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Are there any rules or tricks that might explain how phrasal verbs are formed to understand their meanings?

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I'm not quite ready to answer this, but my initial guess is no. English phrasal verbs are extremely idiosyncratic, and any rules that you could formulate would have so many exceptions that their usefulness would be severely curtailed. – JSBձոգչ May 12 '11 at 13:13
For anyone interested in studying the most common phrasal verbs this PDF file titled 50 common English phrasal verbs is well thought out and very user-friendly; the PVs can be clicked on. – Mari-Lou A Feb 22 '15 at 10:01
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Here's some useful information:

Phrasal verbs are part of a large group of verbs called "multi-word verbs". Phrasal verbs and other multi-word verbs are an important part of the English language. Multi-word verbs, including phrasal verbs, are very common, especially in spoken English. A multi-word verb is a verb like "pick up", "turn on" or "get on with". For convenience, many people refer to all multi-word verbs as phrasal verbs. These verbs consist of a basic verb + another word or words. The other word(s) can be prepositions and/or adverbs. The two or three words that make up multi-word verbs form a short "phrase" - which is why these verbs are often all called "phrasal verbs".

The important thing to remember is that a multi-word verb is still a verb. "Get" is a verb. "Get up", is also a verb, a different verb. "Get" and "get up" are two different verbs. They do not have the same meaning. So you should treat each multi-word verb as a separate verb, and learn it like any other verb.

The short answer is, there's no panacea for phrasal verbs. You just have to learn them.

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As people have noted, there is no hard-and-fast rule that will let you instantly understand all phrasal verbs—many of them have idiosyncratic or obscure meanings (and many have more than one). That said, there are plenty of common themes for the different prepositions, in addition to their literal (usually direction-related) meanings. For instance:

  • Off often conveys a sense of surprise or something being out of control (go off (=explode), set off, let off (both=cause to explode), make off (=run away), make off with (=steal), )
  • On often conveys smoothness or harmony (get on (=have good relations with one another), or continuation (go on (=continue, proceed), carry on (=continue))
  • Up often conveys a sense of something being finished or completed (eat up, drink up, settle up) or of inclusion (count up, make up (=comprise)) or of creation (make up (=invent), dream up, set up)
  • Out also often conveys a sense of something ending, but in a premature or undesired way (fall out(=cease to be friends), drop out (=leave/be expelled), wipe out (=fall off, e.g. a surfboard)).

This list is far from exhaustive, even for the prepositions listed here; furthermore here are plenty of exceptions to these (for instance to set out to do something means to begin with the aim of doing it—rather than having anything to do with an ending), but as you learn more of these verbs you will get a better feel for the patterns that many of them fall into, and that native speakers often use to coin new ones.

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If you were looking for an algorithm for this then check out RainboW Tables as the Wikipedia entry on Phrasal Verbs mention

A phrasal verb often has a meaning which is different from the original verb.

Think of a phrasal verb now as a hash, there's no way for you know to what the original plaintext is based on the hash, the same way you can't know what a phrasal verb means from the original verbs that it is composed of. Rainbow Tables are used for that - it's basically a look-up table for you to piece together the plaintext-hash associations are. For our application you'd use this for your original verb-phrasal verb associations. You could probably start with Ogden's Basic English 850 WOrd List and start off with combinations from that and move to something like this from OWL Purdue. See also this list and also this.

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Some phrasal verbs are quite literal, and relatively easily understood - look around, get up, sit down, for instance.

Others are more metaphorical - put out, make up, look through, for instance.

A helpful way of learning phrasal verbs is to link them to basic metaphors.

In their book, Metaphors we Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson essentially talk of two 'grounding metaphors': The containment metaphor (eg to fall in love) and the 'continuum' metaphor (eg let's move that meeting back a bit).

The same basic concepts are helpful when trying to learn phrasal verbs, particularly when they are used metaphorically.

To put out the rubbish implies a containment metaphor - the rubbish is being taken from the inside to the outside.

The same metaphor applies to being taken out for dinner (definitely not rubbish if your host is paying), buying some food to take out, or getting out of the house.

To make up implies a process of making something whole - whether it's a relationship (let's make up and be friends), your powder and fake eyelashes (I don't feel complete without them), or a story (I can't think of what the sales figures for last quarter were - let's make them up).

To look through something implies a linear process, and hence a 'continuum' metaphor - to look through a book or magazine implies scanning it, not reading every word - as does to browse through, or as does to leaf through.

An excellent resource which takes this approach to phrasal verbs in English and I've found makes it easier for students to work out how to get their head around these pesky things than other approaches is Brygida Rudzka-Ostyn's Word Power: Phrasal Verbs and Compounds

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englishclub.com has a list of 200 phrasal verbs that I think is good and useful.


They also have a second list with 1000 phrasal verbs. The optical presentation is good.

I don't think that there are rules or tricks as to this class of verbs. The only way to get acquainted with these verbs is to develop a useful working programme. Make your own list of twenty phrasal verbs, in alphabetical order, explain the meaning, collect good examples. By making up such a list you learn the verbs. When you feel you know these 20 verbs, make a new list number 2 and so on.

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To memorize the phrasal verb easily you may visit, http://www.tutorialpoint.org/EnglishGrammar/Phrasal_verb_page1.html All the phrasal verbs are described in a paragraph easy to remember way.

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Not terribly keen on how the phrasal verbs are presented in that page. It looks a bit of a muddle. This PDF file titled 50 common English phrasal verbs in my opinion is clearer and more helpful – Mari-Lou A Feb 22 '15 at 9:57
Now that I've spent longer reading only the first page, I've realized it is actually harmful and full of errors e.g. "When the thieves broke away (freed himself) from the jail.". And the simply awful: "Without action on (depending) the advice of the parents his overexercise acted upon (harm) his health and finally he did not act up to (put into practice ) his unreasonable expectation of building strong health." Which makes no sense whatsoever. Who is the author of this website? – Mari-Lou A Feb 22 '15 at 10:05

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