today I am going to learn all the verbs with geben:
geben + an
geben + auf
geben + aus
geben + be
geben + ein
geben + her etc., etc."
I think everybody would regard this as a crazy procedure. Yet it is just such a crazy procedure that students are following if they try to learn lists of all the phrasal verbs made with turn, with bring, with put, and so on. It is of course equally misguided to learn phrasal verbs in lists according to which particle or preposition they are formed with - at, by, in, out, over, up etc.
Think instead of phrasal verbs as one word and treat them just like any other word. Look out for them, certainly. They are very important. But learn them as you would any other word in English vocabulary - as you come across them, in context. Thus you may learn exercise, followed by makeout, followed by hedgehog, followed by refrain, followed by whistle, followed by putoff, followed by prefer, followed by average, followed by turnup, and so on.
Apart from the special conventions of word order that apply to phrasal verbs, which are discussed below, there is nothing special about phrasal verbs except that they are particularly important.
So never try to learn lists of them. Never waste your money buying special books about them. A good dictionary will tell you what they mean if you cannot understand from the context.
‘No object’ (intransitive) phrasal verbs
There are many phrasal verbs that do not govern objects, so-called intransitive verbs, such as:
The noise gradually died down.
How are you getting on?
In these verbs the two parts are never separated.
‘Object’ (transitive) phrasal verbs
There are two different sorts of phrasal verbs that govern objects, with different conventions of word order.
The two different types can be illustrated with the phrasal verb turn on, which has several different meanings.
'After-object' (adverbial) phrasal verbs
First let us look at what can be called the 'after-object' type. Turn on can mean much the same as "switch on":
Shall I turn on the light?
Or it can be used in the colloquial sense of "make excited", especially sexually:
She turns on all the men in the office.
In both these senses on can be separated from the verb and put after the object (the light and all the men in the office in these examples):
Shall I turn the light
She turns all the men in the office on.
Word order with pronouns
If the object of the phrasal verb is a pronoun (it and them in the two following examples), then on must normally be put after the object:
Shall I turn it on?
She turns them on.
Short and long objects
The tendency is for the 'little word', on in our present examples, to go after the object if the object is fairly short:
Shall I turn the lights in here on? (object = the lights in here)
But if the object is a long one, it is unlikely for the 'little word' to be put after the object:
Shall I turn on all those lights we set up the day before yesterday in the sitting room? (object = all those lights we set up the day before yesterday in the sitting room)
'Before-object' (or prepositional) phrasal verbs
But turn on has other senses, and in these the on is never put after the object. This sort of phrasal verb can be called the 'before-object' type.
Turn on can mean something similar to "depend on":
The result will turn on the weather. (object = the weather)
Or it can mean "suddenly attack savagely", verbally or physically:
He turns on her if she dares to express an opinion of her own. (object = her)
Or it can mean "turn round sharply":
Bill turned on his heel and walked out. (object = his heel)
Is it ‘before-object’ type or ‘after-object’ type?
So when you come across a phrasal verb for the first time, how do you know whether it is the ‘before-object’ type or the ‘after-object’ type?
The answer is that you can't know unless you hear or read the verb in a context. Even then, of course, you have to remember that although the example you come across may have the 'little word' (on etc.) before the object, it can still be an ‘after-object’ phrasal verb, as we saw from the first four examples of turn on above.
'Three-word verbs' are always the ‘before-object’ type
There is, though, one kind of phrasal verb that can only be the ‘before-object’ type. This is where the verb is combined with two other words - a 'three-word verb':
I'm surprised you put up with
Shall we drop in on Bill on our way home?
Learn as you listen and read
By far the best way to learn both the meanings of phrasal verbs and which type they are, is simply to notice how they work as they come naturally to your attention as you read or listen - particularly when you listen, as phrasal verbs are used more in the spoken language than in the written language.
Revised layout and slightly revised text April 2010
The Editor welcomes questions and comments on this article. (Your name will not be published without your permission.)
article is an expanded extract from
The Art and Science of Learning Languages, by Amorey Gethin and Erik V. Gunnemark, published by Intellect (http://www.intellectbooks.com)
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