Making sense of phrasal verbs: Introduction

If there's one thing about English vocabulary that makes students wince, it's phrasal verbs.

I'm not the best person to talk about the history of phrasal verbs (if you're really interested, you can check out this University of Toronto web page: http://tinyurl.com/35gftf5), but I do know from experience that it's hard to teach students phrasal verbs.

When learning phrasal verbs, don't panic. Over the summer I'll post information on hints and tips on how to remember and use phrasal verbs. Before we start, however, there are a couple of pieces of information that you should remember:

a) When you learn a phrasal verb for the first time, make sure you understand if it's transitive or intransitive. Intransitive verbs are verbs that do not need direct objects: with the verb and the subject alone, the verb makes sense: Elvis died. The sun is coming up. But some verbs don't make sense if you don't include a direct object: *I want. *She has to buy.

The problem is that some phrasal verb combinations can have transitive and intransitive meanings. Take the example of put off:

Transitive - to procrastinate: She put off her tax return until the very last minute.
Intransitive - to distract: I can't concentrate! That noise is putting me off!

b) Make sure you know WHAT or WHO the direct object is. This can make a big difference in the meaning of the verb:

I put my back out last week playing tennis. (to dislocate a part of the body)
The company put out a press release announcing the changes. (to broadcast)
The firefighters were unable to put out the fire. (to extinguish)
If you want the bus to stop you need to put your arm out and wave. (to extend from the body.)

In this case, you have two meanings that can only be used with parts of the body (dislocate/extend), one that refers to information (broadcast) and one that talks about an object (to extinguish a fire.) This technique works best if you....

c) Learn phrasal verbs within a specific context. Most students cannot remember the meanings of phrasal verbs if they learn them from long lists, and if you take a look at your textbooks, you'll notice that most of them only show you the phrasal verbs that you would need to talk about a specific idea.

As an example, observe these phrasal verbs that talk about appearance:

People are always mistaking Diane for her sister. It's hard to make out the difference if you're looking at them from a distance, but the sister is usually more made up (look out for the bright lipstick) and because she's a little bigger, she needs to let out her skirts and trousers.

Can you make a list of thea meanings and the direct objects (if needed) for each of these phrasal verbs?

In the next post about phrasal verbs, we'll look at how to predict what a phrasal verb means by looking at its particle.
to wince: to pull your body or face back because you are in pain or because someone has hit you.
to check something out: to take a look at something.

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