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What are phrasal verbs (in English)?

Updated: Apr 10

And how do they hold one of the keys to improving our foreign language vocabulary?

Phrasal verbs are a nightmare for people learning English as a foreign language. What even are they? They usually consist of two, sometimes three words, which are generally either:

verb + preposition or: verb + adverb

By way of example, look how many variations of meaning can be attributed to the word “put”, merely by changing the accompanying preposition:

Put this jacket on.

Don’t be put off.

You put it across very well.

He puts himself about a bit.

They’ve put one over on us.

I’m going to have to put him down!

I’m feeling put upon.

She put me up to it.

Yes, of course we can put you up.

I’ve put up with this for long enough!

…and so on

The good news for us is that almost every phrasal verb has a Latinate equivalent. This means that as well as being able to recognise apparently high-level words in French/Spanish etc., with a bit of practice, we can even use this knowledge to reverse-engineer things and come up with a word that we might be looking for in our speech.

The pattern is that the phrasal verb is the go-to choice when using informal English, and the synonym is reserved for more ‘proper’ situations. Incidentally, this rule does not only apply to verbs, but to most parts of speech. Remember that English was originally an Anglo-Saxon language, so our every-day words for elemental things, such as animals in the fields or parts of the body, tend to have a Germanic root. With the arrival of William and his conquering Normans, more and more French words were introduced, but they were enhancements to the pre-existing language, not replacements.

In the late eleventh century, the higher your aspirations for upward social mobility, the more you would try to incorporate these fancy new French words into your speech. So, whilst the common peasants…

...used their hands, worked in the fields, and ate cow and pig to stay alive.

And the noble ruling class did not...

...undertake anything manually, but preferred to reside in castles, consuming beef and veal and pork in order to survive.

This first example sentence consists entirely of Germanic-root words, whereas the second sentence has a liberal sprinkling of Latinate words. It is surely clear which one sounds more formal, posher*.

Back to our phrasal verbs. A more every-day example:

I’ve got to sort my stuff out. versus I am required to organise my affairs.

Take a look at the list below. On the left are the phrasal verbs: the words that we tend to use in normal/informal conversation. The second column is the next level up; some of these are only a slightly higher register of language, but others are much more highfalutin. Then there are the French and Spanish equivalents. Can you see what I mean about how easy it is to take a guess at a word, once you are familiar with the patterns? This list is by no means exhaustive.

In summary, a high proportion of English words for things have double lineage: one comes from Latin (via French) and there is a close synonym from the Germanic side of the family. This partly explains why, depending on how they are counted, English has approximately twice as many words as both French and German**.

It also explains why we have several set expressions in English which appear to be self-repetitive:

aid and abet

fit and proper

peace and quiet

intents and purposes

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of harmless tautology, but have you ever wondered how and why such expressions exist. Probably not, as they are so well ingrained. The answer is that in the early days of Norman rule, the courts needed to make absolutely clear that everyone – both sides of the linguistic divide, understood exactly what was going on, so for certain key parts of legal documents, the word from both languages was included in the text in the spirit of belt and braces. If only “belt and braces” were an example of the same rule, but it’s not quite!

So, your take-home concepts from all of this:

1. When trying to think up a new word when chatting away in French/Spanish etc., simply scroll through your mental list of synonyms for the English word until you come to one that sounds like it could have an equivalent in your target language. You will be amazed how often this little trick works.

2. When talking to non-native speakers of English whose level is not all that, the kind ting to do is to refrain from using phrasal verbs where possible. You will come across as one of the rare breed of English speakers who is easy to understand.

3. If German is your target language, do not feel excluded: it takes a bit more explaining, but there are cross-overs here as well. Another time…!

* “Posh” is not an acronym of Port Out Starboard Home. Sorry. Watch this space for a debunking blog-post soon: the false origins of words, sometimes known as retronyms

** English has approximately half a million words; French and German each have about 250,000. However, if you count all German compound words separately, their total goes way over a million

Andrew Wenger, SameSky Languages

There are now SameSky Language groups for French, Spanish, and German at all three levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced. We also offer Italian and Japanese tuition, either in small groups or one-to-one.

Now is a good time to sign up. We have only just started the new courses, so you won't have much to catch up on.

Most are taught on Zoom, but we are opening up more and more in-person groups - at various salubrious venues in the Reading and West Berks area.

Please contact me here if you would like to find out more about taking up a new language, or brushing the rust of an old one.

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