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Wildly irregular or no longer insuperable?
Approaches to teaching and
learning phrasal verbs


Language interference
False friends between
Spanish and English

Focus on Phrasal Verbs:
How new phrasal verbs develop

New word of the month
From metrosexual to metrosessuale:
the global influence of English in
the creation of neologisms

Corpora tips
Googling for idiomatic language
Search engines as corpora tools

Wildly irregular or no longer insuperable?
by Jonathan Marks

• Why are phrasal verbs difficult?
• Picking them out and putting them together four approaches
   1 Focus on the verb
   2 Focus on the particle
   3 Contextual linking
   4 Same phrasal verb, different meanings
• Building on the four approaches
• Assisting the students of our language
• References
• Acknowledgement

Why are phrasal verbs difficult?

The particular trickiness of phrasal verbs for learners of English was noted at least as early as 250 years ago, when Samuel Johnson wrote, in the Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language:

There is another kind of composition more frequent in our language than perhaps in any other, from which arises to foreigners the greatest difficulty. We modify the signification of many verbs by a particle subjoined; as to come off, to escape by a fetch; to fall on, to attack; to fall off, to apostatize; to break off, to stop abruptly; to bear out, to justify; to fall in, to comply; to give over, to cease; to set off, to embellish; to set in, to begin a continual tenour; to set out, to begin a course or journey; to take off, to copy; with innumerable expressions of the same kind, of which some appear wildly irregular, being so far distant from the sense of the simple words, that no sagacity will be able to trace the steps by which they arrived at the present use.

These sentiments have frequently been echoed in more recent times. Gairns & Redman, for example, write of “the mystique which surrounds multi-word verbs for many foreign learners.”

In the previous four articles in this series (in MED Magazine Issues 32, 33, 34 and 35) I have tried to dispel something of this mystique, and to show that phrasal verbs:

1 aren’t unique to English;
2 aren’t quite as unpredictable and illogical as we might think;
3 aren’t necessarily informal or colloquial;
4 are frequently used in writing as well as in speech;
5 are a regular part of the English lexicon – part of a much bigger set of verbs, nouns and adjectives whose meanings have developed in similar ways.

In this final article I want to review some approaches to teaching and learning phrasal verbs.


Picking them out and putting them together – four approaches

Teachers and materials writers make use of various approaches to selecting and grouping phrasal verbs for teaching purposes. These approaches are also reflected in the strategies learners use for learning phrasal verbs, associating them with each other and storing them in their heads and/or in their vocabulary notebooks.


1 Focus on the verb

In an influential book on vocabulary teaching, Gairns & Redman are critical of the principle of grouping phrasal verbs formed from the same verb, since the items are likely to be unrelated in meaning, and not memorable for learners. This is clearly a danger to be aware of. They use these examples to illustrate their point:

to put something on
to put somebody up
to put somebody / something off

But in fact there is a basic relationship of meaning shared by these and by many other phrasal verbs formed from put, including, for example:

I don’t know who’s been putting these rumours about.
Television can be a useful way of putting across health messages.
You have to be prepared to put your own ambitions aside.
The cost of repairing the damage was put at £100,000.
They put away vast quantities of beer between them.
One option is to put back the wedding.
Why can’t you put your past behind you?

The ‘focus on the verb’ approach can be used to provide data for learners to look for common features of meaning in groups of phrasal verbs. In this group, for example, they should be able to see how the basic physical meaning of put is extended metaphorically, and how the particles also extend various concepts of physical movement.

Similarly, in this group:

The manager announced he is stepping aside.
Sandra stepped down as treasurer.
We’re urging as many people as possible to step forward.
Many people feel it’s time for the government to step in and resolve the dispute.

Here the connection with the physical meaning is clear in each example, and grouping them together could be an approach which:
a) is economical, and
b) promotes insight into the underlying systematicity of many sets of phrasal verbs.


2 Focus on the particle

Gairns & Redman have the same reservations about using the particle as an organising principle, giving these examples:

to take something up
to look something up
to bring something up

These do indeed represent different meanings of up. But they also note that if the particle “does perform a more consistent function with regard to its effect on the meaning of the root verb e.g. ‘up’ adding a sense of completion [...] then the approach is clearly more valid.” This perfective use of up could be exemplified, among many others, by:

drink up
eat up
grow up
mess up
tidy up

In a different set of phrasal verbs with up, the meaning of the particle is ‘beginning to happen, exist, or appear’, e.g.:

Several problems cropped up just as we were finishing.
Mary has just taken up knitting.
The two boys cooked up a plan to steal the bike.
I’ll see if I can rustle up some lunch.
The newspapers have been accused of whipping up hysteria against migrant workers.

