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Helping students figure out the meanings of phrasal verbs

, Milada
The paper presents pedagogical implications of theoretical research into phrasal verbs, a common
problem for learners of English. As they do not constitute a homogenous semantic group, their
learning can be facilitated by focusing on semantic patterns and associated syntactic behaviour. The
attention of Slovak students should be drawn to the parallels between English verbal particles and
Slavic verbal prefixes.
Key words: phrasal verbs, verbal particles, language pedagogy

English phrasal verbs are combinations of a verb root and a particle, e.g. run
out, drink up, figure out, put off. Typically, one and the same form has multiple
meanings, many of which are unpredictable from the basic meanings of the verb root
and the particle. For instance, bring up is used with five different meanings in (1). Of
these, meanings (c e) are not predictable from the individual meanings of bring and

(a) Mary brought a chair up

(b) Bring your hands up
(c) Discipline is crucial when bringing up
(d) Tom always brings up
(e) When the boy brought up his food again, the teacher called a doctor.

In addition, phrasal verbs show varied syntactic behaviour: in some, the

position of the particle is variable, in others it is fixed to a pre- or a post-direct object
position, e.g. (2).

(a) You can pick up your books/pick your books up when they become
(b) The boss was looking for Annie/*looking Annie for yesterday.
(c) The teacher said I had to do my essay over/*do over my essay again!

Some phrasal verbs may combine with prepositions to form the so-called phrasalprepositional verbs, e.g. (3).

(a) He cannot catch up with

(b) We are running out of

All of the above factors contribute to the impression that phrasal verbs are an
endless list that needs to be learned by heart, a reason why learners often dislike
them. Phrasal verbs are especially challenging for students whose mother tongue
does not have phrasal verbs (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999, p. 425).
Specialized publications, including dictionaries as well as self-study textbooks (e.g.


Blackman, 1998, Harrison,

, 2007), are aimed at helping students
master this problematic area. Because of their high frequency in authentic informal
texts and speech (Biber et al., 1999, p. 408), the acquisition of phrasal verbs is very
important for the mastery of English, especially at more advanced levels. Phrasal
verbs, therefore, constitute an area of high significance in language instruction in an
academic environment.
Nevertheless, English phrasal verbs are not all alike. They constitute several
classes with distinct semantic characterization and corresponding syntactic
behaviour. This paper argues for the implementation of these semantic-syntactic
patterns into English language teaching. The rest of the paper first gives the
characterization of individual classes of phrasal verbs as found in the literature
(section 2). Section 3 discusses previous research on the acquisition of phrasal verbs
and elaborates on the idea of teaching phrasal verbs grouped in semantic classes. In
particular, the section focuses in-depth on the semantic and syntactic properties of
the individual classes. A comparison is also made to the means of expressing the
same meaning in the mother tongue of Slovak students. The last section concludes.

Phrasal verbs are not created equal

It is a common practice of materials targeted at learners of English to treat
, 2007). The
difference between phrasal verbs and other types of constructions is not trivial,
though, as they show different syntactic behaviour (e.g. Bolinger, 1971, Darwin &
Gray, 1999, Fraser, 1976). This section contrasts the two types of constructions. At
the same time, a finer classification of phrasal verbs is discussed.
Prepositional verbs
True phrasal verbs need to be distinguished from combinations of a verb and
a preposition, termed prepositional verbs (e.g. Biber, 1999, Claridge, 2000, Quirk et
al., 1985), as these are not, technically speaking, phrasal verbs. As a preposition
must always precede its complement, it cannot follow a noun or a pronoun, e.g. (4).
In contrast, the position of a particle is variable with a noun and fixed to a post-direct
object position with a pronoun, e.g. (5).

(a) A black cat ran over the road/*ran the road over in front of me.
(b) A black cat ran over it/ *ran it over in front of me.
(a) My car ran over a black cat/ran a black cat over.
(b) My car *ran over it/ran it over.

A preposition forms a unit (a prepositional phrase) with its complement rather

than with the verb. Motion verbs combined with prepositional phrases can have either
a locational or a directional meaning. Consider (6a, taken from Rappaport-Hovav &
Levin, 1995, p. 183), which is ambiguous between readings (6b) and (6c).

(a) A mouse is running under the table. (verb + prepositional phrase)

(b) The event of a mouse running is taking place under the table.
(c) A mouse is running in such a direction that it will eventually end up under
the table.


