Phrasal Verbs!

Hello English learners!  Since there was no group discussion lesson this week I’d like to talk (write?) about phrasal verbs!

Phrasal Verbs?

First of all, what are phrasal verbs?  Many people will say a phrasal verb is just a verb that comes with another word, or a verb that comes with a preposition (for example “listen to”).  This is not true.  It is true that phrasal verbs come with one (or more!) prepositions, but that’s only one part of it.  The other important part is that the combination of verb and preposition change the meaning of the verb!

For example, is “go to” a phrasal verb?  No, because “go” and “go to” mean the same thing.  How about “go up”?  Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t!


1. Please go up the stairs.

2. The price went up.

Is the first example an example of a phrasal verb?  No, it’s not.  The word go did not change meaning.  How about the second?  Yes, it is!  In that case, “go up” means increase, but “go” does not mean “increase” so the meaning changed!

Try these!

1. I checked the word in my dictionary.

2. I’m coming to your house tomorrow.

3. I checked in at the hotel.

4. I need to clean my room up.

Which are phrasal verbs?  Which are not?

Sentences 3 and 4 are phrasal verbs, 1 and 2 are not.  In the sentence 1, “in” just tells me where you are going to check the word.  It doesn’t change the meaning of “check”.  You could take it out and it wouldn’t change the meaning of the sentence.  It’s the same with sentence 2.  However, “check in” has a specific meaning that is different than “check”: to register your arrival.  Check and register are different!  Sentence 4 is tricky!  The verb clean means the same thing in “clean” and “clean up”, but the “up” adds a little extra nuance: it means to do something thoroughly or until finished!  So that additional meaning makes “clean up” a phrasal verb!

So remember: a phrasal verb is a verb that comes with a preposition and has a different meaning than the regular verb.

Why use phrasal verbs?

One very good question that I often get from my students is why are there phrasal verbs in English?  This is a very, very important question for three reasons.

  1. When you check a Japanese word in the dictionary, it usually doesn’t give you phrasal verbs, it usually gives you regular verbs.
  2. Phrasal verbs are very common in English.
  3. Phrasal verbs often mean exactly the same thing as regular verbs.  But if that’s true, then why do we even have them?

To answer this question I first have to explain a little bit about something called connotation.  Connotation is the association that comes from a word.  Basically, it’s how the word feels.  As an example, what’s the difference between “fat” and “overweight” in English?  Well, they both mean 太りすぎる in Japanese, and in English, they both have the same meaning.  However, the word “fat” sounds bad in English.  It sounds rude or unkind.  It hurts.  On the other hand, “overweight” sounds kind or considerate or polite.  We say fat has a negative connotation (it feels bad) but overweight has a neutral connotation (it doesn’t feel good or bad). So if you were a doctor, which would you say?  Overweight, I hope!

It’s similar in Japanese.  and both point to the same person (“I” in English), but when you hear , how does it feel?  Does it feel the same as hearing ?  I don’t think so!  So they have different connotations.

I still don’t understand why you have phrasal verbs in English…

So why do we use phrasal verbs and regular verbs that mean the same thing?  Because the connotations are very different!

  1. Phrasal verbs usually contain very common verbs like “take” or “get” or “go”, but the regular verbs that mean the same thing are very uncommon. For example, you could say “exit”, but that’s a very uncommon verb!  We usually say “go out”.  Go is more common than exit.
  2. Phrasal verbs are usually broader than the regular verbs.  This means it has more definitions so it can be used in more situations.  In the example above, “exit” only means “to leave a place”, but “go out” has many other definitions.  “Go out” can mean “leave your house/home” or “join a social activity” or even “become extinguished”. So “exit” is very narrow but “go out” is very broad.
  3. Because of the first two reasons the connotations are very different!  Regular, uncommon verbs like “remove” or “exit” or “enter” sound very neutral, so they sound very formal and sometimes even cold!  Phrasal verbs, on the other hand, sound informal, friendlier and warmer!  This is why it’s very important to learn them to improve your conversation skills!

So what should you do about them?

There are a couple thing you can do!

  • Next time you read or hear a very uncommon regular verb, try to think of a possible phrasal verb for it!  For example, when you read or hear the sentence “Complete the mission” consider a phrasal verb you could use instead of “complete” (for example, “finish up”)!
  • Next time you read or hear a phrasal verb, think of how you would say it in Japanese or what other ways it could be used!  For example, if you hear “I’ll take you up on that”, what is the phrasal verb (it’s “take up on”)?  Can you make other sentences with it?  Can you find other examples of it in books or movies?  Are there any other ways to use it?
  • Can you make your own phrasal verbs?  Maybe you already know some phrasal verbs.  Do you see any patterns?  Can you experiment and try making your own phrasal verbs to use on twitter or at your next English lesson or next time you meet a foreign friend?

In the future I will talk about how to find patterns in phrasal verbs so you can more easily create and understand new ones.  I will also talk about the rules for using phrasal verbs (they’re pretty hard to use!).

Thanks for reading, and see you next week!

Text Vocabulary:
  1. Broad: 意味の広い
  2. Common: 普通の、よくあること
  3. Connotation: 意外の意味
  4. Experiment: 実験をする、試す
  5. Narrow: 意味の狭い
  6. Neutral: 中立の
  7. Phrasal Verb: 句動詞
  8. Uncommon: 珍しい、よくあることではない

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