The Ultimate Guide to Phrasal Verbs (Part One)

Learning a new language is always difficult. My clients all have different struggles but there’s one struggle they share. Every single of one of my clients curses the day some evil genius combined verbs with prepositions to create phrasal verbs. Like a magic formula, the meaning of a verb can change when combined with a preposition. Add a word like “on”, “in”, or “up” to a verb and you change the meaning of that verb. If you’re up for a challenge, try adding two prepositions to a verb. Now you’re a real phrasal wizard!

Perhaps you’re thinking “why all the fuss over phrasal verbs?” They don’t seem too difficult. Just combine a preposition and a verb. There’s more to it than that. The meaning of a phrasal verb is not easily apparent from the meaning of the individual words. You won’t know the meaning of a phrasal verb sentence by simply defining each individual word. For example, take the following sentence: “She went to the grocery store and ran into a friend.” Does that mean she went to the store and came back with some bruises because she literally slammed into her friend? No! “Ran into” means she saw her friend at the store unexpectedly. No injuries were required.

To a native English speaker, the meaning of phrasal verbs like the example above comes automatically. From a young age we learn to recognize them and use them everyday. English language learners, for whom the meaning of phrasal verbs is not second nature, are often given lists of phrasal verbs to memorize. In previous posts, I myself have presented lists of some commonly used phrasal verbs. There are plenty of other lists out there to help you memorize some phrasal verbs. Memorizing phrasal verbs is great! Memorize some and have fun trying them out. In this post, however, I want to go beyond presenting a list to memorize. A blog post that calls itself “The Ultimate Guide to Phrasal Verbs” has to go beyond repeating the same old memorization mantra, doesn’t it?

For an English language learner, the secrets behind phrasal verbs take us on a journey into the brain of native English speakers. A native English speaking brain automatically associates certain images with specific sets of prepositions; in part based on the literal meaning of the phrasal verb in question and the cultural associations that come with certain prepositions.

This is only part of the story (we are talking about phrasal verbs after all). Importantly, you should note that different English prepositions can elicit different mental images depending on the context. Context is key especially when we talk about the idiomatic meaning of phrasal verbs and their implied tone. Below I explain some specific prepositions and the different meanings they have when paired with different verbs. Think of this as a contextual deep dive into the fascinating subject of phrasal verbs.

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Example # 1: Around

The preposition "around" can imply 1) around for movement; going from here to there such as in "walking around" but also "looking around" 2) aimless and lazy activity you are wasting your time with such as in "sitting around", "standing around", and "waiting around" 3) acting in a rough, even violent manner such as in "pushing around" 4) change such as in "turning around".

Let's take a closer look at the mental images that come with these three meanings. Number one makes one think of walking around a town with a specific destination in mind (that's where number two comes into play as well). Number three evokes images of a ball being kicked around a stadium or gym which calls for some level of physical strength, thus can imply violently kicking the ball around. Number four evokes the image of turning a book around so that its cover now faces the table instead of us looking at it. That implies change, a change of perspective even.

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Example # 2: Across

The preposition “across" implies 1) finding someone or something as in "coming across someone/something" and 2) communication as in "coming across" as well.

The mental image evoked by "across" is crossing a bridge or a street, movement across a line/border. "To come across" can mean to find something/someone unexpectedly without even looking like coming across a friend at a party or coming across information. This phrasal verb can also mean "to leave an impression" like in this example: She came across as a very smart person at the party. Here, communication metaphorically moves across a bridge, the invisible bridge between humans; a different type of movement than physical movement but a movement all the same.

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Example # 3: Apart

The preposition “apart" stands for either 1) collapse or 2) separation. Look at the following examples: 1) "To come apart": When I picked up the flower, it came apart and fell to the ground in lots of different pieces. Or: Charles felt like he was coming apart emotionally. 2) To drift apart: The two boats floating in the water started to drift apart when the wind became stronger. Or: Jane and Peter started to drift apart after he found out that Jane was seeing someone else for a while. The mental images here can be the flower coming apart and the two boats drifting apart.

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Example # 4: About

The preposition “about" stands for something happening, or leading to a result as in, for example, "how did the British Empire come about?", in other words "How did the British Empire emerge?' Or: "The new reforms came about after parliament passed a number of new laws”. Another good example here is: "To bring about" as in "The new reforms will bring about an increase in welfare spending", meaning here: "The new reforms will lead to an increase in welfare spending". The mental image here is a little trickier to describe; mostly when we think of "about" we think of something is about to happen in one way or another. Another example for a phrasal verb with "about" is "to go about something" as in "how did she go about finding a new job so quickly?"; in other words: "how did she approach finding a new job so quickly?"

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Example # 5: Aside

The preposition "aside" evokes the image of someone "moving something to the side (=aside)". In a more idiomatic sense, moving something or someone to the side (=aside) could mean 1) rejection (imagine someone checking a number of items on whether they want to use them or not and putting the ones aside they do not like.) 2) giving in to outside pressure (imagine a line of people waiting to be called to play in a soccer team, and suddenly one of them steps aside realizing they are not good enough.) 3) Another example for "step aside": John had to step aside and leave the task to someone else. 3) Isolation: So when you isolate an item from the rest of a group, it could mean physical isolation. A other examples for this use are: "The teacher pulled her aside (or: took her aside) and told her to see the principal."The government set  a certain amount of money aside for education reform."

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Example # 6: Away 

The preposition "away" either mostly stands for removing someone or something from one place to another or continuous action. One mental image associated with "away" could be someone walking away from a place; thus, removing themselves from that place and in doing so engaging in the continuous action of movement. Some examples are: "She moved away to a new city." "The dog was barking at the man, but he managed to chase it away." "Sometimes it is important to get away from the city." Movement away from someone or something can also mean that you stop doing something because you are afraid, it is illegal, or simply bad for you. You avoid doing something, prevent something, or are not taking part. Thus, if you stay way from someone, you avoid them because you know they are not good for you.

Some more examples: The guests were turned away because the building was over capacity. My neighbor chased away the squirrels that were eating all his plants. "Away" can also stand for disappearing. An example for this is "The children ran away from home." That "away" can also stand for continuous action might be confusing but will appear more logical when you think of the other examples already mentioned all including some type of movement that includes continuous movements, e.g. "running away" can’t just be completed by simply taking one step. It calls for the continuous activity of running. "Away" is also used to describe removing something from your sight or to a safe place maybe through cleaning up your attic. Compare to the following examples: The suspect stashed away (= hid) millions of dollars. 

These are just a few examples, but when it comes to a topic like phrasal verbs, there’s always more to learn. To study more about phrasal verbs, check out Everyday English Dialogue & Phrasal Verbs and Studying Phrasal Verbs in Context. Don’t forgot to have fun while tackling this challenging subject!

Marike Korn