Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
The Tyranny of Phrasal Verbs: Turned On or Turned Off?
We welcome back Fitch O'Connell, a longtime teacher of English as a foreign language, working for the British Council in Portugual and other European countries. Here Fitch considers one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the English-language classroom: the dastardly phrasal verb.
Sara came late to class, looking flustered.
"Nice of you to show up," I said, and she looked even more flustered.
"I embarrassed you?" she asked. It was my turn to look flustered for a second. Then a light came on.
"Not show me up," I said "but show up."
"I thought I turned up late?"
"You did, and showed up late as well."
Pedro chipped in at this point.
"Doesn't turn up mean finding something that was lost? Sara wasn't lost, was she? And can it also mean how something ended?"
"It can mean that, Pedro, but for your second example I think you mean turn out."
Pedro wasn't convinced, "But I think that turn out means people coming to something like 'The turn out for the concert was good.'"
"Yes, " I paused. "That is a noun collocation, not a phrasal verb." Pedro and Sara were both looking at me bewildered by now. "But you could say that the concert turned out well, which is not the same thing, as that refers to quality, not numbers."
"So I could say that Sara turned out late, could I?"
"You could, but that would probably mean she left home late, not arrived late. You could have said that Sara turned up late, turned out in an outfit that showed us all up."
The whole class went silent, and started to stare at me in a rather hostile way.
I can't promise that that conversation actually took place in one of my classes, but numerous ones like it certainly have over the years. Advanced learners of English tear their hair out at a feature of the English language that most native speakers don't even realize exists: phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb consists of a verb plus at least one particle, usually either a preposition or adverb particle, and where the verb has changed its meaning. These are not to be confused with other multi-word verbs, such as a simple verb plus preposition, where the verb retains its original meaning but where the addition reinforces the verb in some way.
I say it shouldn't be confused with, but, of course, it is — all the time. And just to make it even more confusing, some grammars refer to just verb-plus-adverb-particle as a phrasal verb, while others include all types. Sometimes a verb-plus-preposition can be both a phrasal verb and a simple verb-plus-preposition. Consider bring up. Which one is the phrasal verb?
a. She brought up the wine from the cellar.
b. She brought up the child on her own.
(The answer is b, while a is a simple verb plus preposition.)
Now imagine you are learning English as a foreign language and try to imagine how daunting the prospect is to learn phrasal verbs. Each one has to be individually committed to memory for there is no easy trick to learn or formula to follow. Some are transitive and some are not, and there are around 3,000 of them in regular use, with another 2,000 or so waiting in the wings. In fact, native speakers use them all the time without even knowing they do, and for someone learning the language they might as well be speaking in code — which is what it is, in a way.
Phrasal verbs are used in less formal speech (an airline company is more likely to talk about its plane "arriving on time" than "turning up on time") and are frequently used to replace the more formal-sounding verbs that have Latin roots. It is this informality that leads to its use in speech more than in the written word, and thus learners of English are less likely to come across (or discover) the words in classroom contexts unless they are working with native speakers.
But does all this matter? You would think it must matter, as phrasal verbs are such an essential part of the lexis of native speakers. While that is true, native speakers no longer make up the majority of speakers of English in the world, and it appears that most learners of English will use the language without necessarily conversing with a native speaker. A German talking to a Saudi Arabian is likely to use English to do the business deal, and the Brazilian negotiating with a Korean is likely to do the same. Would any of them bother to use phrasal verbs? Most unlikely, unless they enjoyed inflicting a little pain on each other — so I do wonder if the effort, the tears, and the agony of trying to learn these wretched things is worthwhile.
However, that leads us into another interesting area, as the English language continues its spectacular success as the world's lingua franca: who does the language belong to these days? Perhaps that's a topic to follow up with — a discussion I, for one, would look forward to. Finally, in case you hadn't noticed, many different applications of phrasal verbs cropped up in this article (including crop up). Can you count how many?