Phrasal verbs in 5 situations and how to learn them

Phrasal verbs in 5 situations and how to learn them

I’m going to ask you a question.

I’m also going to guess your answer. I think that I’ll guess your answer correctly.

Here’s the question:

What do you find the most difficult thing to learn in English?

And your answer?

There’s a strong chance that you said, “Phrasal verbs, Gabriel. Phrasal verbs are the most difficult thing to learn in English. Also, your hair looks great.”

Thanks for the hair comment.

And yes, phrasal verbs are the biggest problem for most learners.

“What’s wrong with this stupid language?” I hear so many English learners say. “You have a word like ‘quit’ but you make up a new, complicated system and choose to say ‘give up’ instead! WHY?!”

And you’re right. It’s weird and unusual.

Remember: there are two types of situations where we can have a verb with a preposition.

One situation is when the verb’s meaning doesn’t change:

He looked at the giraffe.

The chicken walked across the road.

And the other situation is when the meaning completely changes. This is what I mean when I say “phrasal verb”:

You’re giving up chocolate? You’re mad.

Get real Frank. You weren’t brought up by gorillas in the Amazon. You’re from Battersea, just like your parents.

I kind of love phrasal verbs. They’re beautiful and fun.

But I also agree with you — they are a pain to learn.

So for today’s post, I thought I’d show you:

  1. A method you can use to learn vocabulary (especially phrasal verbs) to help you remember better and for longer.
  2. What kind of phrasal verbs you can expect to find in five different types of text.
  3. How many phrasal verbs you can expect to find in each of these texts.

Part 1: How to learn phrasal verbs in context

But first, let me ask you another question:

How do you learn new vocabulary?

Do you learn it from a list, like this:

Vocabulary list

…or do you study it in context (when it’s used in an article, book, conversation, etc.) like this:

Old man listening to an old radio

Think about your answer for a second, because I want to introduce you to the Phrasal Verb Creature (PVC):

Bird with a man's head

Remember that phrasal verbs are actually two (or more) words put together. What the words mean individually and what the whole phrasal verb means is usually different.

Because of this, I see phrasal verbs as little monsters, like the PVC. They like to run around and move in different directions so it’s difficult for you to catch them. They enjoy being difficult to catch. Like a butterfly. Or Julian Assange.

Now we could kill it, then study it like an old-fashioned scientist:

Old scientist looking at a bird with a man's head

But how much can we really learn about it this way? How can we best understand its habits? Which other words does it spend time with? What kind of environment does it live in?

We can’t know the answers to these questions by killing the PVC and isolating it from its environment. But this is what learning phrasal verbs from a list is like. You know what they look like and what they do. But you can’t really get a strong picture of how it looks in context.

Now, what if we study the PVC while it’s still alive? We can hide behind a bush like a nature documentary maker and watch it in its real context:

Watching from behind a bush

Now we can really understand how the PVC works — how it thinks, how it behaves, what kind of environment it likes the most and who it likes to spend time with.

This is studying phrasal verbs in context.

In other words, it’s best to study phrasal verbs in real use — articles, books, conversations, etc. This is true for any vocabulary but especially phrasal verbs because they often don’t have an exact translation in most languages.

So how can we do this?

If you want to learn more phrasal verbs, you can choose which ones to learn by finding them in real life.

Phrasal verbs and formality

Back in November, I showed you how to research new words to better understand how they work.

So let’s become researchers again.

This time, we’re going to start with the environment. You see, different PVCs like hanging out in different environments, just like animals in the real world.

Some animals prefer hot weather and some prefer cold. Some like humid environments and some prefer dry ones.

It’s the same with PVCs — but what does “environment” mean for a PVC?

The biggest environment difference in the English language is probably formality. How formal is the situation?

If you’re giving a speech to the Queen of Sweden at Oxford University, then the English you use is going to much more formal than when you’re having an argument with your best friend.

Formal speech

The PVCs that enjoy the formal atmosphere of the Oxford speech don’t enjoy the environment of the argument. So you’re going to use different phrasal verbs at the Oxford speech than when you’re arguing with your friend.

So what kind of English situations are formal and what kind of English situations are informal?

Here’s a scale of formality:

Formality line

On the scale, you can see different situations that are more or less formal.

Today we’re going to look at 5 of them:

Formal vs informal

Let’s look at one of each of these “environments” and discover the PVCs that are hanging out there.

Studying phrasal verbs in their natural environment

We’re going to find the PVCs in their natural environment and study them. We’re going to study two things: how many PVCs are in each environment and what kind of PVCs they are.

But how do we do this?

It takes a while, and when you start you’ll look like this:

A bored boy

… but after a few minutes you’ll feel that you’re really getting deep into written English. You’ll feel like a proper researcher. And then you’ll look like this:

An ecstatic woman

So what do we do?

