You are going to love or hate this! I think the reason that phrasal verbs loom so large in learners' worries about English is that teachers worry about them too, and in some cases don't understand them themselves.

The evidence for this is overwhelming on the short teachers' courses we run here at NILE - time and again, teacher-participants ask for help with phrasal verbs and time and again they display confusion over issues related to them such as the difference between a prepositional verb and one followed by an adverb particle, which verbs are separable and which not, which are transitive and which not.  These are the grammatical issues and we haven't even started on the lexical dimensions!  All this, taken together, leads to a feeling that Phrasal Verbs are a never-ending problem that non-natives can never get to the bottom of or establish any control over.

It would be all too easy to blame grammar books and coursebooks for this as many of them radiate confusion about the status of these verbs, and they are often treated as though they were a grammatical category.  However, as with all language work, this is often just an excuse for not thinking something through for oneself.

Here is an activity which I use on teachers' courses and with upper intermediate/advanced learners to help participants to sort all this out:

Phrasal Verbs: Research Task  

Step One
Individually, collect a dozen or more examples of phrasal verbs in context, and write each down in its context on a slip of paper. 


I’m not going out tonight.  I’m going to stay in and chill out. 


You should consult some or all of the following sources:   

  • Informal and formal spoken English (as used by your native speaker contacts, your tutors, people on TV, etc)
  • Newspaper texts
  • Advertisement texts
  • Other written texts (fiction, internet sources, etc)

 You may also wish to check meanings and combinations in a dictionary or on a concordancing website such as the ones offered by the British National Corpus:


or by The Compleat Lexical Tutor:

 Step Two
In the next class, form groups of 4 and pool all your findings.  Lay them out on the table, and try to sort them into categories of your own choosing.  Make sure that you all understand and can explain the criteria you use for categorising.  Prepare a 5-minute group presentation on your findings and your decisions.  Use a poster, Power Point or a transparency to support your presentation.


Step Three
Make your own presentation to the rest of the class and listen carefully to the ones given by the other group.  Make notes on anything you find useful or interesting.  Ask about anything you disagree with or which is not clear. Your tutor will also give feedback to each group.  

Step Four
Get back together in your groups and make changes to your categorisation as you see fit, in the light of the comments and feedback you have received.  You may also wish to compare your own decisions with categorisations in standard grammar books, but remember that there is no single ‘right’ way of categorising phrasal verbs.  Agree on a final written version to hand in to your tutor.  This should include the categories you have decided on with examples of each.

Step Five (Reflection)
Discuss the following questions and make notes on them in your diaries:

  • What have you learned from carrying out this piece of research?
  • (for teachers) How might your findings help you when you deal with phrasal verbs with your learners in future?






The thinking behind this activity, which is rooted in Language Awareness/Discovery Learning approaches, is that learners need to think the system through for themselves and to make intelligent use of authentic data and reference books to reach their conclusions.  Sometimes they come up with grammatical categories (e.g separable vs inseparable), sometimes with meaning-related categories (e.g. literal vs figurative/idiomatic), and sometimes with categories based on a particular preposition (e.g. verbs with 'up') or a particular verb (e.g. combinations with 'take' or 'get').  Also, they often come up initially with verbs which are not strictly phrasal or prepositional, such as 'make hay' or 'bend the rules', but these are usually discarded in group discussion.  None of this is a waste of time.  Each part of the process they go through has value in terms of uinderstanding both systems and meanings.  The advantage of this type of approach is that learners think deeply and critically about phrasal verbs for the first time.  This particular area lends itself well to this type of open-ended approach because the published sources don't all agree on how to treat these verbs and therefore there are no absolutely right answers, though there are plenty that are manifestly wrong!

In the debriefing session at the end of the research task, and by definition after they have done the thinking, I usually cover some or all of the following points, which particpants usually find interesting and useful:

  • most phrasal verbs have Germanic roots (there is a similar lexico-grammatical phenomenon in German, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages), and they generally belong towards the more informal end of the formality-informality continuum
  • they are generally more common in informal/spoken English than in formal/written English, though this is changing in modern electronic communication which is ever more informal in style
  • there is often a more formal, Latin-based equivalent to a phrasal verb, and this may be used in a professional register, e.g. take out vs extract a tooth
  • adverb particles adhere semantically to the verb and modify its meaning either literally or figuratively (e.g. look up a word, look someone up) whereas prepositions adhere semantically to the noun or noun phrase that follows (e.g. He looked up the tree.) and indicate place, time, direction etc.
  • this is an area of language which lends itself to creativity and innovation, resulting in a steady flow of new lexical items, e.g. chill out, spam out
  • there are just a few grammatical issues to keep in mind about these verbs, but otherwise the safest way to learn/ teach them is as lexis.  No need to torture yourself or your learners with long lists of combinations with 'up' or with 'bring' - this usually results in confusion, frustration and ultimately neurosis.  Just learn them as individual lexical items as they come up in texts, dialogues etc, and keep on checking authentic sources to see how and when they are used.

Once learners have gone through all of this, they usually begin to feel that they have taken more control over the problem area and the neurosis, along with the feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness have already begun to recede.


Do let me know what you think of the ideas in this contribution - I'm sure there are plenty of other good ideas out there!


More tomorrow