Phrasal Verbs


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

Native speakers almost never have problems understanding phrasal verbs, even new combinations which have only recently been invented. They don’t need to look them up in a dictionary because native speakers have an internal mechanism which enables them 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.

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 from 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.


Notes on understanding 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 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 (except for 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. Words of Latin origin are 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!”.

Evoking the right images is the key to understanding Phrasal Verbs.

Copyright notice

© 2001- 2007 Glenys Hanson, Centre de linguistique appliquée,
Université de Franche-Comté

12 août, 2008