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Curriculum and Student Achievement

Phrasal Verbs as Idioms

Phrasal verbs are compound verbs (more than one word) that result from combining a verb with an adverb or a preposition. The resulting compound verb is idiomatic (e.g. its meaning cannot be derived from the dictionary meaning of its parts). For instance, “take back” is a phrasal verb consisting of the verb “take” and the adverb “back.” As a phrasal verb, its meaning becomes “to retract a statement,” (I take back my comment on the discussion.), which cannot be derived solely by combining the dictionary meanings of the original verb and adverb.

Such phrasal verbs are the main way new verbs enter the English language. They usually begin in casual speech where they become part of our everyday vocabulary and eventually become recognized as acceptable standard usage.

But because their meanings are idiomatic, there is no logical pattern or formula for learning them. And to make matters worse, many phrasal verbs have more than one idiomatic meaning. For instance, “take back” can also mean to return merchandise for a refund. (John went to the mall to take back the sweater he bought).

The difficulty in learning phrasal verbs is two-fold, the unpredictability of their idiomatic meaning and the rules describing how they may be entered into the rest of the sentence. For the first difficulty, only two solutions exist—memorizing the phrases and immersing yourself in the English language.

TIP: A good strategy for memorizing phrasal verbs is to make flash cards of phrases that you come across. You can write the phrase on one side of the card and draw or cut out a picture that depicts the phrase on the back of the card. Flash cards are very useful and can prove to be very successful.

Always remember that there can be several different idiomatic meanings for just one phrasal verb.

For the second difficulty, there are several different solutions depending on the construction of the phrasal verb. First of all, it is important to know that phrasal verbs can either be transitive (the verb takes a direct object) or intransitive (the verb cannot take a direct object).

Transitive phrases are those that can take a direct object. Some transitive verbal phrases are separable. That is, the verb can be separated from the preposition by a direct object. If the direct object is a noun it may or may not come between the verb and the preposition; however, if the direct object is a pronoun, it must come between the verb and the preposition.

There are no rules for helping you to determine which transitive phrases are inseparable; you just have to memorize them. In these cases the verb and the preposition or adverb cannot be separated by the direct object.

Intransitive phrases are those that do not take a direct object and cannot be separated.