A Phrasal What?
Hello and welcome to this week’s Englisch Macht Spass.
Got your tea/coffee/glass of wine? Good, let’s go.
A lot of the ‘what does … mean?’ questions I get asked are about a particular construct; a verb followed by a preposition. My students know the verb, they know the preposition but their knowledge of both doesn’t fit with the usage of both in the sentence they’re reading.
Think about …
- Come to
- Make do
- Break up
- Make up
- Take down
You would have seen all of these constructs and more during your English studies (there are thousands more!) and perhaps you would have thought to yourself, ‘break up? A relationship can break up? What?’
To talk about the above constructs – which are called phrasal verbs – we must first talk about collocations, the big, ”umbrella term” under which Phrasal Verbs fits.
What is a ‘collocation’?
English has a huge vocabulary. Huge. We have been taking words from different languages for hundreds of years. For an English learner, the sheer size of the English vocabulary can be quite scary, which is why it’s a great idea to learn words in ‘chunks’. Some chunks or strings of words appear together in the English language statistically more often than other chunks or strings. They like being used together. They like each other! They find being together very comfortable.
These phrases or strings of words – adjectives + nouns, verbs + nouns etc – are called collocations. We tend to use the same collocations over and over again, which means they are very familiar to us and we really notice when someone uses words that don’t collocate. That doesn’t make you wrong when you use words that don’t collocate (indeed, creative writers would argue it makes you inventive!) but it does give you away a little bit as a non-native speaker and sometimes your meaning won’t be as clear as if you used collocations.
Have a look at this table of adjectives and nouns that do and don’t collocate:
Certain verbs also collocate with certain nouns or actions. Look at this table that shows you some nouns that collocate with do, make, have, take, go and get (remember, this is a tiny example):
Remember: depending on which country you’re in, some collocations will be different. Americans, for example, ‘take exams’ but the British often ‘sit’ them. And sometimes two verbs collocate with the one noun, like take/have a shower.
Here are some more basic collocations for you to check out:
What’s a Collocation? – 1 Step English
Adjective & Noun Collocations – BBC English
5 Most Common Adjective-Noun Collocations – My English Teacher
Okay, I get it … but what’s a Phrasal Verb?
I’m so glad you asked. A phrasal verb is a type of collocation. It is a wonderful little thing that English speakers use all the time. I guarantee that once you know what a phrasal verb is, you will see them everywhere.
A phrasal verb is:
Verb + Preposition or Particle
- Phrasal verbs are a single unit. You need to understand them as only one thing.
- Knowing what phrasal verbs are can help your overall comprehension hugely because you will no longer try and think of the verb and preposition as separate things and question two meanings – you will look at the verb and preposition together and question one meaning.
- Their meaning usually has nothing to do with the verb they contain.
Now, I have taken some good examples of ‘prepositional phrasal verbs’ from Wikipedia. I have highlighted the phrasal verb and given an explanation of what they mean:
- Who is looking after the kids? — Who is taking care of the kids? (NB: ‘take care’ is a common collocation!)
- Melissa and James broke up. — Melissa and James ended their relationship.
- They pick on Billy. — They are mean to Billy.
- I ran into an old friend. — I unexpectedly met/saw/spoke to an old friend.
- She takes after her mother. — She looks like/shares many similar characteristics with her mother.
- You should stand by your friend. — You should believe in/trust/have faith in your friend. (NB: ‘have faith’ is a common collocation and ‘believe in’ is a phrasal verb!)
As I said, there are thousands of phrasal verbs and there is no point in trying to learn them all by heart. The best thing you can do is a) know that they exist b) know that we use them all the time and c) start trying to spot them in your texts and conversations.
Here is a fantastic resource that lists 200 common phrasal verbs in alphabetical order. You will recognise many of them.
That is it for this week. I hope you learnt something new. See you next Wednesday – and remember, any questions or ideas, pop them in the comments, shoot me an email or tweet me.
This week’s reading is a cute article on Denglish from the Economist
And of course, catch up on the first two English Macht Spaß posts: