Liv Hambrett

Germany + Australia + Culture + Motherhood + Home

Englisch Macht Spaß

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:

  1. English is Fun
  2. Welcome


  1. Karin@yumandmore

    21 August, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Love this series Liv! Even I am learning something! Such as what all this grammar is called. I often help my son with his English homework for school but when I ask him what needs reviewing, I often don’t know the actual term. LOL!! Long time since school grammar and I was generally in another country at school for the crucial grammar years. Learning by doing has been my motto, but I also believe in life-long learning.

    1. Liv

      22 August, 2013 at 9:22 am

      I have to say, I didn’t REALLY start learning English grammar until I started teaching it. We just don’t learn it at school beyond ‘this is an adjective, this is a noun.’ The rest of it just comes from learning by doing, so you’ve got to hope your parents are passing on the right stuff, haha. And I am thrilled you are learning something! x

      1. forester15

        21 October, 2016 at 11:44 am

        I soooo agree with “I started learning when I started teaching” Teaching requires you to answer the question “Why” to everything that you know is correct and sometimes there are no answers (read logic).
        Teaching is that much fun because you get to do all the “suchen und finden” to find out Why?….
        BTW. here a link to many mistakes Germans make in English….hilarious

  2. januaryjazz

    21 August, 2013 at 11:14 pm

    This series is great! Thanks for teaching us about the English language. Please keep these posts coming!!

    1. zalp

      22 August, 2013 at 12:39 am

      Great!! This is exactly the lesson I’ ve been looking for 🙂
      Thank you so much!

      1. Liv

        22 August, 2013 at 9:17 am

        You are so welcome! And if you have any further questions about it all, don’t hesitate to ask!

        1. zalp

          29 August, 2013 at 12:33 am

          I still can’t get away from this fascinating ‘phrasal verbs’ thing 🙂

          I have a question referring to your last sentence in this lesson.
          You used ‘catch up (on)’ , but there’s also ‘catch up with’ and I found ‘caught up for’ somewhere.
          Does this mean phrasal verbs can have more than one preposition and the second makes the difference in meaning? Or is the last prep. a “real/normal/stand-alone” preposition?

          1. Liv

            29 August, 2013 at 7:43 am

            ”Does this mean phrasal verbs can have more than one preposition and the second makes the difference in meaning?”

            In this case the phrasal verb is ‘catch up’ and it is an intransitive phrasal verb, which means it cannot take a direct object. Check out:


            With ‘catch up’, its meaning changes depending on the preposition that follows. To catch up with a person, is to see them for a coffee or something, after a period of not seeing them, and learn about their recent news. And to catch up on something, is to be behind others and then to do something that means you reach the same level as people around you.

          2. Liv

            29 August, 2013 at 7:43 am

            Hope that helps!

          3. zalp

            29 August, 2013 at 11:12 pm

            Oh yes, that helps a lot.
            And ‘’ seems to be a fantastic repository for grammar.
            Thank you once again!

    2. Liv

      22 August, 2013 at 9:19 am

      Every Wednesday! If you have something in particular you’d like me to cover, I am always open to ideas and suggestions. Just leave a comment or send me an email –

  3. Paul Carson

    23 August, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Wonderful Liv. I’ve just taken up teaching – I’ll be stopping by regularly.

    1. Liv

      23 August, 2013 at 12:31 pm

      Paul, that’s fantastic! Whereabouts? Good luck with it all and any questions, absolutely send them my way.

      1. Paul Carson

        23 August, 2013 at 3:39 pm

        I’ve just done 10 weeks summer school outside Istanbul. I’m off to China in 2 weeks.

        1. Liv

          25 August, 2013 at 10:38 pm

          Brilliant. Would have loved to have taught in Asia, but life thus far has had other plans and I’ve been waylaid in Europe. One day, one day. Have fun and enjoy it all!

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