Phrasal verbs: Why they're good to know, and how to learn them

Phrasal verbs: why they're good to know, and how to learn them

Have you ever wondered why phrasal verbs are so important? Read this article to find out more.

Did you know that there are thousands of phrasal verbs in English? You probably already know more than you think! They're a really important part of the English language, so let's have a look at them in more detail.

What exactly is a phrasal verb?

A phrasal verb is made up of a verb – usually a very common one, like 'make' – and a particle, like 'up'. Some phrasal verbs have two particles, for example put up with. The particle usually changes the meaning of the verb. 

What are the challenges with phrasal verbs? 

Phrasal verbs look easy … after all, they're just a common verb followed by another little word. Often people don't even realise they need special attention. So what do you need to know about them? Here are some of the challenges.

  • The meaning is often impossible to guess from the individual words. There are some that you can work out by knowing the meaning of the verb and the particle, for example take away, but others that you can't, for example take after, meaning to be similar in appearance or character (she takes after her dad).
  • The same verb can be followed by many different particles, each giving a different meaning, for example come up, come up with, come across, come about …  The verb 'come' is used in at least 35 phrasal verbs!
  • Each phrasal verb can have various meanings, depending on context. For example, take off can mean remove clothing (please take your shoes off), to suddenly become successful (the new product really took off) or to leave the ground (the aeroplane took off). 
  • Phrasal verbs have a bit of grammar to learn with them. Sometimes you can separate the verb and particle (call the meeting off) and sometimes you can't (look after the cat). Go to our grammar section to learn more about the grammar of phrasal verbs.

So those are the main challenges of phrasal verbs. And understanding those challenges really helps you learn and use these super-useful phrases.

Are phrasal verbs worth the effort?

Phrasal verbs are definitely worth learning. Here are just a few of the reasons why.

First, they're used very commonly in conversations, so knowing phrasal verbs will help you understand other people. 

Second, as there are so many phrasal verbs, knowing them is a great way to build up your vocabulary.

And third, they're used a lot in informal English, so using them will help you sound natural, relaxed and friendly. 

What's the best way to learn phrasal verbs?

As we've said, there are thousands of phrasal verbs in English. So don't even think about sitting down and trying to learn a list of all of them! 

The best way to learn phrasal verbs is to see them in context. Try to notice phrasal verbs when you're reading, listening to a song, watching a video or talking to someone. This will help you understand the meaning, get a feel for how to use them and remember them better. 

Whenever you come across a new phrasal verb, make a note of it. A good online dictionary will give you the meaning and show you how to use it in a sentence.

There are several ways to organise your phrasal verbs in your notebook (and in your mind!).

  • You may want to have the verbs as your starting point. For example, you could make a page for phrasal verbs with 'come', and then as you come across a new one, add it to that page. 
  • Be sure to include your own phrase or sentence when you note down a new phrasal verb. This will make it more memorable and help you remember how it's used in a sentence.
  • A really helpful way to learn phrasal verbs is to group verbs whose particles have the same or similar meaning. For example, 'back' often includes the idea of return (call back, go back, pay back) and 'up' often shows completeness (clean up, eat up, use up).
  • Another good idea is to group your phrasal verbs by topic. For example, you could group phrasal verbs that are commonly used for daily routine, or work, or sport. You could write a short text on that topic that includes as many phrasal verbs as you can, for instance My alarm goes off at 6.45 a.m. I usually feel sleepy and find it hard to get up, but my morning coffee soon wakes me up. 
  • If a phrasal verb doesn't seem to fit into a particular topic, you could note down where you first saw or heard it. Personalising them will make them meaningful and memorable. 
  • Finally, as with all new grammar and vocabulary, try to use the new phrasal verbs you learn when you're talking and writing. This will help fix them in your long-term memory.

However you decide to learn phrasal verbs, gradually building up your bank of personalised phrasal verbs is sure to pay off. They'll help you understand everyday speech and create closer relationships with people and you'll enjoy using them! 

By the way, did you notice the 17 phrasal verbs in this article?! Why not make a note of them and see if you can add them to your vocabulary? :)

Jo Blackmore

To practise phrasal verbs, go to:

Discussion

Average: 4.9 (28 votes)

Submitted by Prince-Raymond on Thu, 15/02/2024 - 15:24

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Thanks for this articles. I think I'll figure the phrasal verb out easily the next time.

Submitted by Georgesj on Thu, 01/02/2024 - 10:58

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This guide provides useful hints to mastering English phrasal verbs, the first I have ever read online. Thanks to the LearnEnglish team.

Submitted by User_1 on Mon, 22/01/2024 - 15:10

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Hello,
Thanks for the suggestions on learning phrasal verbs.
I know they're a really important part of the English language, but memorising them is a very hard work.
Focusing on phrasal verbs in context as well, it takes a lot of effort.
Whenever I come across a new phrasal verb in a specific context, I usually make a note, but it's like they don't stick in my mind.
Soon after my mind goes blank.
May you help me? Thank you

Hello User_1,

The key to memorisation in many cases is use. Practice activities can help, but using language in communication is best. A good tip is to prepare questions for yourself as you take notes. For example, let's say you learn the multi-word verbs give up, put off and call off. As you note them down with meaning and grammar (do they have an object, for example, and if so does it come after or before the particle), also make a question. For example:

give up - to stop a bad habit such as smoking. Transitive (with an object), separable.

put off - to postpone a meeting. Transitive, separable.

call off - to cancel a meeting. Transitive, separable.

 

Questions:

Is put off permanent (like cancel) or temporary (like delay)?

I got to the airport on time but the flight was called off. Correct or not?

I gave up helping the dog shelter because I didn't have time. A good sentence or not?

 

Just writing the questions will help you to remember the meaning. Often teaching (even yourself!) is the best way to learn!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team