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?

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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday November 16th 2010, 7:34 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
With new speakers of English, isn't it kinder to just put all these complexities in the realm of 'idiom' and tell them they can use the idiom if they want, or avoid it when too much trouble, and when confused, just ask? One wants the poor soul to enjoy this complex mish-mosh of a language, not just endure it.

I speak as one who had English as an early second language, but has also been embarrassed in French, German, Japanese and even Irish!

Be nice.
Tuesday November 16th 2010, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
Interesting article. By the way, with regard to the final paragraph, Visual Thesaurus contributor Dennis Baron has touched upon some of the issues surrounding English as a global language. Here are two posts of his (on his blog):
Tuesday November 16th 2010, 12:40 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
The word "up" is used to create a dizzying array of phrasal verbs (not to be confused with verb phrases), and of course, by definition, none of them refers to a position or motion that is high or getting higher vertically.

In addition to "show up" and "bring up" (in the article), there's ante up, blow up, break up, burn up (does this one qualify as a phrasal verb? It often has the same meaning as "burn down"), button up, call up, clean up, close up, come up, cuddle up, dress up, drink up, end up, eat up, fess up, finish up, free up, (dang it, I was just going to list a few!) f*** up (if I hadn't said it, you would have), gas up, grow up, hang up, hold up, hook up (precedes "knock up", naturally), hurry up, inch up, join up, knock up, listen up, lock up, look up, (I've made my point; I should quit now) make up, mark up, mess up, mix up, mop up, open up, pick up, pile up, put up, roll up, sew up, shut up (I'm trying!), sign up, snuggle up, start up, sweep up, (Help! I can't stop!) step up, straighten up, take up, tape up, think up, throw up, tie up, vacuum up (does this one count? I ended up alphabetizing my list and then decided to try to come up with at least one word for each letter, but I must admit, "vacuum up" is a stretch), wise up, write up, zip up (hmm ... if the zipper closes from bottom to top, "up" could be a simple adverb; if not, not) ...

"Cowboy up" is one of my favorites, and its recent cousin, "man up", could start us out on a whole new trend, or maybe it already has ...

OK, that got completely out of hand (wanna see my list of 65 frequentives from last week?). I'm sure my fellow obsessive-compulsives out there have noticed that I didn't list any phrasal verbs starting with the letters N,Q, U or X. "Neaten up"? Naahhh, they should be good ones, or they don't count. "Quiet up"? Nope. Anyway, I haven't officially given up but I need a break. A little help here, please? I gave myself a no-dictionary-or-internet rule; shall we use the honor system, or bag the rule?

This would be a fun activity for a school classroom or a long road trip, wouldn't it! Why yes, as a matter of fact, I AM a recovering English teacher! How could you tell?

I've recently read a humorous essay about these "up words" and heard a stand-up comedian's routine about them; Jerry Seinfeld does a quick bit on kids asking their friends to "wait up", but the routine I'm thinking of is longer. If anyone out there knows the sources of these things, link us up! And give me the four missing phrasal verbs (five, if you don't like "vacuum up")! And lots of others (the rest of the iceberg), if you feel inclined or compelled to do so!

Have an ice day (iceberg - get it?),
The Happy Quibbler
Tuesday November 16th 2010, 1:07 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Kristine: Whew! Now I feel fired up, hopped up, jazzed up, and revved up!

Along these lines, see my recent Word Routes column, " 'Man Up' and Other Uplifting Imperatives."
Tuesday November 16th 2010, 3:11 PM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Roberta - being nice is one of my life ambitions; still working on it. I quite agree, the whole business of phrasal verbs is bewildering and rightly belongs to the world of 'idioms' and I hope my article pointed away from thinking they need to be included in language teaching. You only have to look at Kristine's amazing list (thanks Kristine, keep taking the pills!) to realise why we can't let this part of the standard ELT classroom.

