What is a phrasal verb?
Sunday 11 September 2011
Everyone agrees that phrasal verbs are an integral part of the English language, but does anyone agree on what a phrasal verb actually is? Well, I’m happy to say that Liz Walter (my co-author on Phrasal Verbs for Natural English) and I are in broad agreement, but you may have other ideas…
The first characteristic of a phrasal verb is fairly obviously that it has two parts – a verb followed by a particle, or, less commonly, three parts – a verb followed by two particles. No controversy there. So let’s look at a typical phrasal verb – ‘let someone down’ (= disappoint someone by not doing what you’ve agreed). Well, the other obvious characteristic of this unit is that the meaning of the combined verb and particle are unquestionably different from the meaning of those words when separate. (No learner of English could be expected to guess the meaning if ‘let down’ was presented out of context.)
But does that mean that all phrasal verbs have an idiomatic element to them? Well, no, not if you consider ‘get on’ to be a phrasal verb, as in ‘I got on the bus.’ – which I’m supposing you do. (And certainly all the dictionaries I have on my desk here treat it as such.) After all, both verb and particle in ‘get on’ convey core meanings of both ‘get’ and ‘on’. So why is ‘get on’, as opposed to any commonly co-occurring verb + particle combination, a semantic unit in its own right? It must be because ‘get on’ is pretty much exclusively how we describe that particular action. (How else would you say it in normal English?) So there’s another criterion for defining what a phrasal verb is: a verb + particle combination that is far and away the most common way of referring to a particular action.
But if we go with this second criterion, how do we feel about ‘fall off’, as in ‘to quickly move from a higher position to a lower one, usually as a result of an accident’? Semantically, it is only the sum of its parts, (and therefore not very phrasal verb-y) but isn’t it what we say to describe, for example, what happens to an item on a shelf that gets knocked? Shouldn’t it therefore be in dictionaries, flagged up as a phrasal verb. (It isn’t.)
And when does a verb+particle combination become a bona fide phrasal verb? On the radio last week, a victim of domestic abuse gave a testimony of her experiences. To preserve her anonymity, explained the presenter, her words had been ‘voiced up’. Should I have made a note of that combination? Was it a newly minted phrasal verb that I’ll be hearing all the time, or just a creative, one-off combination?
Phrasal verbs, in this regard, are a bit like idioms. There are typical examples that demonstrate all the classic characteristics and we all recognise them for what they are. But around this central core of clear-cut phrasal verbs, there are a whole lot of grey areas.
Delta Development Blog
This blog will be updated at least once a week, so add it to your bookmarks. You can also subscribe to the feed to be notified when it's updated.
Meet the Bloggers
- Bob Dignen & Steve Flinders (February to April 2013)
- Hania Kryszewska & Paul Davis (April to June 2012)
- Louis Rogers (January to March 2012)
- Ken Paterson (December 2011 to February 2012)
- Richard Brown & Lewis Richards (September to November 2011)
- Liz Walter & Kate Woodford (September to October 2011)
- Kyle Mawer & Graham Stanley (April to August 2011)
- Nik Peachey (from November 2010)
- Nicky Hockly (September & October 2010)
- Julie Pratten (July & August 2010)
- Gill Johnson (April 2010)
- Chaz Pugliese (March 2010)
- Luke Meddings (August 2009)
- Lindsay Clandfield (July 2009)
- Duncan Foord (June 2009)
- Scott Thornbury (May 2009)
The Business English Teacher
From the multi-award-winning DELTA TEACHER DEVELOPMENT SERIES. The Business English Teacher is a book not only for teachers who are thinking of making a career move into the field of business English teaching but also for those who would like to increase their skills and develop their potential.
Teaching Online is essential reading for any teacher interested in online teaching and course delivery. It deals comprehensively with both the tools and the techniques necessary for online language instruction.
Part of the Delta Teacher Development Series. Being Creative takes you on a journey that reveals how all teachers have the potential to become creative. Whether you are experienced or new to the classroom, Being Creative allows your teaching to take flight.
Teaching Unplugged was awarded the British Council 2010 ELTons UK Award for Innovation. Teaching Unplugged is the first book to deal comprehensively with the approach in English Language Teaching known as Dogme ELT.
The Company Words Keep
Part of the multi-award-winning Delta Teacher Development Series. The Company Words Keep is a practical and thought-provoking guide for language teachers, showing how the latest insights into “language chunks” can lead to learners acquiring natural and fluent English.
The Developing Teacher
The Developing Teacher has been awarded the 2009 Duke of Edinburgh/ESU Award for Best Entry for Teachers. The Developing Teacher suggests that teachers themselves are the most powerful agents of change and development in their own professional career.
The Book of Pronunciation
Part of the multi-award-winning Delta Teacher Development Series. The Book of Pronunciation is a definitive account of the key role pronunciation plays in teaching and learning, providing a highly authoritative but hugely accessible overview of the essential elements of English pronunciation as well as a wide range of classroom practice.
DIGITAL PLAY - 2012 ELTONS WINNER IN INNOVATION IN TEACHER RESOURCES! Digital Play is a pioneering book on the use of computer games in language teaching. Authors Kyle and Graham are experts in teaching with technology and training teachers in innovative classroom practice.
Culture in our Classrooms
Part of the Delta Teacher Development Series. Culture in our Classrooms acknowledges the role of culture in the English Language Teaching classroom and provides lesson content which is relevant, useful and engaging for students.
Sophie Rome on Financial Fridays with Julie Pratten – Stress Testing for Banks :
March 21, 2015 9:46 am
Arlington Ebune-Nakeli on Absolute Banking English :
We’re piloting a course in Banking...
March 10, 2015 5:24 pm
Ton Koenraad on Going Mobile :
Congrats Nicky and Gavin, This publication will undoubtedly...
February 15, 2015 10:47 pm
Sunil on Nicky Hockly introduces ‘Going Mobile’:
Informative video blurb. I...
February 12, 2015 1:31 pm
David Shaffer on Delta Professional Development Webinars :
Thank you. I’m glad I...
February 2, 2015 10:48 am
13 Nov 14
30 Oct 14
30 Oct 14
15 Oct 14
6 Oct 14
1 Oct 14
6 Aug 14
2 Jul 14
28 Apr 14
24 Apr 14
24 Apr 14
14 Apr 14
19 Mar 14
19 Mar 14
8 Mar 14