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Understanding phrasal verbs 1.

Part 1: English verb types compared to Spanish verbs.

New! See the Frazels video for phrasal verb practice...

Phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs have different grammar rules. Put your cursor over the fuchsia-coloured words for help messages.


Let's run over the basic points.

Many verbs in English have two parts:

Verb + small word (down, up, off, away, etc.)

The small words can be prepositions or adverb particles.


How the English verb works.

a) In fact, this is how the Anglo Saxon version of the English verb works. Let's look first at the very common verbs of movement. Firstly, we have the action:

walk, run, swim, drive, put, fall, throw, dive, fly, etc.

This is followed by the direction of the action:

away, down, up, through, across, in(to), on, onto, along, to, towards, off, etc.

We can usually put any verb of movement with any preposition of movement (or sometimes an adverb particle - see later):

walk away, walk down, walk up, etc.


This is often different from many Latin-based languages, like Spanish, which treat verbs of movement in a different way. First, there may be a verb which expresses direction:

In Spanish:

bajar, subir, cruzar, atravesar, alargar, alejar, acercar, etc.

Then another verb that expresses the action. So we have:

Bajar andando, bajar corriendo, bajar nadando, bajar conduciendo, etc.

Now, English is unique in that fifty percent of its words come from Latin-based languages (especially French). That means there is a second version of the English verb that works in a similar way to other Latin-based languages. Instead of:

go down the street
go up the street

we can say...

descend the street
ascend the street

But we can't say (as in Spanish):

descend the street walking (bajar la calle andando)

So, who says "descend the street" in English? Probably no native speaker would say it in everyday conversation. But native speakers do prefer English Latin-based verbs in more formal spoken and written English. Spanish-speaking learners of English just love Latin-based words so they can avoid the verb + small word combination. And this is understandable - nobody likes prepositions!

Sorry teacher. I can't attend class on Monday.

This is too formal and would be better:

I can't come to class on Monday.


b) Other verb + small word combinations have verbs with their usual meaning but the second word emphasizes or intensifies the action:

break up (as in the plane broke up means to break into lots of pieces)
tire out (as in I'm tired out means I'm very, very tired)

Some grammarians have complained that sometimes these intensifiers don't seem to intensify at all! Many new verbs of this type are coming into the language, verbs with redundant (meaningless) or almost redundant adverb particles:

to rest up = to rest
to lose out = to lose
to start up = to start
to pay off = to pay
to miss out on = to miss, etc.


c) Finally, there are word combinations whose parts consist of two words which have a combined meaning totally different from their separate parts:

give up (means to stop some action, eg. give up smoking)

Nothing to do with give and nothing to do with up.

blow up (means to cause an explosion, eg. the gas cannister blew up)

look after (means be responsible or take care of someone, eg. I looked after my granny when she was old.)

Ok, so these last three are the infamous phrasal verbs, right? Well, the first two are but the last one isn't. Prepositional verbs aren't just for verbs of movement. Let's go on...

Part Two: prepositional verbs and phrasal verbs...

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