This is a real skill. If you practice looking at new vocabulary, looking at the words around them and then trying to understand the meaning from the context, you will learn much quicker. This is a very, very, very, very, very, very valuable skill. Very.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Choose a text and find the phrasal verbs in it.
  2. Choose one phrasal verb that you don’t know.
  3. Quickly read the sentence that the phrasal verb is in.
  4. Can you work out the meaning?
  5. If not, read the paragraph the phrasal verb is in.
  6. Can you work out the meaning?
  7. If you still can’t, now is the time for a dictionary (not before).
  8. Read the sentence again. Does the phrasal verb make sense now?

I know this seems like a long process, but the more you do it, the quicker you will be and the faster you’ll learn. Then you too can have awesome hair!

OK. Let’s practise this in five different “environments”!

Part 2: Phrasal verbs in different situations

Environment #1 – A broadsheet news article

There are two types of newspapers: the broadsheet paper and the tabloid paper.

What’s the difference?

The broadsheet is usually larger in size, less colourful and has more “serious” news.

The tabloid is often smaller, colourful and is more interested in what Brad Pitt had for breakfast than the situation in Syria.

Also, the broadsheet is much more formal than the tabloid.

Counting the PVCs

I looked at one article from each the BBC, The Guardian and The Telegraph.

Total number of words I checked: 2,331
Number of phrasal verbs: 6
Phrasal verbs per 100 words: 0.26

As we can see, not many PVCs are found in broadsheet news articles. The climate is probably too formal for them here. But let’s look at the ones we found.

What kind of PVC lives here?

On Monday, the Pentagon confirmed it had carried out a strike in north-west Syria, but did not say whom the attack had targeted.

The Guardian

If these wealthy traders, who are making the big money in Pyongyang, start to find business that much harder to come by because of sanctions…

The Telegraph

What do they mean?

Remember that today’s post isn’t about learning some phrasal verbs. It’s about how to learn phrasal verbs. So I’m not going to tell you what these phrasal verbs mean.

Yep, that’s right. Today, you are the teacher.

Take a look at the process above and see if you can figure out what they mean.

Did you get it? Let me know in the comments!

As we can see, the kinds of PVCs we get, at least in this news article, are not very expressive. They don’t show how anyone’s feeling and they’re not very artistic.

They just tend to explain a process or a situation without any strong opinion.

So the broadsheet article PVC is unexciting like a goldfish but helpful like a good teacher:

The broadsheet PVC: unexciting, like a goldfish, helpful, like a teacher

Environment #2 – A TED talk

TED talks are often recommended to practice listening.

Now, don’t get me wrong — all kinds of listening practice are really useful — but remember that a TED talk is still on the formal end of scale.

To get good at listening, you need to try all the different environments where we can find our PVCs.

So if you like TED talks, of course you should watch them. But make sure you get some informal listening, too. Go and watch a film.

Or watch some English people have a fight. If you live in England, this should be easy to find. Usually about 11 p.m. in the high street.

Counting the PVCs

Number of words I checked: 2,202
Number of phrasal verbs: 4
PVCs per 100 words: 0.2

What kind of PVC lives here?

If he had to work briefly in a mini-mart to save up for I.T. classes and his wedding in two months, so be it.

He found telemarketing work, then he became an Olive Garden waiter, because where better to get over his fear of white people than the Olive Garden?


I noticed in the TED research that a lot of the phrasal verbs were very technical, like these ones.

But there was also something else.

I had a difficult time finding phrasal verbs in the TED talk transcripts. It seems that there are even fewer PVCs in TED talks than in broadsheet articles.

The lesson of the TED talk? Don’t use them to practice phrasal verbs! There are not many PVCs here…

So what kind of PVC lives here? A very lonely one:

The TED talk PVC - the lonely PVC

Environment #3 – A tabloid news article

Tabloid papers are much more informal than broadsheets.

They’re also much more popular because they appeal to more people, partly by writing about more interesting, but less important topics (like celebrities and human tragedy), but also because they use much more everyday, conversational English.

Which means more phrasal verbs.

Counting the PVCs

Number of words I checked: 2,097
Number of PVCs: 14
PVCs per 100 words: 0.7

What kind of PVC lives here?

NASA is gearing up to send a robot to the Sun to help prepare for a “huge solar event” that could wreak havoc on Earth.

The Sun

The Beetham Tower in Manchester has developed a reputation for howling, humming and whistling every time the wind picks up, prompting repeated attempts to tackle the problem.

Mail Online

All these phrasal verbs have a very interesting function. They take quite formal actions and make them more human.

The PVCs in tabloid press are like translators: they make formal and complicated situations easier to understand. They translate political actions into human actions and describe the events in a very natural way.

These PVCs are kind of like that helpful grandmother or kindergarten teacher who could explain why adults do the crazy things that they do in a way that you could understand.

