Tips for Learning Phrasal Verbs

Tips for Learning Phrasal Verbs

Profesor de inglés explicando a los estudiantes

Phrasal verbs in English are always a challenge for our students, some students try to figure out basic rules, some try to memorise them, some learn them by the preposition, some learn them by the verb. There is no easy way to quickly learn phrasal verbs, they are like any other part of your vocabulary that you will need to gradually incorporate into your vocabulary. However, there are some way important rules about how to use English phrasal verbs in a grammatically correct way. In the article below our Head Teacher, Dave McCole, goes through some of these rules and finishes up with some useful tips for learning phrasal verbs in English.

Phrasal verbs AKA Multi-word verbs

by Dave McCole

“Phrasal verbs contain a verb plus one or more particles: make up a story, put the light out.

The meaning may or may not be obvious from the individual words.” (Michael Lewis)

Basically, combinations of verbs + an adverb, or preposition, or both that should be treated as a “chunk”(single unit) of language.

Read this short text and pay attention to the phrasal verbs in bold, think about their meaning, the words around them:

“As the chilly breeze swept through the airport terminal, she decided to take her jacket off before boarding the plane. Excitement filled the air as passengers gathered, looking forward to their flights taking off. Among them, a young musician who had been tirelessly working on her songs, hoping for her career to take off. Little did she know she would run into someone who could help her on that flight.”

The following sections will look at the different types of phrasal verbs, problems learners face, and some suggestions to make learning them (slightly) easier.

Different types of phrasal verbs

Multi-word verbs can function in 4 ways, generally related to transitivity, and separability.

Type 1: Intransitive, requiring no direct object. e.g., go off (ring)

The fire alarm went off.

“Their flights taking off” (become airborne)

Type 2: Transitive, requiring a direct object., Inseparable e.g., break into (force entry into)

Burglars broke into the mansion.

“she would run into someone” (to meet someone by chance)

Type 3: Transitive, Separable e.g., give something up (quit)

The direct object either comes between the verb and the adverb, or after the preposition. If we use a pronoun, then it must go between.

He gave smoking up.

John gave it up.

He gave up smoking.

John gave up it.

“She decided to take her jacket off” (remove)

Also, there can be multi-word verbs with 2 objects e.g. (provide someone with something)

He provided me with the directions.

Type 4: three-part e.g., (look up to someone) (admire)

He looks up to his father.

“ looking forward to their flights” (feel excited about something that is going to happen)

Issues learners have with phrasal verbs:


● Literal vs idiomatic meaning

“She decided to take her jacket off” vs “hoping for her career to take off”

You may know the meaning of the verb and the particle (draw on)

He drew on the board.(literal)

But not the meaning of:

She drew on her experience.(idiomatic) (make use of)


“Their flights taking off” (become airborne)(intransitive)

“She decided to take her jacket off” (remove)(transitive)

“hoping for her career to take off”(become successful)(intransitive)

Some phrasal verbs have multiple meanings, including between transitive and intransitive



Generally, phrasal verbs are informal, but that is not always the case.

We chilled out at home. (Informal)

I need to check out that new movie. (Informal)

There are a few options to mull over. (Semi-formal)

We need to carry out a thorough analysis of the data. (Formal)

Some can have a formal one-word equivalent that is used in formal contexts

I keep putting it off. (Informal)

We must postpone the meeting. (Formal)


You may struggle to know the collocation patterns of phrasal verbs and which lexical areas they occur in.

“The match was called off due to the rain”, also collocating strongly with engagement,”wedding”, “meeting”;.

You might understand the meaning, i.e. cancel, and then attempt to apply it to other nouns with which it in fact has no relationship.

For example,”I called off my English class”; sounds strange to L1 speakers, as generally we can only call off events which have been specifically arranged, or that are of a unique, one-off nature.

● Particle use

It can be very easy to confuse particles, or omit them entirely.

“The is growing up”

“I like listening (to) music”

Tips for Learning English Phrasal Verbs

● When reading in English, get into the habit of noticing, identifying and underlining phrasal verbs.

● Write down in a notebook the sentences they appear in.

● Look up the meaning in an English to English dictionary, and make your own sentences.

● Get a teacher or friend to check your sentences.

● Try to limit them to 2 or three per day. This will build up over time.

● Read a little (in English) everyday for a minimum of 15 minutes, read about things you are interested in.

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