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Transitive And Intransitive Phrasal Verbs - Col...

My colleague Kate Woodford and I have written many posts about phrasal verbs because students find them difficult but know they need to learn them. These posts often include prepositional verbs, and readers sometimes ask about this.

Transitive and intransitive phrasal verbs - Col...

So what is the difference between a phrasal verb and a prepositional verb? Strictly speaking, a phrasal verb consists of a verb and an adverb (or in the case of 3-word phrasal verbs, an adverb and a preposition). When phrasal verbs are transitive, the object can go either between the verb and the particle or after them:

I think that deepening the use of phrasal verbs is very important. Personally I would like to have patterns that deepen the topic and facilitate memorization: patterns by preposition, by typology (phrasal verbs with preposition and adverbs, etc

Interesting, and you are correct that phrasal verbs often tend to be less formal. However, you may be interested in this previous post on phrasal verbs for formal writing: -carried-out-an-experiment-phrasal-verbs-in-formal-writing/

Phrasal Verbs present problems for many learners. One initial problem is that writers on the subject disagree as to exactly what a phrasal verb is: others use different names for different types. For example, some differentiate between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs and present both as sub-classes of multi-word verbs; some consider prepositional verbs to be a sub-class of phrasal verbs; and some use different terminology altogether. However, whatever the name, the concept of what we may neutrally call multi-word verbs is useful. It helps you see that there is a real difference in the meaning of the underlined words in:

In both these sentences the word in bold is a preposition, and can be replaced by other prepositions such as those in brackets, changing the meaning of the sentence as the meaning of the preposition changes. The meaning of the underlined word, an intransitive verb, does not change. We are not dealing with multi-word verbs here, any more than we are with:

However, as they differ in usage from other types of 'phrasal verbs', and because they are used in the same patterns as verbs followed by a preposition (1.1 above) it is more useful to call them prepositional verbs.

Once again, the underlined word-pair takes on a meaning (explode) beyond the original dictionary definitions of its parts However, the word up is not being used as a preposition here, but as an adverb or, as some writers refer to a word used in this way, a particle. In this paper we use the term phrasal verb for such combinations of verb+adverb/particle. Others call them (separable) phrasal verbs - separable because the two parts can be separated by their object; #10a is possible:

However, verb and adverb/particle are used here with their core meanings, and there is little point in considering them as phrasal verbs. Once again, this is not important. Whether we think of them as phrasal verbs or as verbs plus adverb/particle, the grammar is the same.

Thus we have a difference in word-order patterns between what we have called prepositional verbs and verbs followed by a preposition on the one hand, and phrasal verbs and verbs followed by a particle/adverb on the other, as we can see on the following table:

With blow up in #10 we see the dangers of labeling combinations without taking context into consideration. In #10-10d it is used transitively (meaning explode), and it is used as a phrasal verb (so * he blew up it is not acceptable). However, we can use blow as a simple intransitive verb and follow it with the preposition up. Think of an organist testing for blockages in a pipe: he pursed his lips, he put them to the end of the pipe and

In both these sentences the word in bold is a particle/adverb, and can be replaced by others such as those in brackets, changing the meaning of the sentence as the meaning of the particle/adverb changes. The meaning of the underlined word, the verb, does not change. We are not dealing with multi-word verbs here, though some writers class such verbs as the following as phrasal verbs;

Here, the italicised word-pair takes on a meaning (disagreed, argued) beyond the original dictionary definitions of the two parts. In this paper we use the term (intransitive) phrasal verb for such combinations of verb+adverb/particle.

One problem is that learners sometimes do not find it easy to accept to as a preposition in such phrasal-prepositional verbs as look forward to, be/get used to, be/get accustomed to. A common mistake is:

There are no phrasal-prepositional verbs here. In #22 and #23 we have what in this paper are considered as verbs collocating with an adverb/particle, hang up (here used transitively). and look up (here used intransitively), followed by a preposition + noun. Some authorities may call hang up and look up phrasal verbs, but that does not change how they are used

A number of phrasal verbs are not normally used with the 1.3. a. pattern verb + particle + noun object, unless the object consists of several words. Thus, #24a would be possible, though #24b is very unlikely.