Part of the problem, of course, is that exams (and thus course books) are mainly based on American or British English, and so reflect our use of PVs. It's a tricky area we're moving into - English as an International Language - because we don't yet have a format on which to design study courses. We will get there, but for now we're stuck with what we have, I'm afraid. Incidentally, I always tell my students to pick the PVs they like (for whatever reason) and try to commit those to memory and ignore all the rest. I have also devised a few games based on TV games shows, to make the presentation (and incidental) use of PVs in class, putting the emphasis firmly on fun rather than drudge.
Tuesday November 16th 2010, 11:00 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Ben, it's evening now and I just followed your link (two comments above) to the "Man Up ..." column; I thoroughly enjoyed it and the comments that followed it. The day has sort of come full circle; I posted my comment in the morning, and within the next couple of hours 60 more up-words popped into my head, and a few more now and then throughout the day. It's been fun to have all those up-words passing through, flitting about in my head like a profusion of migrating butterflies - and I'm glad they will mostly have moved on tomorrow! Fitch, your comment about the pills still makes me laugh! Laughter and butterflies ... see why I like V.T. so much?
Wednesday November 17th 2010, 12:16 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
P.S. Me again. By the way, I trust that you noticed that I didn't list the 60 (73, actually) new up-words that I thought of today. You're welcome. AND, in the column and related comments that I mentioned above, there were quite a few up-words that I had not thought of, and ( Fitch, I hope you're reading this) I didn't even write them down! Whew! Baby steps, baby steps ... deep breaths ... I know I can beat this thing ...

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday November 17th 2010, 2:59 PM
Comment by: Gena W.

A colleague to whom I just explained phrasal verbs is also a former resident of the Pittsburgh PA area, and he offered a regional verb: "redd up," which means to straighten or clean up. Always one of my favorite localisms.
Wednesday November 17th 2010, 6:02 PM
Comment by: Bob G. (Port Douglas Australia)
I was going to add a few of my own but my post got all screwed up. -- sorry.
Wednesday November 17th 2010, 6:06 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
In Cleveland, 60 years ago, it was 'ridd up' I don't know whether this is a difference in idiom or accent.
Thursday November 18th 2010, 5:57 AM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Pity, lots of pithy PVs from the Land of Oz ...........
Thursday November 18th 2010, 5:18 PM
Comment by: Bob G. (Port Douglas Australia)
Well Fitch, we're not quite as polished up down here as everyone in the real world. Pithy hmm ... now I'd really like to know how that one came about? Not a word we use too much. B.
Friday November 19th 2010, 1:40 PM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor

'Pithy' - can't say I use the word a lot! From Old English 'pitha' and then ME 'pith' and, of course, referring to the fibre/essential substance of something. I think the -y was added in 18th century but I'm going to have to wait to I get my hands on our edition of the complete Oxford Dictionary which is in the office (taking up most of a room itself)to check that.

Not sure which is the real world you're talking about there. It certainly isn't here!
Friday November 19th 2010, 6:46 PM
Comment by: Bob G. (Port Douglas Australia)
Thanks Fitch. It's one of those odd words that everyone just seems to 'accept' without questioning ... if you do find yourself bored senseless and happen to look it up, I'd love to know further.

Regarding 'the real world' ... it's certainly not down here in Oz, either. A study in itself perhaps ... The quest for the real world. Oh no, I think Monty Python has aheady covered it.

Thanks for your contact ... it's been enjoyable.

Saturday November 20th 2010, 5:39 AM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor

Like any proper enquiry we first have to determine our definitions. If we could agree on what 'the real world' is/was then then we could start looking for it, but I fear that reaching agreement on a definition of 'the real world' might be an impossible task.
Saturday November 20th 2010, 7:20 AM
Comment by: Bob G. (Port Douglas Australia)
Actually ... the root of impossibility might be, in fact, defining 'real'. 'World' and 'the' are less daunting. Reality is, after all, open to interpretation ... both subjective and objective. I suspect that 'reality' is not 'real' at all, just like solidness is a cloud of electrons pushing each other apart. If we subjectively interpret 'real' as a condition which might be deceptive of an underlying structure, then I agree with you wholeheartedly that reaching agreement would be impossible.
Saturday November 20th 2010, 2:16 PM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor

Yes (or,as the Portuguese say so more accurately in these cases 'pois' - which indicates a lightness of touch)but once you collocate 'real' and 'life' then you have a whole new set of meanings, even if you'd managed to agree on individual definitions in the first place. Let's not go there for the moment!

Perhaps I should have said if we put together 'real' and 'life' without dumbing down agreed meanings then new problems would crop up which we might not be able to sort out.
Sunday November 21st 2010, 11:32 AM
Comment by: Marilyn M.
For Q, would queue up qualify?
Sunday November 21st 2010, 1:29 PM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor

Personally I wouldn't count 'queue up' as a phrasal verb, but simply a verb plus preposition because the meaning of 'queue' doesn't change from its original meaning. Unless you have a completely meaning in mind that is .... can't think of one. Others might disagree with me (that's not so unusual).
Sunday November 21st 2010, 8:57 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Marilyn, Fitch and Ben -

For one sweet, golden moment it appeared that we had a P.V. starting with Q -thanks, Marilyn! But I'm afraid Fitch may be right. I'm not sure, though; doesn't a preposition have to have an object? Maybe "queue up" is a verb plus adverb, but if that's the case, wouldn't "up" have to mean ... well, you know, UP, the opposite of down? But there's nothing literally up in the case of queueing up. And maybe "up" does change the meaning of "queue" - can people simply queue for a movie, for example, or in order to form a line do they have to queue up? Ben, what do you think? Anyone else?

