I'm not always comfortable with phrasal verbs. I find that Americans use a lot of phrasal verbs than say people from UK -- I might be completely wrong though.

What I find most difficult with phrasal verbs is to know when it is appropriate to use them - like is this phrasal verb formal or informal. So for this very reason, I tend to avoid using them.

I think it's definitely far easier for native speakers because of familiarity with cultural settings in which the verbs arose.

My question is whether there are any tips for non-natives to not just know what phrasal verbs are, but also to understand the context of how they are used; and what such tips might be.

closed as off topic by user2683, Robusto, FumbleFingers, Daniel, Mitch Mar 20 '12 at 20:37

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Phrasal verbs are one of the great riches of English and you should not avoid them or, rather, you should not shy away from them.


As Barrie says, yes, they are one of the great riches of English. But that doesn't make them any easier to learn. Phrasal verbs are part of what English has instead of perfect tenses and subjunctive moods and ablative cases and dual numbers and like that: namely, syntax.

Since English speakers have lost all that stuff, we have to use syntactic crutches like

  • auxiliary verb constructions (She will have been photographed by then)
  • determiner phrases (Quite a few of the girls were there tonight)
  • reduced relative clauses (The man standing there is the one from the office)
  • reduced complement clauses (He believes this bill essential to his constituents)
  • enclitic prepositions of several varieties:
    • transitivizers (sleep in, look at, listen to, think of 'recall' ~ think about 'cogitate')
    • idiomatic & metaphoric combinations (look out for danger, go up against him)
    • phrasal verbs proper, with stress on particle (look it up, turn down the offer)
    • and transitive phrasal verbs, with particle shift (look up the book ~ look the book up)


The easiest thing to do is to get a good dictionary of phrasal verbs, and learn a little about their syntax. It may seem strange, but it comes in handy in recognizing and using them.

As for when it is appropriate to use them, treat every phrasal verb as if it were a separate verb, not necessarily related to its root verb; it's just vocabulary. Then, just as you would with any verb, listen to the conversation and talk like the people you're talking to. If they use them, you can; if they don't, don't.

That's assuming these people already know what's appropriate. If that's not the case, then make it up for yourself; that's what everybody else does.

  • Thank you for your detailed explanation. I took a look at the links you've given and I find them helpful despite being technical. Merci! – afiqjohari Mar 20 '12 at 22:41

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