You just can´t do without them!

by José Roberto A. Igreja

They are everywhere. From newspaper and magazine articles to recipes and prescriptions to movies and songs. Chances are that one out of each ten words in English that you read or listen to is one of them (there´s one in this article you have read so far, by the way!). For those of you who have already started to wonder what it is that you can´t do without , here goes the first hint: they play a major role in the English language and some of them can have up to fifteen different meanings. Does that ring a bell? If you have not been able to guess what I´m talking about yet, don´t give up! Here´s another hint: they are usually made up of two parts, a verb and a preposition or an adverb, but some of them are made up of three! Did that help clear up the issue? Well, I´m sure that by now most of you have come up with the answer. That´s right: The good old Phrasal Verbs! You´re bound to find them in just about every text in English that you lay eyes on or dialogue and song you listen to. I know that it probably goes without saying that phrasal verbs do play a key role in the English language, but should your memory need some refreshing, just count the number of phrasal verbs that come up in the lyrics of the next song you listen to or text that you read. You may wind up surprised.

It´s no use whining! That´s the way native speakers of English use the language.

Students may argue that choosing phrasal verbs over single word verbs is going to the trouble of making things complicated when they need not be. Why use three words by saying “put up with” when we can express the same idea by using just one “tolerate”? Why “let someone down” if we can use the single word verb “disappoint”? Why say “Mike came up with a great idea.” when we can simply say “Mike thought of a great idea.” Why “find out” instead of “discover” ? (the list of “complaints” is endless …) I can only argue back by telling the truth, which is: that´s the way native speakers of English use the language. They are more likely to make use of phrasal verbs than single word verbs in any given situation. They take phrasal verbs for granted and use them naturally in their everyday speech without even noticing they are doing it!

Don´t be scared … There´s nothing to be afraid of!

For those students who sometimes feel “frightened” by the huge amount of phrasal verbs present in the language I have some good news. But first I must tell you that, if you are really willing to achieve a more native-like fluency in English , then sooner or later you will have to come to terms with phrasal verbs and that learning how to apply the “classic ones” is really a must. By “classic ones” I mean the ones that always find their way around and manage to be present in everyday speech on a daily basis. The good news is that the list of “classic phrasal verbs” is not that long. One can do reasonably well in most day-to-day dialogues by mastering about fifty of them, among which are the essential “get back”; “get up”; “give up”; “look for”; “make up”; “pick up” and “take off”.

One phrasal verb + different contexts = completely different meanings!

The equation above can drive some students crazy. Especially those who turn up their noses to the sheer fact that there are “far too many different” phrasal verbs in the language , as some say. Take a look at the “look” phrasal verbs for example (no pun intended), they may argue: “look at”; “look after”; “look around”; “look back“; “look down on”; “look for”; “look forward to”; “look into”; “look out “; “look up”; “look up to” , etc. Now, things really start to get out of hand when they find out that one “same” phrasal verb can present lots of different meanings, depending on the particular context they are in. Many students think this is deliberately meant to mix them up and make their lives as students miserable! Some have a hard time “accepting the idea” that the phrasal verb “pick up”, can alone mean:

a-) to take hold of something and lift it up from a surface
Ex. As Jeff was early for his dental appointment , he picked up a magazine that was lying on the reception desk and started browsing through it.

b-) to collect someone or something , esp. by car
Ex.1 “Can you pick me up at the airport when I come back from my business trip to Chicago?” , Roger asked Bob.

Ex.2: “I can’t believe I’ve been so absent-minded lately ! I’ve left my wallet at home again. I have to go back to pick it up !” , said Louis.

c-) to improve ; to get better , esp. business , the economy , etc.
Ex. “Our boss told us that if business doesn’t pick up this quarter , he will have to start letting people go.” , Stanley told Will.

d-) to learn through observation and practice
Ex. Even though Paul never really took French classes, he picked up the language quickly while he was living in Paris some years ago.

e-) to receive radio signals , t.v. channels, etc
Ex. “With our new antenna , our t.v. can pick up channels from t.v. stations over 500 miles away.”, Burt told his friend James.

f-) to buy or get something
Ex. “I haven’t had time to fix dinner. Can you pick up some pizza on your way back from work ?” , Cathy asked her husband Bill over the phone.

g-) to catch a disease
Ex. “Unfortunately Rick picked up some unusual kind of infection that kept him in bed for a few days.” , Rick’s brother told us.

h-) to resume
Ex. “That’s it for today folks. We’ll pick up with chapter five tomorrow.” , said the professor.

i-) to try to get to know someone hoping to have a sexual relationship
Ex. Dominic was always hanging out at the same bar trying to pick up women.

And as if that was not enough , there are often what I call “spin off products” from phrasal verbs. That is , certain fixed expressions that are made up of a phrasal verb plus other words. That´s the case with “pick up speed”

Ex. Sally stood on the porch watching Jack´s car pick up speed and disappear in the distance.

My advice to the above mentioned learners is to look on the bright side and remember that the context will always (or most of the times) be there to lend you a helping hand with defining the meaning of a particular phrasal verb. I believe that it´s important to mention that what normally happens when students first begin learning the language is that they usually start out as “passive users” of phrasal verbs. That is , they can grasp the ideas and differences in meaning by leaning on the context. As an example, I suppose most students would feel comfortable with the different meanings for “take off” in the sentences below, where the context is explicit:

Ex.1 Danny says he is so used to wearing glasses that he sometimes forgets to take them off to sleep at night.


