Phrasal verbs are phrases with a figurative meaning


A FOLLOWER of my Facebook page for Jose Carillo’s English Forum, Maria Fernandez, told me in a post a few weeks ago that she finds phrasal verbs deceiving: “I get confused trying to distinguish them from idioms. Are they the same?”

My answer, belated because I got to read her post only the other day, is definitely not. An idiom can be any of the broad class of fixed or conventional expressions—whether a word, phrase, or sentence—with either an intended literal or figurative meaning but whose constituent word or words have a meaning or sense different from their dictionary definitions. On the other hand, a phrasal verb is an idiomatic phrase that combines a particular verb with a preposition or adverb to denote an action different from the combined meaning of that verb and the other constituent words.

Let’s examine some typical examples of idioms and phrasal verbs.

The idiom “dumbbell” means a stupid person, but that word literally means a short exercise bar with weights at each end. The phrase “down in the dumps” is idiomatic for feeling depressed, which isn’t the same as its literal sense of “having been thrown among discarded materials.” And the sentence “It’s not rocket science” is idiomatic for something not difficult to do—a playful reverse metaphor for the complicated process of building rocket ships for space travel.

As to phrasal verbs, it would be instructive to consider them as figurative verb phrases expressing an action different from that of the verb being used in the phrase. “Look down on” means to regard with contempt, as in “She looked down on officemates who haven’t read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, calling them ignorami”; “cut back on” means to consume less, as in “The editor admonished the writer to cut back on clichés in her stories”; and “pass something up” means to decline, as in “The manager passed up the promotion because of a lucrative foreign job offer.”

Definitely, the fact that phrasal verbs have a figurative rather than literal meaning will make them seem deceiving to the uninitiated. This will always be the case for phrasal verbs and for all idiomatic expressions for that matter, and the only way for English learners not to feel that way is to learn as many of them as possible through wide reading and purposive listening—in short, committing them to memory.

At this point, I must call attention to certain verb phrases and adjective phrases with literal meaning that are idiomatic only in the sense that they will work properly only with particular prepositions. Below are just a few examples of these two types of nonfigurative phrases:

Verbs with prepositional phrases: adapt from a source (not “to a source”), agree on a plan (not “to a plan”), agree to a proposal (not “with a proposal”), charge with a crime (not “of/for a crime”), contend with a person (not “against a person”), differ from someone in appearance (not “to someone in appearance”), disappointed by/with a person (not “in/on a person”), disappointed in/with a thing (not “on/by a thing”), infer from (not “infer to/with”), inferior to (not “inferior with”), occupied by a person (not “with a person”), occupied with a thing (not “by/of a thing”), rewarded for something done (not “with something done”), wait at a place (not “in/on a place”), and wait on a client (not “in a client”).

Adjectives with prepositional phrases: angry with Angela (not “of Angela”), capable of (not “capable with”), identical with/to (not “identical of”), impatient at her conduct (not “of her conduct”), impatient for a raise (not “of/with a raise”), impatient with a person (not “in/for a person”), independent of (not “independent from”), prior to (not “prior from”), similar to (not “similar with”).

The flawless use of these phrases marks the grammar savvy.

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