Phrasal verbs – aren’t they terrible! By now, you have probably realised that there are a lot of phrasal verbs, each one with more than one possible meaning. There are three main characteristics of phrasal verbs:

  1. more than one word – sometimes called “multi-word verbs”, there’s always two parts (sometimes with a dependent prepositions attached too!). It’s normally a familiar verb, like “take”, “get” or “go”, but with and adverb or preposition afterwards. This second part is called a particle, and changes the meaning of the verb.
  2. idiomatic – this means that the verbs are difficult to translate, because each word making up the phrasal verb has a different meaning to the phrasal verb as a whole, e.g. “get”, “away”, and “with” each have their own meaning, which you might know, or which a translator (or dictionary!) could tell you, but these meanings are different to “get away with”.
  3. many meanings – one phrasal verb could have different meanings, depending on the context, e.g. “take off” – compare: “take off the shirt” and “the plane takes off at 3 p.m.”. Very different!

The last point means it is difficult to record new phrasal verbs. For example, if you write in your notes:

take off – remove clothing from your body

This obviously won’t help you in other contexts!

One good thing about phrasal verbs is there is nearly always a ‘non-phrasal’ (only one word) equivalent, which is easier to understand or look up. For example, “take off” clothes is the same as “remove” clothes. This is useful when learning phrasal verbs. An effective way for recording (and therefore remembering and understanding) phrasal verbs is to record an example sentence with some context using the non-phrasal synonym, then writing which phrasal verb can substitute the verb:

I remove my pyjamas before I get in the shower.    take off

The idea is that, in this context, you will remember that this phrasal verb works!