What is a phrasal verb?

Sunday 11 September 2011

by Kate Woodford

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.

One response to What is a phrasal verb?

  1. Anthony Gaughan says:

    Thank you for this clear and concise (!) treatment of this area. Wouldn’t you say that cases like get on the bus are problematic more because of the delexicalised nature of GET? that verbs like GET are essentially void of core meaning and so naturally take on a “new” meaning when combined with other elements in particular contexts?

    And if we consider GET as semantically close to BECOME, then get on the bus (=enter) is clearly phrasal – even more so with examples marked even more radically for register like GET OFF WITH someone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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

Being Creative Cover

Being Creative

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.

The Book of Pronunciation   Cover

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  Cover

Digital Play

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.

Teaching Unplugged Cover

Teaching Unplugged

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.

Teaching Online  Cover

Teaching Online

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.

The Business English Teacher Cover

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.

Culture in our Classrooms Cover

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.

The Developing Teacher  Cover

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 Company Words Keep  Cover

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.



Archives by date

  • April 2017
  • March 2017
  • November 2016
  • October 2016
  • July 2016
  • June 2016
  • May 2016
  • April 2016
  • March 2016
  • February 2016
  • January 2016
  • December 2015
  • November 2015
  • October 2015
  • September 2015
  • July 2015
  • June 2015
  • May 2015
  • April 2015
  • March 2015
  • February 2015
  • January 2015
  • December 2014
  • November 2014
  • October 2014
  • September 2014
  • August 2014
  • July 2014
  • June 2014
  • May 2014
  • April 2014
  • March 2014
  • February 2014
  • January 2014
  • December 2013
  • November 2013
  • October 2013
  • September 2013
  • August 2013
  • July 2013
  • June 2013
  • May 2013
  • April 2013
  • March 2013
  • February 2013
  • January 2013
  • December 2012
  • November 2012
  • October 2012
  • September 2012
  • August 2012
  • July 2012
  • June 2012
  • May 2012
  • April 2012
  • March 2012
  • February 2012
  • January 2012
  • December 2011
  • November 2011
  • October 2011
  • September 2011
  • August 2011
  • July 2011
  • June 2011
  • May 2011
  • April 2011
  • March 2011
  • February 2011
  • January 2011
  • December 2010
  • November 2010
  • October 2010
  • September 2010
  • August 2010
  • July 2010
  • June 2010
  • May 2010
  • April 2010
  • March 2010
  • February 2010
  • December 2009
  • November 2009
  • October 2009
  • September 2009
  • August 2009
  • July 2009
  • June 2009
  • May 2009
  • April 2009
  • March 2009