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Phrasal Verbs: an Introduction

Phrasal verbs are fundamental in the English language. They are key elements in making an English learner sound natural. A student learning English as a second language must not do so without learning the basics of phrasal verbs.

First of all, what are phrasal verbs? They essentially consist of a verb and a particle. Particles, when they are not part of a phrasal verb, are words that function as prepositions or adverbs. There are countless types of phrasal verbs. They can be separable or inseparable, have one or two particles, and many other grammatical particularities. However, English learners should not be focusing on grammar, but rather on meaning.

Then, because they carry figurative meaning, phrasal verbs present challenges to non-native speakers. Phrasal verbs are often idiomatic, meaning that they do not necessarily carry a literal meaning. Thus, English learners must do a bit of research to grasp their meaning. Insightful examples are “to turn off” and “to turn on”. For instance, we turn on the lights when we enter a room and we turn them off when we leave. Then, this is not an easy concept to understand when English is a second language. Francophone could tend to say open or close the light which is the literal translation of “ouvrir et fermer les lumières”. Then, close and open when talking about turning on and off lights are “faux amis” meaning that their direct translations have a very different meanings in English.

Interestingly, a root verb look can have many different meanings when attached to different particles. For example, the first meaning of the verb to look is to direct your eyes in a certain direction, but when we add particles to it, the meaning changes:

  1. Look up means searching for information in a document. 
  2. Look after means taking care of someone or something. 
  3. Look forward means being excited or positively anticipating a future event. 
  4. Look down means looking at someone or something from above. 

Again, phrasal verbs are an essential part of spoken and written English. English learners will improve their proficiency if they work on learning their meaning and how to use them in context.

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