Don’t worry!

Phrasal verbs are possibly the most difficult and frustrating part of learning English.  The good news is that there is almost always an alternative to using a phrasal verb.  It’s very rare that you absolutely need to use one.  You know how to communicate just fine!  So this means that the only real problem you have is understanding them when you read them or hear them.

Understanding phrasal verbs

One of the best resources for this (besides a good monolingual dictionary) is Using  Using English has an excellent phrasal verb dictionary (also an idioms dictionary) as well as a forum where you can ask for extra information or just check that you are using them correctly.

Try and notice patterns with certain particles (the prepositions or adverbs that make up the phrasal verb) and how they change the meaning of the base verb on its own.  For example, in the verbs to give something back, take it back, or pay it back, “back” indicates a return to the source.  You’re not just giving something to somebody, you are specifically giving it to the person who gave it to you originally.  Phrasal Verbs in Use has several excellent units about particles and this can be a useful way to try and guess at meanings.

How to practice

Sure, you don’t need to use phrasal verbs, but everybody wants to!  So how do you practice?  First we need to figure out what exactly is difficult to remember about them and then find a way to isolate that and drill it in a way that we can remember.  Here is my advice.

Anki flashcards

Anki is an open-source software project which is perfect for repetitive practice.  Remember when you were first learning the language and you made vocabulary flashcards where one side said “green” and the other said “vert”?  Anki is a program which will let you make these cards and practice them on your computer (and on your phone, if you have a fancy new smartphone).  So what should we put on these flashcards?

Use example sentences

Once you have looked up the meaning of a phrasal verb, you will usually remember it when you see it again.  For example, to put up with something means to tolerate it.  You might read this and look it up in the dictionary and the next time you see it, you’ll remember what it means from the context.  So to make a flashcard with “put up with” on one side and “tolerate” on the other side is fairly pointless.  The difficult thing to remember is what comes after put.

The best thing to do is to take an example sentence from Using English or a dictionary and put it on the front of the card with the particles removed.  Here is the example sentence from Using English: I can’t put _____ _____ my neighbour’s noise any longer; it’s driving me mad.  The context is clear from the sentence so after practicing a few times the meaning will be clear.  Now, here comes the important part.

Make them personal!

Don’t just use the example sentence as it is–change it so that it is personally relevant to you.  What does your neighbour do that you can’t put up with?  Play loud music?  Have a dog that barks all the time?  Park their car in your place?  Cook smelly food?  Make a mess in your building?  Put that in the sentence.  Or make it about your roommate or a family member.

When you make your examples personal, you give your brain something to connect this word to, rather than trying to search through hundreds of combinations of prepositions.  Our brains have an incredible ability to make these connections.  Do you ever smell certain foods that trigger memories?  Or the smell of the ocean or fresh grass in the summer?  You want to create a connection for your vocabulary too so instead of thinking “put… up for? away with? in to? out of?  on to?”  you can think of your neighbour, their barking dog, and say “I can’t put up with my neighbour’s barking dog any longer!  It’s driving me mad!”

Where to start

Take the phrasal verbs you find as you read, or in lists from your textbook and add them to your Anki deck as you find new ones.  Remember to put them in context, make them personal and practice, practice, practice!