Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Phrasal verbs: Revenge of les rosbeefs

 The English language is relatively simple, until you run into its most dysfunctional grammar family known as phrasal verbs.

‘Aaarghphrasal verbs! Quelle horreur! I hear you say.

So let me break you in slowly. Phrasal verbs are usually a two or three word combination of a verb and a particle (preposition or adverb). They form new words with new meanings that are unpredictable and illogical (not unlike French verb conjugation).

They are common in spoken and written English and we need to know them to understand and speak natural English. You can’t get around without them.

So let’s kick off with a few examples:

We all know the verb break.Add the proposition in and you have break in - which has at least four different meanings:

Go into a building to steal something – The thieves broke in during the early hours of the morning.

Interrupt someone or something – Can I just break in for a moment?

Train a horse to be ridden - I will break in this horse, the cowboy said.

To wear something, especially new shoes, until they become comfortable – I hope I don’t get blisters when I break in my new shoes.

Dysfunctional as they are for someone learning English, they are full of wonderful linguistic creativity and go some way to explain why the English language has such a large vocabulary compared to languages such as French.

And then there are other phrasal verbs with break: break away, break down, break off, break through andbreak up which has at least eight meanings.

Break into many pieces – the ship broke up when it hit the rocks.

Close an educational institution for the holidays – School breaks up in March.

Finish a relationship – Julie and Jim say they are going to break up.

Become inaudible over the telephone because of interference – The line is breaking up. I can’t hear you.

To go away in different directions - The meeting broke up at eleven o'clock.

To laugh very hard - Woody Allen breaks me up.

To make people leave something or stop doing something, especially by using force - Police were called in to break up the fight.

To become very weak - He was breaking up under the strain.

If you have an authoritative English-to-English dictionary at home, look up the verb set: This innocent three letter word has one of the longest entries in the Oxford English dictionary: 60,000 words to describe some 430 senses (yes we are talking about lots of delicious phrasal verbs). You will need to set aside some time before you set out to read the entire entry.

Phrasal verbs are a relatively recent addition to the English language. Once again, it was the extraordinary William Shakespeare, the great reinvigorator of the English language, who catapulted them into common usage. Academics have indentified more than 5700 phrasal verbs in his plays.

At first phrasal verbs were looked down upon as common and the language of the lower social orders. But the people spoke. They loved the idiomatic flavour and their usage exploded.

The great lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, wrote in the preface of Dictionary of the English Language, 1755 (considered to be the most influential English dictionary):

There is another kind of composition more frequent in our language than perhaps in any other, from which arises to foreigners the greatest difficulty.

Today, you can hear them everywhere – from the minute you wake up or get up to the moment you fall asleep, nod off, drop off or doze off.

Their popularity continues. One new recent phrasal verb was sex up (to make something more exciting and interesting). The term sex up was used by the BBC to describe the British government's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Phrasal verbs sex up the language. When I was young I didn’t want to have sexual relations, fornicate, or even bonk or screw. I wanted to Get It On just like Marc Bolan of T. Rex. I wanted to know What’s Going On like Marvin Gaye, and when I was full of angst Neil Young would tell me Don’t Let It Bring You Down. At every party we all chanted Get Up, Stand Up with Bob Marley.

How can you best learn phrasal verbs? Start with a smallish list. You can check their definitions here.

Write them down in sentences that clearly indicate their meaning. Make up sentences that relate to your life. This will make it easier to understand.

A relatively easy list: (the first one has been done for you)

turn up (2 meanings)

1. I waited for one hour, but Susan didn’t turn up (arrive) 2. I applied for three jobs. I hope something turns up soon (an opportunity happens)

show off (2)

set up (2)

get on (2)

rip off (2)

find out (1)

look into (1) 

put forward (2)

stand up (2)

set off (2)


A more challenging list:

stand up (3 meanings)

stand for (3)

get over (3)

go down (3)

put through (3)

look up (3)

bring down (3)

stand down (2)

cut in (3)

come across (3)

If you are really crazy about phrasal verbs here’s a little exercise below. Define the phrasal verbs below and email them to me – The first one has been done for you.

1. brought up - to care for a child, teaching him or her how to behave.

I was (1) brought up by my aunt who one day (2) brought up the subject of oysters. The next day I ate a dozen and unfortunately (3) brought them up all over my aunt’s Persian rug and then (4) passed out. The next day I (5) broke out in red spots and had to (6) drop out of the school play and (7) hand over the role to my older brother who (8) covered for me. His performance (9) stood out, so much so, that he was (10) picked out for another role. His acting career (11) took off. The last time I (12) ran into him I felt that he was (13) showing off. He (14) came across as film star. When he (15) asked me out to a seafood restaurant that specialises in oysters, I knew he (16) was making fun of me. I didn’t (17) stick around. I (18) laid into him and (19) stormed out. I don’t think we will ever (20) get along.


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