Learning Strategies: Phrasal Verbs

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode looking at how to learn phrasal verbs.

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Hello, my name’s Stephen Greene and this is English with Stephen, the podcast that brings you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.

Today, we are going to talk about something that unites nearly all English language learners across the world. The one thing that annoys, scares, and frustrates students, no matter their age or where they come from.

Phrasal verbs.

A phrasal verb is a verb plus one or two other small words, or particles. These small words are usually prepositions, but sometimes they are adverbs as well.

I am not going to talk about the grammar of phrasal verbs or their different categories because, quite honestly, language users do not need to know about this, and it is not very helpful.

Instead, I have a few tips for you to try to make it a bit easier to learn these dreaded phrasal verbs coming up after this short musical interlude.

Before we start with my tips for learning phrasal verbs, I’d like to tell you that you can find the transcript to this episode on my site EnglishwithStephen.com. A transcript can be valuable for English learners as it helps you understand and learn new vocabulary. In fact, I have a whole episode called Using Transcripts to Learn English with lots more tips and ideas for how you can use a transcript to learn English as quickly and effectively as possible. So go to my site, EnglishwithStephe.com for the transcript and lots more useful links.

Ok, so on with my tips for learning phrasal verbs.

The first tip is probably a very surprising one. Don’t!

That’s right, don’t learn phrasal verbs. Don’t pay attention to them. Don’t worry about them more than any other type of vocabulary. Just ignore them.

Let me explain.

Phrasal verbs are just another piece of vocabulary. If you think about it, the phrasal verb ‘get up’ could just be learned as ‘getup’, something you do in the morning when it is time to start the day. We don’t need to be preoccupied with the individual parts of the word, just what it means.

In the same way, you already know a lot of phrasal verbs, because you have learned them as you need them. A good teacher will not present a whole list of phrasal verbs but will teach you the language you need for a subject.

So that is my first point. Don’t worry about phrasal verbs. You will learn them, just as you will learn any other type of vocabulary when you need them.

If you are still listening, I am guessing that perhaps you didn’t believe me. That is fine. English learners have had years of teachers and materials writers showing them different phrasal verbs. Part of this, I am sure, is just to show students how much they don’t know and to scare them into continuing to pay for classes.

So, if you really need to learn some phrasal verbs, what can you do?

Well, one thing you could do is buy a book from my friend Luiz Otavio Barros. It’s called ‘100 Phrasal Verbs to Learn for Life‘ and he looks at 100 really important phrasal verbs. It is a great book and should really help you if you are detrmined to learn phrasal verbs.

If you don’t want to buy a book, and I know that times are hard for many people, the first thing is to focus on the meaning of phrasal verbs. If you are interested in sport, find words associated with this topic. For example, to kick off, to throw in, to track back are all phrasal verbs that might useful if you are interested in football. Remember, I say football, not soccer, because I am from the UK.

Of course, as well as these phrasal verbs you should also be interested in other vocabulary associated with football or your sport of choice. Not just phrasal verbs.

Once you have this vocabulary to talk about football, you should then put them into your lexical notebook. You don’t know what a lexical notebook is? It is a system for organising your new vocabulary that makes it easy to remember and find it in the future. If you would like help in creating your lexical notebook I have an episode all about it called ‘Lexical Notebooks’ and I will post a link to this episode on my site EnglishwithStephen.com

Focussing on the meaning is by far the best way of learning phrasal verbs. Another, less effective way, is to focus on the verb. You can find lots of phrasal verbs associated with the ‘put’ for example. ‘Put on’, ‘put off’, ‘put out’, ‘put in’, and so on. The problem here is that some of these phrasal verbs will have more than one meaning, depending on the context.

However, if you do choose to use this strategy, and there is a lot of published material out there which organises phrasal verbs like this, then you could use your lexical notebook to help you organise them.

Finally, you can focus on the particle. This means that you look at the small parts that are added onto the verb. For example, you could look at lots of different words with ‘down’ as their particle. ‘Look down’, ‘Look down on’, ‘burn down’, ‘turn down’ are just some examples.

It is often this particle that creates the problems for students because it is here that the meaning of the verb is changed. When the meaning is literal, it is easy to understand. When I say ‘look down the hill’ it is clear what the ‘down is referring to. However, if somebody says they ‘turned down the job offer’ it is not immediately clear what ‘down’ means.

In this second example, the particle creates a metaphorical meaning. And unless you know what the metaphor is, you cannot hope to guess.

Now, there is one disadvantage and one advantage to focussing on the particles.

The disadvantage is that there are so many possibilities it is incredibly difficult to cover all of them. And, on the face of it, there is very little to link the different phrasal verbs by meaning, which makes it even more difficult to remember.

However, the advantage is that, it turns out, there is something that links the particles. The idea here is that proficient users of a language do not just choose what particle to use randomly. There is a logic to the phrasal verbs. For example, some research has been done which suggests that the word ‘down’ can be used to suggest something is being reduced, something is ending, or an unbalanced power relationship.

However, while this is very interesting, I am not sure how useful it is to language students when we are trying to decide whether to use ‘in’ or ‘down’ in a sentence.

So I go back to my original recommendation. Don’t worry about phrasal verbs. Think of them like any other piece of vocabulary and learn them as and when you need them.

Before I finish today, I’d like to quickly remind you to go to my site, EnglishwithStephen.com for the transcript of this episode, links to my social media, past episodes, for example, the episode on how to create a lexical notebook, and lots of other good stuff as well.

Speak later, and happy studies!

Ideas for learning phrasal verbs
English phrasal verbs are a pain!


  1. Oh Dear!!! Anyway, I always try to pay more attention to the Prepositions that usually comes along with the verb like you mentioned – down…. at least, it helps me!!! Thanks again Stephen.

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