Here, meaning explode, the verb is used transitively, with four possible word-order patterns (see section 1.3). The verb, still with the meaning of explode, can also be used intransitively (section 1.5):

On the other hand, learners from Germanic language backgrounds (such as Dutch and German speakers) my overuse phrasal verbs in English because they are not alert to the stylistically informal nature that many exhibit. In both Dutch and German, multi-word verbs are not specifically marked for formality at all and are neutral. This results in the opposite problem and such learners may be unable to adopt a suitably neutral or formal style when needed.

The bad news:Estimates of the number of phrasal and prepositional verbs in English vary but corpus research has helped a good deal in pinning things down. There are, according to some surveys, around 5,000 to 10,000 in total and that is clearly an impossible target even to consider.There is a need, therefore, to be very selective in our approach.

The good news #1:Many of the verbs identified by corpus researchers are uncommon and the even better news is that a little common sense will alert you to the fact that the adverb particles often mean exactly the same thing across a range of verbs which corpus research would identify as separate items. We saw in the guide to the analysis of this area that the phrasal verb take off, meaning remove as in, e.g.: I took off the sticky labelis akin in meaning to at least:

and it is clearly unnecessary to teach each of these as a separate item. Learn one and you have learned them all. We do not have 18 phrasal verbs here; what we have is one meaning of the adverb off combining with 18 verbs.This sort of analysis will not, of course, lead learners to understanding something like He took the Prime Minister off hilariouslybut that is quite a rare item in any case.

The good news #3:Researchers often ascribe separate meanings to phrasal verbs which can be seen, with a little imagination, to constitute the same meaning. For example, some will ascribe two meanings to the verb put out in: I put out the lightand I put out the firewhereas a little thought reveals that there is only one basic meaning at work here. Moreover, if a learner has grasped that the adverb out has a specific sense of causing absence or disappearance (compare rub out, strike out, scratch out, cross out etc.) then the meaning becomes more transparent.

The good news #4:If we select from the 100 most common verbs in English only those that conventionally combine with adverb particles to form phrasal verbs we get a list of 56 verbs like this:

The good news #5:They don't all combine with all the particles. For example, the verb add only naturally combines with in andup and leave only combines with in, off and out.The majority of the verbs will only combine with half or fewer of the adverb particles so, immediately, the targets are reduced to around 200 possible phrasal verbs and that is an attainable number when one considers that learners at level A2 on the Common European Framework are expected to have mastered around 2000 words. By C1, this total rises to over 4000 words of which only 5% would be phrasal verbs in our sense of the term.

The good news #7:The PHaVE list consists of 150 phrasal verbs and seems to be freely available at The slightly less good news is that each verb in the list has an average of just under 2 possible meanings but, even if we assume that a different meaning of a phrasal verb has to be separately learned, that still leaves a target of fewer than 300 verbs to learn. That's doable especially when one considers that some of the verbs in the list (such as get on / off the bus) are not really phrasal verbs at all.Usefully, too, the PHaVE list gives a guideline concerning which meaning of each verb is more frequent as a percentage. For planning purposes, that's helpful.

The good news #8:At the outset at least learners can be led to the structural aspects of multi-word (and particularly phrasal) verbs by focusing on those whose meaning is transparent. This means that multi-word verbs such as bring up, pick up, set up, get up and so on can be taught simply once the learners are aware of the meaning of the adverb particle up parallels its familiar use as a preposition.

PronunciationResearch shows that words which are difficult to pronounce are more difficult to learn. Phrasal verbs are not too problematic for learners in terms of pronunciation, though misplaced word stress is a common error.Students are frequently reluctant to give stress to particles. In the sentence, "We did the kitchen up" for example, "kitchen" is stressed, though when we substitute the noun for a pronoun, "We did it up", the stress falls on the adverbial particle.One way of helping learners is by using graphics, such as stress boxes ( a small black square) on the board, and getting them to mark the stress above words or syllables in the whole sentence and to practise reading it aloud.Grammatical formIn terms of grammatical form, multi-word verbs present problems for learners as to whether,a) they are separable or inseparableb) they are transitive or intransitivec) they are formal or informalIn responding to these problems of form, teachers can either focus on the rules, i.e., whether they are Type 1 or 2 etc., or adopt a more incidental learning approach. 041b061a72


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