Phrasal verbs can be defined from many points of view. For the learner they are a challenge, a mystery and a source of worry. Traditionally they have been included in curricula as sets of vocabulary to be incorporated by learners. However one thing you notice is that there is no definitive, complete list of phrasal verbs. They are endless and every day a new one is created. Or maybe more than one.
A new one is created! but how are they created? If they are created there must be a system. There is a system, and understanding how it works, understanding what phrasal verbs really are will make it easier to understand their meanings.
One of the wonderful mechanisms in english grammar is the easiness with which words can change categories: from noun to verb, to adjective and so on. Often without changes. With this in mind, let us look at phrasal verbs. Each phrasal verb is, indeed a verb, but it’s components do not necessarily include a verb. There are many phrasal verbs which are made of nouns followed by a particle/preposition.
So what is going on here? The first thing to notice is that, as a result, what binds together all phrasal verbs as a category, is that they all have a particle/preposition. Therefore the roots of our problems, the essence of phrasal verbs must be there.
Particle or preposition? Sometimes both!
We keep hearing aboout particles and prepositions when phrasal verbs are discussed. Prepositions are a class of vocabulary which is closed (more or less extensive, but limited) and refers to dimensions (space and time). They help as define our vision of the physical world.
Note: There are prepositions and prepositional phrases: prepositional phrases are phrases that express meanings that could have been carried by prepositions but those prepositions do not exist in that specific language. Across languages, the same meaning could be expressed by a simple preposition in one language and by a prepositional phrase in other. And only if that meaning exists in both languages. e.g. In English there are two prepositions, between and among, whose meaning is covered by one, entre, in Spanish. Different languages different solutions for the same problem.
Humans have this wonderful thing called imagination which is why we have particles. English has specifically taken advantage of imagination to extend the meanings of prepositions beyond the physical dimensions. That’s when we talk about particles. And that is what puzzles learners because if you apply the literal meaning of the preposition, the phrasal verb may not make any sense at all!
So, how do I make sense of phrasal verbs?
The first part of the phrasal verb could be almost anything – even anything you want! So how do we made sense of them? Our reference, our foothold is the particle, the preposition. Fine there are many prepositions in English, but the number is limited, closed. Nobody is making new ones.
Do this, trust me: Set priorities: select the ones who seem to be most productive, like up or off. Make lists. Yes I am asking you to make lists, but with a difference: put together all the phrasal verbs you find with the same preposition and compare their meanings. Soon you will realize there are patterns, tendencies, whole families of phrasal verbs which are the same mold applied to endless nouns and verbs.
In this way, you will start corralling hundreds of phrasal verbs in a short time because you will not be memorizing them one by one. In contrast you will be learning how they are made, the recipe so to speak and so when you need them they will come to you.
So go from big families into smaller ones. By the time you reach the odd ones, you will have lost your old fears because you will have interiorized the way to deal with them and they feel not feel menacing as in the past.
What next? Make your own phrasal verbs!
This is like taming a wild animal: once it responds to your commands, you can do incredible things… like creating your own phrasal verbs. By the time you do that, you will be already enjoying phrasal verbs! Who would have imagined that!