Phrasal Verbs

The Problem with Phrasal Verbs.

woman in white shirt showing frustration with phrasal verbs in English

Phrasal verbs are a big cause of stress for English-language learners. This is not surprising considering that there are more than ten thousand phrasal verbs in English!

To complicate matters even more, most of these verbs have multiple meanings; on average between 5 and 6 meanings, but sometimes as many as 15!

What phrasal verbs mean is not always obvious, sometimes their meaning is completely different to similar verbs. Sometimes they have an object, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you can separate them, sometimes you can’t; and sometimes you have to.

Why bother?

A dictionary used for learning and understanding phrasal verbs.

The result of this complication is that students feel overwhelmed and avoid phrasal verbs. It is possible to speak English without using phrasal verbs (there is almost always a non-phrasal verb alternative to any given phrasal verb; and usually this verb sounds more academic, more formal and may even be more similar to a verb that the learner knows from their native language). Maybe this means that learners don’t need to use them at all?

Well, native speakers use phrasal verbs a lot! Apparently, learners will encounter, on average, one in every 150 words of English they are exposed to! That might not seem like a lot, but in conversation they are likely to be even more frequent.

So how can learners make progress with all these verbs? Nobody can memorise 10,000 verbs, especially when most of them are so similar!

The importance of prioritising

Academic researchers discovered that although there are a lot of phrasal verbs, there are a limited number that are used again and again. They found that just 20 verb stems are used for 54% of all verbs used in the sample material.

A pie chart showing how just 150 verbs represent 75% of the phrasal verbs used in sample material.
3/4 of the examples of phrasal verbs are just the same 150 common verbs

just 8 different prepositions (out, up, on, back, down, in, over, and off) used with these 20 verbs accounted for half of all the phrasal verbs in the sample material.

Interestingly, just 25 phrasal verbs accounted for more than 30% of all phrasal verbs used in the sample texts, 100 verbs represented more than 50 percent of all the phrasal verbs used in the texts, and a list of 152 phrasal verbs represented 75% of all the examples in the sample texts.

So, the good news is that although there are 10,000 phrasal verbs, by learning just 152 (most of which are based on 20 verb stems and 8 particles) you can understand 75% of all the instances of phrasal verbs that you see and hear!

How to learn the most common phrasal verbs

The best way to learn is by consuming as much English as possible! Listen to the radio and podcasts; read news, novels and non-fiction; and make conversation in English as much as possible. Doing this will mean that you will encounter phrasal verbs again and again in their natural contexts. This combination of context and repetition will be sure to help you understand, remember and use these common verbs.

A little practice goes a long way!

training will help students dominate common phrasal verbs.

This specially created trainer will help you dominate these verbs with just a couple of minutes practice a day. The quiz is loaded with the 152 most common phrasal verbs, with various different examples to show their different meanings and uses. Every time you use the trainer, you are presented with a random selection of these verbs to answer as many as possible in just 2 minutes. Then, when you finish you can review your results, see the corrections and even add your score to the leaderboard!

Academic references

Academic references

The usual suspects – The 150 phrasal verbs that are used 75% of the time

If you can remember these 150 verbs you’ll be able to understand 75% of the phrasal verbs that you see and hear in English.

  1. Go on
  2. Pick up
  3. Come back
  4. Come up
  5. Go back
  6. Find out
  7. Come out
  8. Go out
  9. Point out
  10. Grow up
  11. Set up
  12. Turn out
  13. Get out
  14. Come in
  15. Take on
  16. Give up
  17. Make up
  18. End up
  19. Get back
  20. Look up
  21. Figure out
  22. Sit down
  23. Get up
  24. Take out
  25. Come on
  26. Go down
  27. Show up
  1. Take off
  2. Work out
  3. Stand up
  4. Come down
  5. Go ahead
  6. Go up
  7. Look back
  8. Wake up
  9. Carry out
  10. Take over
  11. Hold up
  12. Pull out
  13. Turn around
  14. Take up
  15. Look down
  16. Put up
  17. Bring back
  18. Bring up
  19. Look out
  20. Bring in
  21. Open up
  22. Check out
  23. Move on
  24. Put out
  25. Look around
  1. Catch up
  2. Go in
  3. Break down
  4. Get off
  5. Keep up
  6. Put down
  7. Reach out
  8. Go off
  9. Cut off
  10. Turn back
  11. Pull up
  12. Set out
  13. Clean up
  14. Shut down
  15. Turn over
  16. Slow down
  17. Wind up
  18. Turn up
  19. Line up
  20. Take back
  21. Lay out
  22. Go over
  23. Hang up
  24. Go through
  25. Hold on
  26. Pay off
  1. Hold out
  2. Break up
  3. Bring out
  4. Pull back
  5. Hang on
  6. Build up
  7. Throw out
  8. Hang out
  9. Put on
  10. Get down
  11. Come over
  12. Move in
  13. Start out
  14. Call out
  15. Sit up
  16. Turn down
  17. Back up
  18. Put back
  19. Send out
  20. Get in
  21. Blow up
  22. Carry on
  23. Set off
  24. Keep on
  25. Run out
  26. Make out
  1. Shut up
  2. Turn off
  3. Bring about
  4. Step back
  5. Lay down
  6. Bring down
  7. Stand out
  8. Come along
  9. Play out
  10. Break out
  11. Go around
  12. Walk out
  13. Get through
  14. Hold back
  15. Write down
  16. Move back
  17. Fill out
  18. Sit back
  19. Rule out
  20. Move up
  21. Pick out
  22. Take down
  23. Get on
  24. Give back
  25. Hand over
  26. Sum up
  1. Move out
  2. Come off
  3. Pass on
  4. Take in
  5. Set down
  6. Sort out
  7. Follow up
  8. Come through
  9. Settle down
  10. Come around
  11. Fill in
  12. Give out
  13. Give in
  14. Go along
  15. Break off
  16. Put off
  17. Come about
  18. Close down
  19. Put in
  20. Set about