3 Useful Rules for English Phrasal Verbs –
Look at the following sentences:
- “We need to find out when this happened, and why.”
- “If you don’t have a solution to the problem, why bring it up?”
- “She makes up little stories to entertain the kids.”
The verbs find out, bring up, and make up are examples of “Phrasal Verbs”: When we take a verb and add a preposition to the end, we get a new verb with a new meaning.*
Phrasal Verbs are a common feature of the English language—especially casual and spoken English—but they are very difficult for English Language Learners. The main reason for this difficulty is that Phrasal Verbs take on special meanings that may be quite different from the meanings of the original words. It’s very possible to know all the words inside a Phrasal Verb and still fail to understand it!
This story illustrates how one English Language Learner discovered that lesson the hard way:
The story is told of a man who moved to America from another country. He found a comfortable apartment in a high-rise building, somewhere on the 3rd or 4th floor. The man spent his days going to work and spent his nights learning English.
One afternoon, he was sitting near the open window of his apartment, reading a book. Suddenly, through the open window he heard a loud shout: “LOOK OUT!”
Being a good English Language Learner, he knew the meanings of these two words quite well, so he quickly followed the advice: the man jumped out of his chair and stuck his head out the window.
Unfortunately, at that very moment an upstairs neighbor who enjoyed gardening had accidentally pushed a ceramic flowerpot off her window ledge! The man discovered too late that her shout of “LOOK OUT” was not an invitation to see something interesting, but a warning of danger.
Fortunately, the falling flowerpot missed hitting the man’s head by inches, smashing instead to the ground below. For the rest of his life, he never forgot the meaning of the phrasal verb ‘look out’!
Not all Phrasal Verbs are a matter of life and death, but they are nevertheless an important part of English vocabulary. These 3 English Phrasal Verb rules will help you avoid costly mistakes as you work towards their true meanings:
Rule 1: Start with the Most Common Phrasal-Verb Verbs
Here’ s some good news: over half of all Phrasal Verbs are built from just 20 English verbs. If you focus on learning the different forms of these most common verbs, you can quickly develop your understanding of these casual expressions.
Here are the 20 most common verbs used to form Phrasal Verbs, along with the percentage they make of all English Phrasal Verbs:
Most Popular Phrasal Verbs:
1. Go (9%)
2. Come (7%)
3. Take (4%)
4. Get (4%)
5. Set (4%)
6. Carry (3%)
7. Turn (3%)
8. Bring (2%)
9. Look (2%)
10. Put (2%)
11. Pick (2%)
12. Make (1%)
13. Point (1%)
14. Sit (1%)
15. Find (1%)
16. Give (1%)
17. Work (1%)
18. Break (1%)
19. Hold (1%)
20. Move (1%)
Working to memorize the phrasal forms of these verbs is a great way to build vocabulary skill. Begin with the forms of ‘Go’: go out, go up, go on, go back, etc. Then continue to move down the list.
You will see results quickly from this; in fact, simply by mastering the first 3 verbs (go, come, and take), you will have learned over 20% of frequently used phrasal verbs!
Rule 2: Focus on the most Common Prepositions
Another way to gain an advantage in your knowledge of Phrasal Verbs is to understand that not all prepositions* are equally popular.
In the frequency list below, the first 5 prepositions make up over 40% of all Phrasal Verb combinations! By focusing on the most common prepositions (and combining this with the most common verbs), you will greatly increase your ability to recognize daily-use Phrasal Verbs.
Frequency of Prepositions in Phrasal Verbs:
1. Out (13%)
2. Up (12%)
3. On (7%)
4. Back (6%)
5. Down (5%)
6. In (3%)
7. Off (2%)
8. Over (2%)
9. Round (1%)
10. About (1%)
11. Through (0.5%)
12. Around (0.5%)
13. Along (0.5%)
14. Under (<0.1%)
15. By (<0.1%)
16. Across (<0.1%)
Combine Rule #1 with Rule #2, and you will quickly discover some of the most common Phrasal Verbs are formed with the verbs Go, Come, and Take plus the prepositions Out, Up, On, Back, and Down.
‘Go on,’ the most commonly used Phrasal Verb of all, is found here, as are ‘come back‘ (#6 most common), ‘take over‘ (#12 most common), and many others.
Rule 3: Recognize Literal and Figurative Meanings
Look at these sentences:
- “He asked her to put the package down on the table.”
- “Don’t put other people’s ideas down if you don’t have a better idea.”
Wouldn’t you agree that the first sentence is easier to guess the meaning, even if you’re not totally sure? Knowing the common definition of both ‘put’ and ‘down’ can easily lead to a correct understanding in the first sentence, but the second will provide a lot more difficulty.
The challenge here is that some Phrasal Verbs have more literal meanings, and some are more figurative. Literal means that the special (idiomatic) definition of the Phrasal Verb is clearly related to the common dictionary definition of each word. For example, in “Put the package down on the table,” both put and down are functioning near their dictionary definitions.
Figurative means it requires imagination or experience to see the relationship between words and their special definition. Figurative meanings are much more difficult than literal meanings. “Put someone’s idea down” is figurative; it means to criticize the idea harshly (and possibly unfairly).
To make this even more complicated, there are also verb-preposition combinations that look like phrasal verbs, but are actually just verbs and prepositions used next to each other. “Put the package on the table” could appear to be the Phrasal Verb ‘put on‘ but it’s not. And this makes sense; you can “put on a jacket” (Phrasal Verb), but you can’t “put on a package” (Prepositional Verb).
Unfortunately, as the man in the story at the start of this article discovered, there are no foolproof ways of determining whether a literal, figurative, or prepositional meaning is being used: “Look out” might sound like the beginning of the prepositional-verb sentence “Look out the window,” or it may actually be a warning of danger.
One way to recognize if you’re dealing with a Phrasal Verb or a Verb + Preposition is that Phrasal Verbs which take an object can often be separated:
- Businesses sometimes drive up prices. (‘Drive up’ is a Phrasal Verb meaning increase)
- Businesses sometimes drive prices up.
Prepositional Verbs, on the other hand, can’t be separated in this way:
- Delivery trucks sometimes drive up this road. (‘Drive’ is a regular verb meaning move)
- INCORRECT: Delivery trucks sometimes drive this road up.
However, this is not always the case. Some phrasal verbs cannot be separated, such as:
- Let’s go over this topic again. (‘Go over’ is an inseparable Phrasal Verb meaning review)
- INCORRECT: Let’s go this topic over again.
We’ll wrap up this discussion of Phrasal Verbs (see what I did there??) with a list of the 24 most common ones. This is a great place to start: If you are able to memorize the idiomatic meanings for each of these, you’ll know nearly one-third of the most frequent Phrasal Verbs!
24 Most Common Phrasal Verbs:
1. Go on
2. Carry out
3. Set up
4. Pick up
5. Go back
6. Come back
7. Go out
8. Point out
9. Find out
10. Come up
11. Make up
12. Take over
13. Come out
14. Come on
15. Come in
16. Go down
17. Work out
18. Set out
19. Take up
20. Get back
21. Sit down
22. Turn out
23. Take on
24. Give up
*For grammar geeks: a preposition that is functioning within a phrasal verb takes on the grammar label of adverb particle. But for simplicity’s sake, I call them prepositions in this article.
Thanks for spending time with this Grammar Guide for English Phrasal Verbs.
For more practice with vocabulary, be sure to take a look at Vocabulary in Use (available on Amazon)
Also, if you’re looking for a good English to English dictionary, I recommend the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (available on Amazon)
Finally, you might also enjoy my Grammar Guide for Conditional Sentences
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