Besides literal meanings, prepositional verbs may have idiomatic meanings as

well, e.g. (7). However, even in these cases the preposition always precedes its

looking for
(b) The nanny is looking after
(c) Have you looked into
(d) As a firm believer, she always looks to the heavens for an answer to her

Phrasal verbs
Phrasal verbs do not constitute a homogenous semantic group. While several
classifications exist, many of them share the idea of the existence of three semantic
, 1988,
p. 205, Fraser, 1976, pp. 5-6, Jackendoff, 2002, Quirk et al., 1985, pp. 1162 1163).
The most clearly defined triadic classification is the one in Celc e-Murcia & LarsenFreeman (1999, p. 432-433) that distinguish literal, aspectual and idiomatic phrasal
Literal phrasal verbs
Literal phrasal verbs are composed of a verb and a particle which actually
substitutes a prepositional phrase (Jackendoff, 2002, p. 74, his examples), e.g. (8a)
has the same meaning as (8b). The particle can normally occur in either position
before or after the direct object noun phrase, as (8a) shows.

(a) Beth took the food in/took in the food. (phrasal verb)
(b) Beth took the food into the house. (verb + prepositional phrase)

As their meaning is transparent, literal phrasal verbs are not stored in the mental
lexicon (ibid., p. 75) and are learner-friendly (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999,
p. 432).
Aspectual phrasal verbs
Aspectual phrasal verbs are semi-idiomatic. The particle modifies the aspect
of the verb root, including the meanings of inception, continuation, iteration, and
completion (ibid., p. 432), e.g. (9a d, respectively). Since the particle functions as an
optional modifier, it is frequently omissible and sometimes even redundant
(Jackendoff, 2002, pp. 76-77), as signalled by bracketing in the following examples:

(a) Jake started (up) a business in London.

(b) The nightingale sang (on) until the Emperor fell asleep.
(c) I need to write an essay (over).19
(d) The baby drank (up) her milk.

Jackendoff (ibid., p. 80) maintains that some, but not all, aspectual phrasal verbs
need to be stored in the mental lexicon. It follows then that these phrasal verbs can
pose a problem to learners of English, as Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman (1999, p.
433) note.

Although both write an essay and write an essay over a



Idiomatic phrasal verbs

Idiomatic phrasal verbs are the semantic class of phrasal verbs which poses
the greatest problem to learners of English. The reason is that their meaning cannot
be deduced from the individual meanings of the verb root and the particle, e.g. (10).
Given their semantic non-compositionality, idiomatic phrasal verbs have to be stored
as units in the mental lexicon (Jackendoff, 2002, p. 73).

figure out
(b) She just keeps putting off
passed away

On the status of verb + particle + preposition combinations

While the combinations of the type verb root and a particle and a preposition,
e.g. (3), are sometimes treated separately from other phrasal verbs (e.g. Biber, 1999,
Claridge, 2000, Quirk et al., 1985), I opt for treating them as phrasal verbs which
combine with a preposition. Since their meaning is non-compositional, they pattern
with other idiomatic phrasal verbs.

Teaching phrasal verbs

English language learners of a variety of first languages typically avoid phrasal
verbs, for both structural and semantic reasons (see e.g. Dagut & Laufer, 1985 for
Hebrew, Hulstijn & Marchena, 1989 for Dutch, Liao & Fukuya, 2004 for Chinese).
The study of the acquisition of phrasal verbs by speakers of Swedish reported in
Laufer & Eliasson (1993) suggests that phrasal verbs as such, and in particular the
ones with idiomatic meaning, are avoided especially by learners whose mother
tongue does not have phrasal verbs.
Since phrasal verbs constitute such a problematic area in mastering English,
various approaches to teaching them have been developed. For instance, Gardner &
Davies (2007) argue for teaching phrasal verbs according to their frequency. In their
list of most frequently occurring phrasal verbs in the British National Corpus,
however, the top 100 phrasal verbs have in estimate 559 meanings. Although in the
view of Gardner & Davies (ibid., p. 353) this is still a manageable number for
language teachers and materials wr
, learning 559 form-meaning
pairs by heart is a task hardly manageable for students.
Phrasal verbs show variation in storage, namely only idiomatic and some
aspectual phrasal verbs are stored in memory, others are comprehended and
produced on-line in syntax (Jackendoff, 2002). This pattern, characteristic of the
mental lexicon of native speakers of English, should also become the objective in the
second language acquisition. That is to say, students should memorize only idiomatic
and some of aspectual phrasal verbs but not others. In this way, the time and energy
spent in language learning can be focused on the more challenging phrasal verbs
Therefore, this paper aims to advance the idea of Celce-Murcia & LarsenFreeman (1999, p. 432)
the systematicity ... becomes easier to perceive when
phrasal verbs are not treated monolithically . However, in contrast to Celce-Murcia &
Larsentreatment of their syntax, this paper discusses finer semantic details coupled with


