Students of English often find “phrasal verbs” very confusing. There are so many of them, and they don't seem to make any sense! For example, we have “break”, “break up”, “break out” and “break in”! What is the connection here? What does it all mean?!
Actually, the truth is that phrasal verbs are much simpler than you think they are. The reason that people get confused is that they don't realize that the question “What is the connection?” isn't really a good question at all. In fact, the answer to this question is very, very simple:
There is NO connection!
Some of you will find this difficult to accept. You might ask, “But teacher, how can I remember all of these different uses of the word “break” if there's no connection!?”
Again, this is not a good question to ask and if we ask it, we just end up making a simple topic more complicated. You have to remember that these are NOT different uses of the word “break”. “Break”, “break up”, “break out” and “break in” are four COMPLETELY DIFFERENT words. There is REALLY no connection between them.
If you're still confused by this, maybe I should explain it in another way: What if we didn't write these phrasal verbs in two separate parts? Let's try writing the two parts together and let's see what that looks like:
Now it looks like we have four different words which, by coincidence, start with the same five letters. When you think of it like that, the fact that they all means completely different things really isn't to confusing. After all, “monkey” and “money” both start with the same three letters, but we would never think that there was any connection between them just because of that! Maybe this would be even clearer if we changed the spelling of these words completely! Let's look at that now :
If you saw these four words, as written above, in a dictionary, you wouldn't find it unusual that they all meant different things.
“But teacher, when you “break up” with your girlfriend or boyfriend, that's like your relationship is breaking! Isn't that something similar?”
Ok, but what does the “up” part mean in that case? Does something go “up” in this situation? Is there something in the sky? No. If you think about the word (and I say “the word” because it really is ONE word) in this way, you are going to confuse yourself. In many situations, it won't even be helpful. A good example is the word “give in”. “Give in” means surrender. It has no connection to “giving”. Nothing is “in” anything else. You cannot combine the two words “give” and “in” to create the meaning of “surrender”. “Give in”, however, is NOT two words. It's ONE word written in two parts.
“Ok, teacher. So, if I want to learn all of the phrasal verbs that start with “give”, I should...”
Wait a minute! Why would you want to do that?! That's a very silly idea! It's the same as saying that you want to learn all of the words beginning with the letter “B”, or all of the words that contain four letters! It would take a very long time and it would be difficult and pointless because there is NO meaningful connection between those words!
What I'm trying to say is that you shouldn't think of phrasal verbs as being any different from normal verbs. Think of the two parts as a single word and don't even try to connect the meaning of the phrasal verb to the meanings of its parts.
In my opinion, the only really confusing thing about phrasal verbs is that the two parts can become separated (For example, we can say “I looked up the word” or “I looked the word up”). For this reason, we need to be careful when reading a text in English, because if we find an adverb or a preposition in a strange position in a sentence, and if that sentence seems meaningless because of the strange position of this preposition, that probably means that we have a phrasal verb that we need to look up in the dictionary. If this is a phrasal verb that you don't know, you absolutely must look it up in the dictionary, because its meaning will be almost impossible to guess, even if you know what the different parts mean. Every phrasal verb has its own separate entry in the dictionary, because they're all completely different from each other.
“But teacher, why would there be two words together in the dictionary?”
In case you still haven't got the idea, let me tell you again: It's NOT two words! It's just ONE word! I
I really don't think there's much more to say about phrasal verbs. If you just remember not to complicate this simple feature of English, I don't think you will have too many problems with them. If you like the way I explained this problem, you might want to book a lesson with me! Check my other articles for other tricks and tips.