Friday, June 12, 2015

Putting Up With Phrasal Verbs

Many native English speakers have probably never considered or even heard of the term phrasal verb, much like the many other nuances of languages that native speakers don't give a second thought. However, it's these nuances that learners of a language can struggle with, and in my experience, phrasal verbs are a pain in the proverbial arse of many people trying to learn English. So what exactly are they?

As you should know, verbs make things happen. However, they're quite awkward for language learners since you often need to learn a whole host of things just to use them correctly. In order to use a verb in English, you first need to learn the grammatical person, which usually dictates who is the active participant of the verb.

Once you know who the verb's about, you need to know when it took place and its grammatical tense. Sometimes the tense doesn't indicate time exactly, but we won't get bogged down in that just now.

This nebula is only slightly more complex than phrasal verbs.
So you think you've got verbs all mastered? Not quite! In English, phrasal verbs can change the entire meaning of a verb just by adding a word or two. For example, looking is not the same as looking for or looking after. The first indicates viewing or watching, while the second indicates searching, and the third indicates being responsible for something.

It's sort of crazy that sitting down and sitting up are different things in English (with the first referring to taking a seat and the second to adjusting your posture). How can putting be completely different if you put up with rather than put out (and take care with the latter!).

The thing about phrasal verbs is that the words they're composed of cannot work in isolation: you need the verb and either a preposition (words that usually indicate a place or time) or a particle (a word that requires the other word to have any meaning).

Despite phrasal verbs being useless in isolation, they also are incredibly versatile when used. The order of the words that make up phrasal verbs is not entirely fixed, meaning that they might not always appear in the order that you learned them. In fact, the phrasal verb "to put up with" is famous for being used awkwardly in order to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. While the quote isn't really from Winston Churchill, I still enjoy this syntactic monstrosity:

"This is the sort of English up with which I will not put."
- Not Winston Churchill

This flexibility is the kind of awkwardness that non-native speakers find horrendously difficult to wrap their heads around, and who could blame them? It's absolutely ridiculous!

Are you learning English as a foreign language? What do you think of phrasal verbs? What is your favourite phrasal verb? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.