Native English speakers use phrasal verbs all the time. So, if you want to learn English, you're going to have to learn them too. But how?
As you probably know, a phrasal verb is formed by a verb and a particle (which is usually a preposition: up, with, to, out, in, etc.). However, the meaning of the phrasal verb is often different to the meaning of each individual word within the phrasal verb. And this is what makes some of them so difficult. For example, with the phrasal verb to make up – you may understand make and up; but the whole expression is more complex. HOWEVER, there are a few tricks for learning them. Here are some key things that could help you.
1. Look at the particle!
The key to many phrasal verbs lies with the particle. For example, what do you think these phrasal verbs (shown in bold) mean?
a) House prices are going up.
b) She got over the cold after a few days’ rest.
You could essentially understand these phrasal verbs just from the particles. In fact, once you know the basic meaning of these particles (up means to go to a higher level; over means to go from one level/stage/place to another), then they can really help you understand the phrasal verbs.
2. Look at the verb!
Sometimes it’s the verb that can help you (in many cases, the particle is just there for decoration – to add some very subtle nuance to the meaning). For example, what do you think these phrasal verbs (shown in bold) mean?
a) My car broke down as I was driving along the motorway.
b) They were running about in the garden.
You could probably guess the meaning of these phrasal verbs just from the verbs. The particles are just extras!
3. Look at the context!
Another important thing is to look at the context. What are the people talking about? What’s being discussed? What’s the topic of conversation? Once you know that, you’ll find it easier to work out the meaning of the phrasal verb. For example, what do you think this phrasal verb means?
“You are rude and disrespectful and your attitude is appalling. We absolutely refuse to put up with it any longer! Either you change or you’re out!”
Once you’ve worked out the context, the key is to guess and use your intuition to infer the meaning. In fact, this is what native speakers do. No one really sits down to learn phrasal verbs in their own language – they pick them up over time after hearing them or reading them in context. And this is what you should do.
5. Develop your passive knowledge of phrasal verbs!
The most important thing with phrasal verbs is being able to understand them. Don’t worry about using them because that will come with practice and after repeated exposure to lots of language with phrasal verbs in it. Develop your passive knowledge of phrasal verbs by reading and listening to English. And remember, when you’re speaking or writing English, you don’t necessarily need to use phrasal verbs as there’s usually always an alternative way of expressing the idea.
6. Don’t complicate things!
There are lots of complicated rules (with hundreds of exceptions) on the grammar of phrasal verbs. Is the particle a preposition or an adverb? Is the phrasal verb separable or inseparable? Don’t worry about this! The most important thing with phrasal verbs is being able to understand them. And above all, never, ever attempt to learn lists of phrasal verbs with their definitions – always look at them in sentences, paragraphs and complete texts – in context!
So, remember, in order to learn phrasal verbs, you need to see them in context and then let your intuition guide you. Be bold, be brave, be intuitive and GUESS, GUESS, GUESS! Have fun learning phrasal verbs!
Phrasal Verb Guide
Make up = to invent.
Go up = to increase.
Get over = If you “get over” an illness, you become better and the illness goes away.
Break down = If your car “breaks down”, it stops working.
Run about = If you’re “running about”, you’re running here and there with no particular objective.
Work out = to discover the meaning of something.
Put up with = If you “put up with” a bad situation, you accept it and you don’t do anything about it.
Pick up = to learn something, often without making a conscious effort.
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