So-called phrasal verbs

phrasal verbs

A set of exercises on: Phrasal Verbs.

These exercises are intended for intermediate to advanced students of English who feel they have a problem understanding the meaning of what are called Phrasal Verbs, i.e. verb + preposition or adverb combinations such as give up, turn off.

Given that native speakers almost never have problems understanding phrasal verbs, even new combinations which have only recently been invented, I’ve always suspected that students having a problem with them is due to the way they are presented and taught. This has been reinforced by reading recently that the term “phrasal verb” only dates from 1925(1). Native speakers don’t need to look up phrasal verbs in a dictionary because they have other tools to discover the meaning autonomously. Each word of the phrasal verb combination spontaneously evokes an image in their minds which, when applied to the situation in which they hear or see the words used, suggests the new meaning to them. The new meaning does not come from nowhere, it is closely related to the old meanings in each part of the phrasal verb. Non-native speakers can learn to function in the same way.

Mental images

Many words evoke spontaneous images in the minds of native speakers. This is particularly true of words which refer to physical, spacial events or relationships, e.g. go, jump, up, round. We are in direct contact with the physical world through our senses : seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, smelling. When words evoke images in our minds of the physical world we have a direct feeling of their meaning without needing to use intellectual analysis or translate through another language. In general, by intermediate level, the common motion verbs evoke images for English students that are the same as, or reasonably close to, those they evoke for native speakers. This is often not the case for certain preposition/adverb particles – words such as over, at, about where images relating to similar but not identical words in their native language continue to be spontaneously evoked. Fortunately, unlike verbs, they are limited in number and those frequently used to form phrasal verbs even fewer – about a dozen or so.


To describe non-physical, non-spacial events and relationships (time, emotion, economics, for example) all languages use metaphors taken from the physical world. This is particularly true in the case of phrasal verbs which often have both a physical and a metaphorical or derived meaning, sometimes even several metaphorical meanings depending on the context in which they are used. (e.g. He made up a story. She made up her face.) In nearly all cases, being able to evoke the physical image helps to find the metaphorical or derived meaning.

 Understanding (so-called) phrasal verbs

The problem for the English student is first of all understanding the meaning of the preposition/adverb particle, words such as on, in, for; knowing whether they are used as prepositions or adverbs is a secondary problem. In these exercises we concentrate on their meaning, not their grammatical function. To understand these particles students need to realise that :

  • as their name indicates, preposition/adverb particles are linking words which serve to situate two or more people or objects in relation to each other, e.g.: “The man in the house.” “The hat on the chair.”,
  • the basic meaning of these particles is nearly always a physical, spacial one,
  • this means that they usually evoke a very precise image, or series of related physical images, in the mind of a native speaker,
  • these images are frequently used in metaphorical or derived senses,
  • as postpositions/adverbs they are frequently added to verbs of movement (and a few other common verbs),
  • these verbs are usually (but not always) Anglo-Saxon in origin,
  • it is frequently possible to paraphrase an Anglo-Saxon verb + postposition/adverb by a prefix + verb of Latin origin.
    For example: say again = repeat, go on = continue,
  • because the images contained in the Anglo-Saxon verb + postposition/adverb are usually still vivid to a native speaker, these are preferred in conversation, while the prefix + verb words of Latin origin are more common in formal, ‘distant’ writing and speaking,
  • some verbs of Latin origin, because they have been fully integrated into the language, can also be followed by a postposition/adverb.
    For example, impose on, turn over, move out.
  • English speakers are constantly inventing new combinations of motion verb (sometimes other common verbs) + postposition/adverb, usually in a metaphorical sense. Other English speakers seldom have any problem in working out what they mean in a given context, (Example: Dr Kelly accused the government of sexing up the dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.)
  • if non-natives are sure of evoking the same images as native speakers of both the verb and the postposition/adverb, they too will understand these combinations in new situations. It is true there are a limited number of instances where, because the meanings of words change over the centuries, certain images are no longer immediately accessible to modern speakers of English. The equivalent words of Latin origin are also often metaphors… and even more opaque for most English speakers,
  • in certain verb + postposition/adverb combinations, the meaning of the verb and the postposition/adverb are such that the combined effect is not to create a really new meaning, but just to reinforce the meaning of the verb. For example: “Drink up!” “Come on!”
  • the real challenge is not to deduce the meaning of a “phrasal verb” from each of its parts, but to understand its meaning in the context of a whole sentence and the situation it refers to.

Encouraging students to evoke mental images can be a key to their understanding (so called) Phrasal Verbs. What’s more, it leads them to acquire internal criteria which enable them to become progressively more efficient in tackling new combinations. It’s also much more fun as an activity than trying to learn by heart the 200 more common Phrasal Verbs and their multiple meanings. As for the 3,360 entries listed in the Dictionary of English Phrasal Verbs, except for a few individuals gifted with a phenomenal memory, the notion of learning them all by heart is simply ludicrous. Like other dictionaries, of course it has its role as a reference book.

Just because Phrasal Verbs can be listed in this way, does not mean that such lists are useful to people learning English. As Larsen-Freeman and Cameron have pointed out: “It … does not follow that grammars that are descriptively adequate are psychologically real” (2).


(1) Concerning the history of the term phrasal verb, Tom McArthur writes:
“…the term phrasal verb was first used by Logan Pearsall Smith, in Words and Idioms (1925), in which he states that the OED Editor Henry Bradley suggested the term to him.”
The value of this choice and its alternatives (including separable verb for Germanic languages) is debatable. In origin the concept is based on translation linguistics; as many single-word English and Latinate words are translatable by a phrasal verb complex in English, therefore the logic is that the phrasal verb complex must be a complete semantic unit in itself.
Phrasal Verbs: Some notes on terminology – Wikipedia
(2) Larsen-Freeman and Cameron, Complex systems and applied linguistics, 2008, p. 113. I found this reference thanks to Scott Thornbury in the discussion on his blog: G is for Grammar(s)

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4 thoughts on “So-called phrasal verbs

  • mura nava

    hi Glenys

    nice set of excercises going to link them from

    Macmillan Phrasal verbs plus uses many of the findings form cognitive linguistics and metaphor e.g.

    Regarding contexttual learning of vocab in general, there is the issue of having enough time as such learning needs a lot of input to get recurring contexts so memorisation is necessary as well


    • Glenys Hanson Post author

      Hi Mura,
      Glad you liked the exercises and thanks for the link.

      You’re right that learning Phrasal Verbs can take a long time and a lot of memorisation… if they are presented as semantic units. I’m suggesting that there’s another way to go about it.


  • TerriLynn Pleasant

    In a sea of learner and teacher training materials that focus so much on a grammar approach, having to memorize a list, or simply ignore multiword verbs, I find your article, exercises and overall approach to be refreshing. I truly appreciate the resources you have published and look forward to sharing them with my colleagues.

    • Glenys Hanson Post author

      Hi TerriLynn,
      Glad you find my work useful.
      I intend to add more exercises of different types (i.e. not MCQs) on “Phrasal verbs” to give students more practice. It won’t be for a while, though, because I many exercises on other topics waiting to be “modernised” and put on line.