Focusing on individual uses of particles, and then perhaps at a later stage mixing different uses for comparison and contrast, can encourage learners to look for and identify systematic features of meaning in the way particles are used.


3 Contextual linking

The third approach Gairns & Redman consider is grouping by a contextual link, for example:

to ring somebody up
to get through
to hang up

Such a link “often allows the teacher better opportunities for further practice and possibly makes the verbs more memorable for the students” but can lead to “the inclusion of verbs which are either of little practical use or are inappropriate to the level”.


4 Same phrasal verb, different meanings

The fourth approach is to gather together different meanings of one verb, such as:

to take off clothes
to take off a person
to take off £5

Gairns & Redman consider that this approach “is perhaps best suited for revision purposes with more advanced students.” At lower levels, the different meanings are unlikely to be equally useful.


Building on the four approaches

All four approaches have merit if used judiciously. Here are a few additional principles of teaching/learning phrasal verbs that can be invoked:

1 As well as phrasal verbs, don’t forget to teach phrasal nouns such as outlay and layout, and phrasal adjectives such as outstanding and mixed-up.

2 Use similar approaches to ‘particle + verb’ verbs such as outlast, upset, and the nouns and adjectives derived from them, not forgetting that the same principle of combining particle + verb has also created thousands of words. So provide learners with opportunities to investigate the meanings of elements such as pro, con, di and gress in, for example:


3 Foster an awareness of any similarities between English and the learners’ L1. For speakers of Romance languages, the Graeco-Latin vocabulary of English is transparent, by and large, though of course the English meanings are not always exactly what learners would expect. Speakers of Germanic and Slavonic languages can benefit from noticing less obvious correspondences – see Phrasal Verbs International in MED Magazine Issue 33.

4 Start right from the beginning. Teach plenty of phrasal verbs at elementary level, in the context of general vocabulary teaching. Don’t suddenly try to start teaching hundreds of them all together at higher levels.

5 Don’t isolate phrasal verbs from other types of vocabulary. Encourage learners to look for similarities of meaning in sets of vocabulary items like these:

get up
get through
get round to
doing something
get away with something
get ready
get dressed
get something done
get something sorted

or these:

I scraped my elbow when I fell over.
I scraped the bits of meat into the dog’s bowl.
She just manages to scrape by on her wage.
The new candidate scraped in by a tiny one-vote margin.
He just managed to scrape through the entrance exam.
I’m sure we can scrape a few more pounds together.
Their candidate scraped home by just fifteen votes.
Is he the best speaker they could get? They’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel!

Similarly, in working on phrasal verbs associated with a theme or topic or situation, mix them in with other useful relevant vocabulary:

to ring somebody up
to get through
to hang up
dialling tone
hold the line
leave a message
bad line

6 Look for opportunities to illustrate abstract phrasal verbs in cartoons; some learners will produce good ones themselves. For instance, come up with a good idea could be illustrated by a cartoon of a diver coming up to the surface with a shining lightbulb representing the good idea.

7 And, of course, bear in mind all the general recommendations for the teaching and learning of vocabulary: the importance of exposure, recycling, personalisation and so on.


Assisting the students of our language

By implementing these suggestions, we can help learners to understand and use particular phrasal verbs, and also to appreciate the hidden systematicity behind the apparent chaos of forms and meanings, and thereby become more independent in dealing with unfamiliar phrasal verbs.

It remains true, nevertheless, that the meanings of some phrasal verbs are not at all obvious, and that learners will in some cases have doubts about word order, stress patterns and register, so that good reference sources are essential. Samuel Johnson was aware of this in compiling his Dictionary:

These [phrasal verbs] I have noted with great care; and though I cannot flatter myself that the collection is complete, I believe I have so far assisted the students of our language, that this kind of phraseology will be no longer insuperable; and the combinations of verbs and particles, by chance omitted, will be easily explained by comparison with those that may be found.

Subsequent developments in scholarship and technology, applied in the spirit of the good Dr. Johnson, have led to the appearance of recent specialised dictionaries of phrasal verbs, such as the Macmillan Phrasal Verbs Plus.



Most of the examples in this article have been taken from Macmillan Phrasal Verbs Plus, published by Macmillan Publishers Limited. Text © Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 2005 and © A&C Black Publishers Ltd 2005.
Working with Words: a Guide to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary, R. Gairns & S. Redman (Cambridge University Press, 1986)
Preface to a Dictionary of the English Language, S. Johnson (1755)



I’m grateful to Michael Rundell for alerting me to the quotation from Samuel Johnson.