top of page

Why are Phrasal Verbs so Tricky?

Hi, everyone. You can now check out the fifth video in my new series of YouTube lessons on Phrasal Verbs! This one is called "We've finally SETTLED IN to our new home!"

The reason I'm doing phrasal verbs is that pretty much all of my students have trouble with them. Why are phrasal verbs so tricky?

The thing is that phrasal verbs are particular to English. No other language does this.

We take a verb, add a preposition (or two prepositions) to it, and then the verb plus preposition(s) combination suddenly has a new meaning. For example, "settle" has a meaning on its own (actually it has more than one meaning!); and then "settle in" and "settle down" have different meanings, too.

As far as I know, English is really special (and crazy) in using phrasal verbs. If your language uses phrasal verbs as well, please let me know by sending me a message or commenting directly on the video. I’d love to know about it!

I would like all of my friends and students who are English learners to know one fact about phrasal verbs: You can usually figure out their meanings in context.

What I mean is: You can usually guess the meaning of a phrasal verb by the situation in which it’s used, and from the vocabulary surrounding it.

Unfortunately, sometimes you may come across a phrasal verb with no context, simply a phrasal verb on its own. Imagine you see "Carry on!" written on a wall. In that case, it’s basically impossible to figure out what "carry on" means without asking someone or looking it up. With context, though, you might be able to figure it out: "In any kind of difficult situation, it's easier to carry on if you have the support of your family."

“OK, fine, so maybe I can figure out the meanings of phrasal verbs from context,” many of my English-learner friends and students say. “However, I'm still not able to remember them and use them properly! It’s impossible to learn how to use them in a natural way!”

This is a serious problem. I admit it. However, I have a couple of suggestions for you. The first one is to make it your goal to learn just one new phrasal verb a week--no more than two a week.

Don’t take on too many phrasal verbs at one time; don’t try to take on a lot of similar-sounding phrasal verbs at the same time, either. That will just be too much and too confusing for any learner. Learn the new phrasal verb completely; ask people what it means and how they use it; write sentences using it; use it in conversations; if you don’t have the opportunity to speak English, use it in comments on a social media site.

Seriously: Use it or lose it! Once you have used a new phrasal verb (or any vocabulary word) several times repeatedly, you are much more likely to be able to hold onto it forever.

Another tip: Watch, read, and listen to English as much as you can. Watch a TV series like “Friends” and pay attention to the expressions they use—they are using natural North American English in a modern way. You don’t need to make notes and test yourself all the time; just pay attention and enjoy it. You will improve if you expose yourself to the language.

Finally, remember that there is no one specific way to speak English “completely correctly.” Even when I’m teaching pronunciation or grammar to my students, I will always let them know that English has a lot of variations and styles throughout the whole world. If you are doing your best to communicate and someone criticizes you and says they know better, that’s their problem—not yours!

English is a worldwide language which is helping a lot of people make important connections. Do your best and keep watching my videos and following me here, on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Send me your suggestions for what you would like to learn!

By the way—did you notice that I used several phrasal verbs in this post? How many did you count? Were you able to figure out what they meant by using context?

Take care—Susan.

bottom of page