Ex.2 Bert sometimes likes to go to the airport to just watch planes take off and land on the runway.

It may take a little while for us teachers to turn them into active users of phrasal verbs, but hopefully that´s what ends up happening in the end.

Note: The examples above were extracted from “Phrasal Verbs Como falar Inglês como um Americano!” by Jonathan T. Hogan and José Roberto A. Igreja. – Disal Editora

Expressing “colloquial ideas” through phrasal verbs

I only did become fully aware of the fact that so many everyday brazilian “colloquial ideas” can be clearly expressed through phrasal verbs during the research work for “Phrasal Verbs – Como falar Inglês como um Americano !” I take this opportunity to share some of them with you:

“Amarelar”: Chicken out
“Bajular alguém”: Butter up
“Bater o telefone na cara de alguém”: Hang up on
“Bolar”; inventar: Think up
“Cair aos pedaços”; deteriorar: Fall apart
“Cair na conversa de alguém ou em algum truque”: Fall for
“Calar a boca”: Shut up
“Colocar em dia”: Catch up on
“Colocar alguém a par de alguma coisa”: Fill in on
“Dar bronca”: Tell off
“Dar a volta por cima”: Bounce back
“Dar um pulo na casa de alguém” ; visitar: Drop by ; Drop in on
“Dar-se bem com”; ter um bom relacionamento com: Get along with
“Dar para trás: cair fora: Back out
“Dedurar”; denunciar: Tell on
“Deixar p. da vida”, irritar: Piss off
“Descontar irritação ou mal humor em alguém”: Take out on
“Devorar”; “engolir”; comer depressa: Gobble down
“Envenenar o motor de um carro”: Soup up
“Esfriar a cabeça”; acalmar-se: Cool down
“Estar a fim de”: Feel like
“Fazer as pazes”: Make up
“Malhar”; fazer exercício físico: Work out
“Não dar em nada” ; fracassar: Fall through
“Não ver a hora de”, aguardar ansiosamente: Look forward to
“Pegar no pé”; implicar com alguém: Pick on
“Puxar alguém da família”: Take after
“Pisar na bola”: Screw up
“Pular a cerca”, trair: Fool around with
“Sair correndo”, “sair voando”: Take off
“Sair de fininho”: Sneak away
“Ser chegado em”; “ser ligado em alguma coisa”: Be into
“Valer a pena”, compensar: Pay off

You may sometimes come across phrasal verbs …

“We are about to find out who screwed up the deal by letting out classified information to the competitors.”

The sentence above is a good example of how we can actually sometimes “come across” phrasal verbs. Below some more examples:

“Sally decided to break up with her boyfriend when she found out he had been fooling around with other girls.”

“Bernard was about to get a bank loan to pay off his debts when his wife came into a fortune and he didn´t need to do it anymore.”

“I just can´t figure Betty and Fred out. They are always breaking up and making up.”

“Don´t forget to turn off the lights and lock up before you go out .”

“If you keep up with this sedentary routine of yours you are going to end up turning into a couch potato. Why don´t you take up a sport ?”

“Adam told his friends they needed to pull up to a gas station and fill up the tank because they were running out of gas.

“When Steve gets back home from work he likes to take off his suit and tie and slip into something more comfortable.”

“Hey, slow down! If you are not careful you are going to end up running into the back of that truck!”

Wrapping it all up

If I haven´t been able to turn you into phrasal verb lovers so far, I hope to have by now at least accomplished either one of the three following things: 1. Brainwashed you into believing that life on earth (at least in the English-speaking countries) is just not possible without phrasal verbs and that if you have ignored them so far it´s high time you wised up to the fact that you can´t do without them. 2. Drawn your attention to how usual phrasal verbs are and the major role they play in the language 3. Talked you into giving this subject some more thought and attention.

So, my last few comments are: Don´t fight them, Team up with them! Remember that when you run out of ideas you can always fall back on phrasal verbs to add a “special touch” that can brighten up your speech!
P.S. This article is living proof of the ubiquitous nature of phrasal verbs: 25 of them, not counting the examples!

OBS: Article originally published in New Routes magazine # 23

The author

José Roberto A. Igreja has a BA in English and Literature from PUC/SP. He is the author of Inglês Fluente em 30 Lições; Fale tudo em Inglês nos Negócios!; Como se diz em inglês?; How do you say … in English?; Say it all in Brazilian Portuguese!; Fale Tudo em Inglês!; Fale Tudo em Inglês!- Livro de AtividadesFale tudo em Inglês em Viagens!; Falsos Cognatos – Looks can be deceiving! and False Friends. He´s also the co-author of Fluent Business English; English for Job interviews!; Fale Inglês como um Americano; Phrasal Verbs; Essential Phrasal Verbs; American Idioms! and Essential American Idioms, all published by Disal Editora. E-mail:

Referência: “Phrasal Verbs” – Jonathan T. Hogan e José Roberto A. Igreja, Disal Editora. Clique aqui para ler a resenha.