Many have multiple meanings, some can be split up by other words in the sentence, and students may not always recognise when a phrasal verb is being used. Once you have gained a basic understanding of phrasal verbs, it is time to start using them in your speech. Failure to do so will leave you sounding overly formal in the majority of everyday situations. A little extra effort to learn phrasal verbs in English can go a long way.
Phrasal verbs present a variety of problems for foreign learners of English. Where native speakers of the language use these verbs instinctively, others have to learn them individually with their various meanings and contexts. Phrasal verbs are extremely common in spoken English and are preferable to more formal vocabulary in the majority of speech situations (e.g. postpone vs. put off). Verbs of this type can, and often do, have multiple meanings depending on the context in which they are found. For instance, “pick up” can mean: lift, collect someone from somewhere (in a car, etc.), attract a sexual partner, etc. Listeners and readers guess the intended meaning from the context.
Another serious problem is that phrasal verbs can be broken up in the sentence, meaning that the verb is separated from its particle. For example, “I picked the beautiful, blonde lady up at 7 o’clock.” – Here, the object of the sentence is sandwiched between the two parts of the phrasal verb. Some English phrasal verbs can be broken up in this way, others cannot.
1) View phrasal verbs just like any other type of word. Learn them if and when you find them during your usual lessons or study routine. When you come across a new phrasal verb, note it down and learn its meaning in the context in which you have just found it. Write down a correct example of its usage and make a note of whether it can be broken up or not. This information can be found in a good dictionary, online, or you can ask your teacher.
2) Remember that a phrasal verb is still one unit of meaning even though it is made of two or more words! Learn all the parts of a phrasal verb together as if they form one word. A good approach can be to learn vocabulary thematically. For example, when learning about the topic of “daily routine”, you might come across the following verbs: wake up, get up, get dressed, brush one’s teeth, comb one’s hair, go downstairs, have breakfast, etc. Only two of these verbs are phrasal verbs (wake up and get up). Learn them as part of the topic!
3) Learn one English phrasal verb and one meaning to begin with. The definition you learn will depend on the context in which you first find a given phrasal verb. If you see this same phrasal verb again, but being used in a different way, then get out your dictionary and learn this additional definition. You will now know two meanings instead of one. Repeat this process of acquiring additional definitions as and when you find a familiar phrasal verb being used in an unfamiliar way. Do not try and learn all of the meanings at once – some may be rare and you will forget them quickly. Vocabulary retention relies on regular repetition. Imagine your memory is like the temporary files folder on your computer; any information that is not used often enough is automatically deleted.
4) Comparing English with your native language can help you to see where mistakes may occur, but also where similarities exist. For example, there are some similarities between English phrasal verbs (and verbs of motion) and the Russian use of inflections as in words like: задерживать – hold up, сдаваться – give up, выяснять – find out.
5) Perhaps consider taking Skype English lessons with a British English teacher to improve your spoken fluency and gain better experience of how and when to use phrasal verbs.