Any other nominations for phrasal verbs starting with N, Q, U, V, or X? In the style of "cowboy up" and "man up", could a person be encouraged to nerd up, queen up, uncle up, vampire up, or xylophonist up?

"Tis a puzzlement ...
The Happy Quibbler
(Quibble up? Quibbler up? Naahh)
Monday November 22nd 2010, 12:06 PM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor

'Up' seems to adopted a meaning akin to 'front' or 'start' in a number of situations (fire up; line up; face up (to)etc) and I think that is what has happened here, and up is being used to reinforce 'queue'. However, it occurs to me that if this is really logically applied, then queue up would refer to the line made to enter something, so any line made to exit somewhere ought to be 'queue down'!

Not sure how to respond to your derivations of'cowboy up' as this isn't used in British English and sounds a bit strange to me (and remember that the word 'cowboy' either as a noun or, more commonly, as an adjective in BE has a distinctly negative quality, i.e. a cowboy job) but appreciate your valiant attempt to complete the alphabet. ......

Tuesday November 23rd 2010, 10:26 AM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Bob (if you're still there)

I do love the 'proper' Oxford English Dictionary. I had a look at the origin of 'pithy' and it goes back further in use than I had thought. According to the OED (Second Edition, Volume XI, p 928)it was first used in the sense of "considered and forceful in expression or style; sententious; terse" around 1530, and one of the early uses was John Tindale who referred to "it is a short, pythy sentence.....".
Wednesday November 24th 2010, 5:45 AM
Comment by: Bob G. (Port Douglas Australia)
Thanks Fitch ... yes, still here ... got sidetracked for a couple days attending to my chosen vocation.

That's quite remarkable re pithy. So, the word was most likely originally used in relation to language itself and not necessarily character. And, it's original usage may not have even implied 'less than ordinary' as it does now ... but might have been used to make a firm statement along with possibly a bit of anger. Interesting. Thank-you for looking that up.

I must say, I've never laid eyes on the 'real' OED. I'm sure there would be a few sets moldering away down here in library back rooms somewhere ... probably no-one's figured out what it actually is.

When I was 'youngish', I asked my mother for a dictionary for my birthday (geek-in-the-making). She dutifully went out and purchased "The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language". I still have it on the shelf for old times sake ... but ... it took years to stop from using z's instead of s's ... and spelling mouldering like I did above ... and color - although, that's a tough one because if you spell it the correct way when coding web pages, the internet ignores you colo(u)r styles.

I agree with 'real' and 'life' above ... better cast that one adrift. Thankfully, I have my own version of reality which I can modify to suit my needs.

'Collocate' ... just love that one --> Thank-you.

Thanks for the insights.

Tuesday February 15th 2011, 1:18 PM
Comment by: Anne H. (Bellevue, WA)
I'm confused by the "a." example above, and your explanation that "up" is a preposition. It's not a preposition leading into a phrase, as "up the wine" doesn't make sense, and I'd think that "wine" was a direct object, anyhow. Isn't "up" an adverb there? Not trying to be picky, just a student of grammar. (I liked diagramming in school!) Thanks for clarifying.
Tuesday February 15th 2011, 5:03 PM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hello Anne
I admit it would have been less controversial to have used the word 'particle' instead of 'preposition' - you would simply have filled in the blank to your own satisfaction. I believe that bring up the wine refers to the action of taking something upwards, in this case to the top of the stairs from the cellar, which surely takes on the meaning of a preposition. I suppose you could see it in the adverbial sense of away from the centre of the earth. Let's move the sentence out of the active state and into the passive (most useful for BOTH examples): 'She was brought up ....' 'The wine was brought up ...' and it seems to me clearer that it is a preposition and not an adverb. And I do believe that 'Up the wine' can make sense by itself - unusual, perhaps (unless you work in a vineyard or wine storage facility!) just as 'up your tools' would have the same meaning. Or is that specifically British English? But, in the interests of peace and harmony, let's refer to it as a 'particle'!

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Fitch O'Connell on words that appear to share a common meaning across languages.
The chunking approach challenges many of the traditions of language instruction.
Brett Reynolds offers a skeptical perspective on the chunking approach.
Dennis Baron considers the spread of international English beyond the Anglophone world.