systematic tendencies in syntactic behaviour. Rather than memorizing form-meaning

pairs along with their syntactic properties, the attention of students should be drawn
to the general tendencies that exist between particles, their different senses and
associated syntax. This section describes in detail the features of individual semantic
classes of phrasal verbs that learners aspiring to master English at a more advanced
level should be aware of.
Since Slovak students have an additional learning disadvantage of not having
phrasal verbs in their mother tongue, I propose that a comparison between English
phrasal verbs and Slovak should be sought. As English verbal particles semantically
correspond to Slavic verbal prefixes, this section also points out the semantic
similarities with Slovak prefixes, in order to help students understand that particles
are not just any useless and teasing little words but functional elements of meaning.
Literal phrasal verbs: motion verb and directional particle
Literal phrasal verbs consist of a motion verb (or a verb used in a motion
sense) and a particle whose meaning is directional. While they syntactically
correspond to combinations of a verb and a prepositional phrase, their meaning is
restricted to directional only, i.e. literal phrasal verbs do not express locative
meanings, e.g. (11a). An analogous locative meaning has to be expressed by an
adverbial, e.g. (11b).

(a) A mouse was running out

(b) A mouse was running outside

rb + adverbial)

In contrast to prepositional phrases, the particle does not denote the Ground in
the sense of Talmy (1975, 1985), i.e. a reference point in respect to which an object
(Figure) is located or moved (Svenonius, 2002, p. 434). Consider the following
examples, where the bird is a moving object and thus a Figure. The branch is a
Ground, expressed in the prepositional phrase in (12a) but not in a phrasal verb in
(12b). Therefore, the Ground is either inferred from context, such as by having seen
the earlier scene of the bird perching on the branch, or is irrelevant for the purposes
of the exchange.

(a) The bird hopped off the branch. (verb + prepositional phrase)
(b) The bird hopped off. (phrasal verb)
Although sometimes a corresponding prepositional phrase cannot be

movement. For instance, sit down and sit up

ing a seat from a
standing posture, i.e. in a downward manner, while the latter is used in less frequent
circumstances of changing a position from lying to sitting, in an upward manner.
Since the particle has a very basic, literal meaning here, it can be placed in a
position non-adjacent to the verb, with various elements intervening in between, e.g.

(a) Lucky Luke rode merrily off into the sunset.

throw all the useless stuff out!


For successful mastering of literal phrasal verbs, learners only need to know a
range of motion verb roots and the basic spatial meaning of particles. No other
memorization is required. Students just need to be aware that the pattern motion
verb + directional particle is not incidental but productive and one that allows
syntactic variation.
Aspectual phrasal verbs: modifying aspect
Aspectual phrasal verbs pose a bigger problem to learners than literal ones
do. This is because, unlike with literal phrasal verbs, the particle has an abstract
meaning. While Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman (1999) present several meanings
certain groups of particles have (see section 2.2.2), they miss out a crucial piece of
information: that these meanings combine with certain types of verb roots. For a
learner of English, it is beneficial to know the following three patterns, because they
are highly productive. At the same time, some of these phrasal verbs that can be
encountered in authentic discourse are not found in dictionaries, e.g. bingo (a house)
Activity verb + continuation particle
Activity verbs, e.g. sing, dance, sleep, talk, combine with particles along,
around, about, away and on to express continuation, e.g. (14). These particle verbs
do not denote an inherent change of state of the subject or direct object.

(a) When we finally met, we talked away

(b) Vivien tried to wake her brother up but he just slept on
(c) Some women carry around bizarre items in their handbags.

Activity verb + direct object + completive particle

Activity verb roots combined with particles down, up, out, through, over, off,
and also away 20 form phrasal verbs with completive or resultative meaning, e.g.
(15).21 The completion or result is predicated of a direct object that needs to be
overtly expressed. Therefore, these phrasal verbs are obligatorily transitive, e.g. (16),
regardless of the transitivity of their verb root, cf. (17).

(a) The hungry child ate the pizza up

(b) The student read the book through
(c) Annabel slept off


(a) *The hungry child ate up.

(b) *The student read through.
(c) *Annabel slept off.


(a) The hungry child ate the pizza.

(b) The student read the book.
(c) *Annabel slept her headache.



Thus away has a dual function, as a continuative and as a completive particle.

Over can also contribute an iterative meaning, as in (2c).


Change of state verb + completive particle

Verbs roots denoting change of state, e.g. break, die, brighten, warm, combine
with the particle of the completive type except for away. The change of state can be
predicated of the subject or the direct object, e.g. (18a, b, respectively).

