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Speaking Better English: The Beauty of Phrasal Verbs

By Elizabeth Mc Donnell, April 2021

If you are a non-native speaker and have listened to songs or watched films in English and communicated with native speakers, you are likely to have come across* phrasal verbs. Maybe you wonder why you should trouble yourself in learning them. The simple answer is that phrasal verbs are used endlessly by native English speakers. If you wish to be able to be better able to communicate and to feel at ease in using the language, then you really need to get to grips with phrasal verbs.

To give an example, in describing the photo below (a workshop where I was the facilitator), I might say 'The group were trying to pin down* the nature of the problem, This process required them to check out* facts and to find out* what others thought. They called on* their existing experience and came up with* a plan for going forward.'

Here I have used five phrasal verbs (see glossary below for the meaning as used here). If writing formally, I would use alternative terminology as phrasal verbs are not used quite so much in formal written English. However, I would need to restructure my account as it is not always easy to express the same meaning as the phrasal verbs in more formal language. This is where the beauty of phrasal verbs comes in - and also contributes to the frustration and challenge for students of English.

A phrasal verb is just that - a phrase which is made up of a verb with one or two accompanying 'particles'.They have been around in the English language since the 12th century and were commonplace by the 15th century so they have a long history of usage and evolution in the language. Their beauty comes from the shades of meaning they bring to the spoken language and which their single word equivalents lack. For instance, if I am dealing with a challenging situation at work, and one day, I say 'I give up'. This communicates much more than I am not going to deal with the situation any more. It carries with it a message that I tried, that it was difficult, that I have neither the will nor the energy to continue trying, and I feel that I've failed. A lot of meaning for three little words!

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The beauty of phrasal verbs also comes from their versatility. Not only can I give up in despair at achieving something, but my daughter can also give up eating meat, a gunman can give up his arms to the police and, with the addition of another particle, a woman can give up on a partner.

It is worth the effort learning phrasal verbs and adding to those that you already know. Not only will you be able to understand and appreciate better what native speakers are communicating to you but, with time and practice, you yourself will be able to enrich your use of English by drawing on this rich reservoir of words.

How to do this?

  • Recognise - the meaning of a phrasal verb is not equivalent to the verb plus the particle e.g. to look up. Think of the phrasal verb as a word in itself.

  • Study: Find lists of phrasal verbs. Select a few that you like and think might be useful to you.

  • Notice - Can you hear or find your chosen phrasal verbs being used in spoken, or even in written, language?

  • Take opportunities to speak to native speakers. Ask them to repeat the sentence with the phrasal verb when you notice its use (best done with obliging people whom you know!)


*Glossary of phrasal verbs used in this blog

To come across: to find or discover without intending to

To pin down: to establish clearly

To check out: to establish the veracity or accuracy of something

To find out: to discover by inquiry, to learn of

To call on: to use someone or something as a source of information or assistance

To come up with: to produce, to create, to think of

To give up: to stop trying after some effort; to stop doing something habitual such as drinking alcohol; to surrender or to yield

To give up on: to relinquish all hope / to despair of someone changing their behaviour, returning or meeting one's needs

To look up: to search a source for information

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