Learning phrasal verbs: review


1.- What do we understand by ‘phrasal verb’?

A ‘phrasal verb’ can be defined as the combination of a verb plus one or sometimes two particles whose meaning is different from the sum of its components: to put up = to give lodging to somebody, for example, is a phrasal verb but to belong to (pertenecer a) is just a verb which patterns with the preposition to, but this preposition does not alter the meaning of the verb= ‘pertenecer’.


How many of these combinations would you call a phrasal verb?

to put off – aplazar
to break down – averiarse
to abstain from -  abstenerse de
to complain about – quejarse de
to fill in – rellenar (impresos, etc.)
to laught at – reirse de
to put up with sth/sb – aguantarse con algo o alguien
to insist on – insistir en
to take after – parecerse a, salir a
to smell of – oler a
to dream of/about – soñar con
to look forward to – estar deseando

KEY  1

phrasal: to put off, to break down, to fill in, to put up with, to take after, to look forward to
non-phrasal: to abstain from, to complain about, to laugh at, to insist on, to smell of, to dream about/of

2.- Different types of phrasal verbs according to whether the particle functions as an adverb or a preposition.

There are three different types:

a.- verb + adverbial particle:

to find sth out – averiguar algo
to take off – despegar (un avión)
to take off (clothes)  - quitarse (ropa)
to put on (clothes)- ponerse (ropa)
to switch sth on – enchufar
to switch sth off - desenchufar
to see sb off – despedir (a alguien que se va de viaje)
to bring sb up – educar a alguien.

b.- verb + prepositional particle:

to look for sth/sb – buscar algo o a alguien
to look after sb – cuidar de alguien
to look into sth – investigar algo
to feel like sth  – apetecer algo
to get over (an illness) – recuperarse (de una enfermedad) to run into sb – toparse con alguien.

c.- verb + adverbial particle + prepositional particle:

to look down on sb  – despreciar a alguien
to get on with sb – llevarse bien con
to get on with sth - progresar.

Place of object

It is important to know whether the particle functions as an adverb or a preposition because when there is an object, this object is placed differently in each case:

· if the particle functions as a preposition, the object must go after the preposition: eg. look after the cat, look after it, etc.

· if the particle functions as an adverb the object if it is a noun can be placed before or after the particle: turn the TV on or turn on the TV, but always before the particle if the object is a pronoun: turn it on.

· if there are two particles, the object usually goes after the prepositional particle: I can’t put up with the noise; I can’t put up with it

But attention, in questions beginning with the object the particle goes at the end: What are you looking for? What did you find out?

Please, note what happens when the prepositional object is not the same as the direct object: They’ve made the novel into a film Han llevado la novela a la pantalla/al cine.


Answer the questions replacing the nouns by pronouns:

1.- Did you see Uncle Richard off at the station? Yes, I saw....
2.- Will you look after the baby? Yes, I will look....
3.- Has she got over her flu? No, she hasn’t......yet
4.- Do you mind turning down the TV? I can’t study. OK, I’ll turn........
5.- Will the police look into the matter? Yes, they’ll look.......


1.- Yes, I saw him off
2.- Yes, I will look after it
3.- No, she hasn’t got over it yet
4.- OK, I’ll turn it down
5.- Yes, they’ll look into it.

3.- From the point of view of their meaning, some phrasal verbs are literal, others are semi-metaphorical and others fully metaphorical:

a.- Literal:

to go/come in/out/up/down, etc – entrar/salir/subir/bajar, etc.

b.- Semi-metaphorical:

to eat up- comérselo todo
to argue away – discutir sin parar
to work away – trabajar sin parar
to read on- seguir leyendo

c.- Fully metaphorical:

to give sth up- dejar (bebida, tabaco, etc.)
to carry sth out – llevar a cabo
to turn sth down – rechazar
to stand someone up – dar plantón


Which of the following combinations would you regard as fully metaphorical, which semi-metaphorical and which literal:

to play on – seguir jugando
to make sth up – inventarse (una  historia, etc.)
to talk away – charlar sin parar
to come in – entrar
to break out – estallar (guerra), declararse (epidemia)
to go up – subir
to hold on – esperar, no colgar (el teléfono)
to drink up – bebérselo todo
to come to – recuperar el conocimiento


fully metaphorical: to make sth. up, to break out, to hang on, to come to/round
semi-metaphorical: to play on, to work away, to drink up
literal: to come in, to go up

4.- Some phrasal verbs are polysemous, that is they have more than one meaning: e.g. to go off can have several meanings: irse, apagarse/irse (la luz), explotar (bomba, fuegos artificiales), dispararse (pistola), sonar (despertador), echarse a perder (alimentos), dejar de gustar algo o alguien, etc.