(a) The soup warmed up.

(b) The cook warmed up the soup.

The particle does not signal completion but acts as an intensifier on the verb.
Interestingly, some verb roots can be used with several particles, including ones that
are antonymous. On a rare occasion, the resulting phrasal verbs are antonymous,
e.g. fade out, fade down, fade away
fade in, fade up
often, though, verb roots with antonymous particles form synonymous phrasal verbs,
e.g. slow down slow up, drink up drink down. At the same time, particle up is
down with verb roots
slow occurs more frequently with down than with up, while
speed occurs with up only and not with down. Similarly, brighten is preferred with up
while dim more frequently occurs with down.
Idiomatic phrasal verbs
Idiomatic phrasal verbs are the most challenging ones for students. Having to
be listed in the mental lexicon, there is no other way to learn them than to memorize
their meanings. The task can, however, be facilitated in some ways. First, once the
student is familiar with the compositional patterns of literal and aspectual classes, the
bulk of phrasal verbs to be learned by heart becomes significantly reduced. Second,
research has shown that a cognitive approach is beneficial for the study of idiomatic
phrasal verbs. In cognitive analyses (e.g. Hampe, 2005, Lindner, 1985, Morgan,
1997), the abstract meanings of phrasal verbs are derived by metaphorical
extensions from their basic meanings. For instance, the directional meaning of out in
e.g. cry out
, fill out
, pick out
figure out
becomes extended on the basis of a metaphor that treat sources, boundaries, sets,
inaccessibility, respectively, as containers. Several studies show the success of
introducing a cognitive perspective into teaching idiomatic phrasal verbs (e.g. Boers,
2000, Condon,
, 1996, Kurtyka, 2001). Rudzka(2003) textbook is specifically designed for teaching and learning phrasal verbs
within cognitive linguistics approach.
In addition, students need not memorize the syntax of individual idiomatic
phrasal verbs, since these as a group show certain tendencies. The particle in
idiomatic phrasal verbs tends to remain adjacent to the verb root. In consequence,
the verb root + particle + substantival direct object word order is preferred to the verb
root + substantival direct object + particle word order in idiomatic phrasal verbs,
although both are possible. For example, find out the truth is more frequent than find
the truth out. Similarly, adverbs interfering between the verb root and the particle are
usually bad with idiomatic phrasal verbs, cf. (19) with (13a).

(a) Harry looked (*furtively) over the client.

, 1976, p. 2)
ansfer students dropping (*gradually) out.
, 1971, p. 13)


Nonetheless, some idiomatic phrasal verbs require the presence of a

preposition, which has to be learned along with the phrasal verb, e.g. run out of
put up with
Comparison with Slovak prefixes
Slavic prefixes, as functional counterparts of English particles, have a range of
meanings, including directional, aspectual and idiomatic meanings. Directional uses
of Slovak prefixes are illustrated in (20). However, a Ground is also typically
expressed along with Slovak directional prefixes, unlike with Englis h directional
particles, cf. (20a) with (12), although this is just a strong tendency rather than a rule,
as shown in (20b).


v-behla dnu /do kuchyne.

mouse PREFIX-ran inside/into kitchen





Aspectual meanings of particles and prefixes slightly differ. First, prefixes do

activity verbs, e.g. (21a). Other prefixes with activity verbs contribute completive or
inchoative meaning, e.g. (21b, c, respectively). Notice that a prefixed verb with a
completive meaning is obligatorily transitive, just like its English phrasal verb
counterpart, cf. (21b) with (16). Lastly, prefixes also combine with change of state
verbs, e.g. (21d).





Lisa PREFIX-drank milk.
(a certain amount of)
child finally PREFIX-slept
(d) Babka zo-hriala
grandma PREFIX-warmed soup

It is very common for particles to express idiomatic meanings. Slavic prefixes

also behave the same way. However, idiomatic prefixed verbs are no more felt as
prefixed because they have become lexicalized. Idiomatic phrasal verbs might win
more sympathy from students when shown that their mother tongue uses a similar
strategy of deriving idiomatic meanings, e.g.
vyuet al., 1966, p. 410).


This paper hopes to inspire a semantic approach in teaching phrasal verbs. Rather
than confronting students with long lists of verb roots combined with seemingly
arbitrary particles, and requesting them to learn several meanings for each, as well
as their syntactic behaviour, learners should become aware of the patterns that exist
in the semantics and the syntax of phrasal verbs. A comparison to their mother
tongue may lessen the strangeness felt.

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