So they’re helpful like a guide dog but still quite technical like a mechanic:

Environment #4 – A novel

There are lots of different types of books and the writing style in them ranges from very formal (Jane Austen) to complete “street English” (Irvine Welsh):

Authors from very formal to very informal

And that’s the thing with novels — they show a big range of English styles.

But I’ve chosen a sample from my favourite author, Iain Banks.

He’s a good choice because he’s somewhere in the middle of the Austen-Welsh line:

Authors from very formal to very informal

Counting the PVCs

Number of words: 1,753
Number of PVCs: 18
PVCs per 100 words: 1

What kind of PVC lives here?

‘And how’s Frank?’ Duncan asked, pulling a lager and a Heavy.

‘OK. And yourself?’ I said.

Getting along, getting along…

I could hear vague noises for a bit, but even straining I couldn’t make out what they were, and they could have been just noises on the line.

The Wasp Factory

You know that feeling when you’re reading a book and you feel like you’re in the same room as the characters?

It’s a good feeling, isn’t it?

And it’s a feeling that comes from a great writer doing great writing.

A good writer wants to create a detailed picture of what she’s writing about. But how?

One of the ways is by using phrasal verbs.

Most of the PVCs here describe a basic action, but instead of a boring word, the writer has chosen a more creative phrasal verb that brings a stronger image to your mind.

For example, instead of “Diggs came and told us the day he escaped,” Banks has written, “Diggs came and told us the day he broke out.”

And instead of “While she started separating the lettuce from the spinach I took my leave and went up to my room,” he’s chosen “While she started sorting out the lettuce from the spinach I took my leave and went up to my room.”

So although, like the PVCs from the broadsheet, most of the PVCs here describe procedures and simple actions, they’re more glamorous and beautiful instead of technical and dull.

So they’re glamorous like a parrot but technically useful like a scientist:

The novel PVC - glamorous like a parrot, technically useful like a scientist

Environment #5 – A friendly conversation

If you want to practice listening to normal, informal conversations in English, look no further than BBC’s The Listening Project.

The concept is simple: two (or sometimes three) people sit and talk about something in a casual way.

This is great practice for your listening for several reasons: the conversation is at a normal speed, you have all the normal problems with real-life communication like people speaking at the same time and not finishing sentences…

… and there are phrasal verbs.

When people are speaking in an informal setting, they’re more likely to use phrasal verbs than in formal situations.

Counting the PVCs

Number of words: 1,124
Number of PVCs: 15
PVCs per 100 words: 1.3

What kind of PVC lives here?

But you were so organised and you gave us wonderful critiques that went on forever and I used to think, “God, does this woman never shut up?”

Well, I’ve come across this many, many times. They think you can only write about what you know, which is rubbish.

The Listening Project

The informal conversation is the most relaxed situation we’re looking at today. So it’s not a surprise to see very expressive PVCs here.

Unlike in the novel, where a lot of the PVCs are clear and directional, the PVCs who live in the informal conversation are more abstract.

This means that we can’t necessarily understand what they mean just by looking at them. In these situations it’s very important to look at the context and try to understand what the people are really trying to say in order to understand the PVCs well.

So the PVCs that live here?

Well, they’re casual like a student and expressive like a swan:

The friendly conversation PVC - casual like a student, expressive like a swan

So what have we learned today?

We’ve learned two things about phrasal verbs:

  1. The phrasal verbs in more formal environments are usually more technical, and the phrasal verbs in less formal environments are usually more expressive.
  2. There are usually more phrasal verbs in less formal environments.

Here’s a graph that shows this:

Chart: frequency of phrasal verbs in different situations

So what are you waiting for?

Now it’s your turn: find a certain environment and look for the PVCs in it.

Let’s study these interesting and fascinating creatures in their natural environment!

And let me know what you’ve found in the comments.

13 thoughts on “Phrasal verbs in 5 situations and how to learn them

  1. Just WOW! Thanks for this awesome piece of content! To be honest, I am addicted to Ted talks and I hate phrasal verbs. However, this post makes me give a second chance to phrasal verbs.

  2. Huaaahua. Im from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Im thrilled to read your post. Awfully creative and fun.

    If only all explanations on grammar — or economics or maths — were surprising and visually appealling like this.

    Thx a lot for your post.


  3. I love this approach Gabriel. If learners still want to learn phrasal verbs out of context after reading this then good luck to them because you’ve made it super clear that won’t work!

    Thank you for the reminder about the formality of TED talks – I don’t know who decided that TED talks were the holy grail of listening skills. They’re simply one resource among others and they’re best suited to people who need to understand planned, formal English like speeches or business presentations. To understand informal, conversational English you’ll need a difference resource – one that’s actually an example of informal, conversational English. Simple!

    I’m now finally listening to the Listening Project and I’m going to link to it in my blog post next week – you’ll see why.

  4. Thanks for this awesome explanation! I loved your illustrations as well, very funny, and useful.

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