You’ll find the verb to go off in all the examples below, but with a different meaning each time, can you translate the examples into Spanish?

a) Our neighbours have gone off to live in Australia
b) Fortunately, the bomb didn't go off
c) The gun went off
d) When the alarm clock goes off, I wake up and get up
e) There’s some milk in the fridge, but I’m afraid it has gone off
f) I’ve gone off cakes
g) She has gone off George
h) Fireworks were going off all over the city
i) Suddenly, all the lights went off


a) Nuestros vecinos se han ido a vivir a Australia
b) Afortunadamente, la bomba no explotó
c) La pistola se disparó
d) Cuando  el despertador  suena me despierto y me levanto
e) Hay leche en la nevera, pero me temo que se ha echado a perder
f) Han dejado de gustarme los pasteles
g) A ella ya no le gusta George
h) Estaban explotando cohetes por toda la ciudad
i) De pronto, se apagaron todas las luces

5.- Phrasal verbs usually have non-phrasal equivalents

a.- to put sth off – to postpone
b.- to bring sb up – to educate
c.- to call on sb – to visit
d.- to find sth out – to discover
e.- to come into some money – to inherit

But attention, it’s not always possible to find a non-phrasal verb synonym:

to get away with sth – not to be caught or punished when you’done sth wrong: He always cheats at exams and gets away with it! - siempre se copia en los exámenes y no lo pillan.


Cross out the wrong alternatives

a.- If you slip up, do you fall, or make a mistake?
b.- If you put aside some money, do you save it, or spend it?
c.- If you invite someone to pop round any time he wants to, are you inviting him to visit you, or to have a drink?
d.- If you say that someone has passed away, do you mean he has died, or simply fainted? (note: to faint is to pass out)
e.- When something turns up, does it happen, or come to an end?
f.- If you bear someone out, are you corroborating or denying  what he said?


wrong alternatives: a.- fall; b- spend it; c.- to have a drink; d.- fainted; e.- come to an end; f.- denying.

6.- Phrasal verbs in conversation.

Some people say that phrasal verbs are only found in writing (books, newspapers, etc.), but it isn’t true, they are often used in conversation:


A.- Match the letters with the numbers to complete the dialogues:

a.- “Why are you selling your car?”
b.- “Does your son resemble you?”
c.-  “What time do you finish working?”
d.- “Is she very rich?”
e.-  “Do you miss your boyfriend very much?”

1.- “Oh, yes, she came into a lot of money when her grandfather died.”
2.- “Well, it’s too old and it keeps breaking down.”
3.. “No, he takes after his father”.
4.- “Oh, yes, I love him so; I really can’t do without him”,
5.- “Oh, we knock off at five”.

B.- Read the following dialogues carefully and then explain the meaning of each phrasal verb:

a.- “What a pretty photo!” “Yes, I like it so much that I’m going to have it blown up.
b.- “Why have you been so long in cashing the cheque?” “Well, I had to wait for a long time, because the computer had gone down/was down.
c.-  “How much did the bill come to?” “120 euros”. “That’s a lot of money. I think they ripped you off”.
d.- “I’m up to my neck in work and feeling really stressed so I went to the doctor’s.” “And what did he tell you?” “The doctor has told me that I must slow down.”
e.- “Was the teacher angry with you for being late?” “Yes, he told me off.”


A.- a-2; b-3; c-5; d-1; e-4

B.- a.- to have a photo blown up = to have a photo enlarged  (ampliar una foto); b.- if a computer goes down, it is temporarily disabled/there is no line - (to go down - dejar de funcionar por un tiempo, perderse la conexión); c.- if they rip you off, they charge you too much/they overcharge you - (to rip somebody off - cobrar en exceso, clavar); d.- to slow down = to work less, to rest more - (trabajar menos, descansar más, tomarse las cosas con más calma); e.- to tell somebody off = to scold somebody  (regañar a alguien).

7.- Different style

Most phrasal verbs are standard English: e.g. to die out – extinguirse (especies animales, etc), to bring sth about – causar, etc.

Some phrasal verbs are colloquial or familiar: to pop in= to enter, to bump someone off= to kill someone - cargarse a alguien, etc.

Some are slang: to rat on someone= to inform on someone to the police, to blimp out on sth. – atracarse de (comida) (Yesterday we blimped out on pizza)

Some are technical jargon: to clock in/out (at work) (fichar a la entrada y salida del trabajo), to log in (computers=entrar en el sistema), to sign off (TV)= despedir la emisión, to zoom in/out (cinema)=acercarse o alejarse con la cámara, etc.

Some are not polite: to knock up a woman = to make her pregnant - delarla embarazada

Some are taboo: to get it on= to have sex, to get it up= to get an erection, to jack/jerk off= to masturbate (IAm)(IBr to wank)

To know more about phrasal verbs, see my Gramática Inglesa, 9ª ed., Pearson, pp. 370-409 (for the basic theory) and 700-726 (for the basic phrasal verbs, with definitions, examples and non-phrasal equivalents, whenever there is one), v.g. account for something (dar cuenta de, explicar, justificar) Every penny you spend will have to be accounted for - Tendrás que dar cuenta de cada penique que gastes [justify]; act up (causar problemas, dar la lata, dar guerra) - My car has been acting up again Mi coche me ha estado dando la lata otra vez [give trouble, play up].
More advanced students may also find useful the Diccionario de Verbos Frasales Ingleses, 3ª ed., Comares, Granada, where there is a Thematic Panel (Panel Temático, pp. 353-384), in which they will find all the phrasal verbs that can be used for each meaning, v.g. adornar – deck out/1, do out/2, do up/3, doll up/2, sprice up/2, tart up/2, trick out/up; adular – butter up, fawn on/upon, fawn over, make up to, play up to, shine up (to/with), suck up to, toady to.

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