Introduction:

The main area in English where learners are most confused and frustrated is with phrasal verbs. Learners often have problems not only understanding their meaning in English, but also in both using their correct structure and using them in the correct context.

A lot of non-native speakers even try to not use phrasal verbs when speaking or writing in English. The problem with doing this, is that phrasal verbs are commonly used by native speakers. So understanding and using phrasal verbs is essential if you want to improve your English.

In the following four online exercises on the 'English phrasal verbs', we will introduce a simple method in order to correctly use phrasal verbs and advice on how to avoid mistakes when using them. Although the focus here is not explaining the meaning of phrasal verbs, during the four exercises we will use phrasal verbs that are commonly used in English and describe their meanings.

In this first of four online exercises on phrasal verbs, we will introduce what a phrasal verb is and see how their meaning can change depending on context.

Click here to do the next part of this exercise on 'How to use English phrasal verbs'.


What is a phrasal verb?

A phrasal verb is made of a verb and either an adverb or preposition or some times both. It's not really important to know if the verb is followed by either an adverb or preposition, so, we simply refer to them as a particle. So, a phrasal verb is made of a verb and one or two different particles. See the below examples of the structure of two phrasal verbs:

Go away
Verb + Particle

Look forward to
Verb + Particle + Particle

The two or three parts of a phrasal verb (verb and particle(s)) act/behave like a single verb. The combination gives the phrasal verb a meaning. For example with the phrasal verb 'to go away', the combination of the verb and particle gives it the meaning of 'to leave your city or town for a short break or holiday', e.g. 'I'm going away on Friday'. With the phrasal verb 'to look forward to', the combination of the verb and two particles give it the meaning of 'to be excited or happy about doing something in the future', e.g. 'I'm looking forward to the party on Saturday'.

So basically a phrasal verb is used in exactly the same way as a verb which doesn't have any particles.

Phrasal verbs are not logical

One of the main problems with phrasal verbs is that the combination of the verb and particle(s) sometimes give them a meaning that it is impossible to guess if you see them out of context. With the previous example of 'to go away', it is possible to guess that the meaning is about leaving your city or town. It's logical. But with other phrasal verbs the meaning can be completely different and impossible to guess even when you see it in its context. For example with the verb 'to slip'. This verb means to lose your balance. People often 'slip' when they step on oil or ice when walking. But some of the phrasal verbs that use 'slip' can have completely different meanings. See if you can guess the meaning of the below phrasal verbs:

  1. 'Peter, Sally knows about her surprise birthday party. It slipped out when I was talking to her this morning.'

  2. 'Where's John?'
    'He left. He slipped out of the meeting about 20 minutes ago.'

As you can see, the meaning is completely different to the original verb. In the first example, 'to slip out' means to say something without wanting or intending to do (like a secret). While in the second example, 'to slip out of' means to leave a place or room very quietly.

So it's important to realise that the meaning of a phrasal verb may not have anything to do with the original meaning of the verb. So you need to check the meaning in a dictionary.

A phrasal verb can have different meanings

In the English-speaking world, there are over 30,000 different meanings of phrasal verbs, but fortunately only around a tenth of this number are commonly used.

One phrasal verb can have different meaning in different contexts. For example with the phrasal verb 'to take off'. Look at the below examples of this phrasal verb and try to guess the meaning:

  1. 'You have to take off your hat when you enter a church.'

  2. 'The plane will take off at 6.30pm.'

  3. 'He just took off without saying goodbye.'

In the first example, 'take off' means to remove clothes or shoes. In the second example, 'take off' means when a plane leaves an airport. While in the third example, 'take off' means when somebody leaves a place quickly or in a hurry. And this phrasal verb has other meanings as well.

The biggest mistake that learners of English make with phrasal verbs is that they translate the meaning of a phrasal verb to their own language and then use the phrasal verb with that meaning in different contexts.

It is important that when you use a phrasal verb that you only ever use it in the context that you have seen or heard it in. Although this may seem difficult, this is the way that native speakers of English use them.

So now do the below quiz to make sure you are using phrasal verbs correctly when you write or speak in English.


 Link to Dictionary


Quiz: How to use English phrasal verbs part 1

Below you will find a quiz on phrasal verbs and their meaning. Three different phrasal verbs ('to work out', 'to check out', and 'to go through') are used in the 11 questions. Select from the question's selection box the meaning of that phrasal verb in that question. Only use each of the meanings once. Click on the "Check Answers" button at the bottom of the quiz to check your answers.

When the answer is correct, two icons will appear next to the question. The first is an Additional Information Icon "". Click on this for extra information on the word/phrase and for a translation. The second is a Pronunciation Icon "". Click on this to listen to the pronunciation of the word/phrase and to do a pronunciation speaking test.

1. Things have worked out well.              

Worked out:
The infinitive is 'to work out'. With this context it means that something ends or went successfully. To have this meaning, it is often followed by 'well', e.g. 'it has worked out well'. The opposite is with the negative, e.g. 'it didn't work out'. In Spanish: "salir bien".

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Worked out:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
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2. We worked out the problem.              

Worked out:
The infinitive is 'to work something out'. With this context it means to find a solution to an issue, a question or a problem, e.g. 'It was so complicated, it took me hours to work out the answer.' In Spanish: "resolver".

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Worked out:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
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3. She worked out in the gym.              

Worked out:
The infinitive is 'to work out'. With this context it means to do physical exercises for fitness and building muscles, activities that are normally done in a gym (e.g. aerobics, weighting lifting etc...), e.g. 'I've just worked out and I'm very tired'. In Spanish: "hacer ejercicio".

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Worked out:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
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4. I've never been able to work him out.              

Work out:
The infinitive is 'to work someone out'. With this context it means to understand somebody and what motivates them to do things. It is often used in the negative with the verb 'can't', e.g. 'I can't work her out. Why does she want to do these things?' In Spanish: "entender".

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Work out:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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5. The final price works out at $186.15.              

Works out:
The infinitive is 'to work out at something'. With this context it means what the final result of a calculation is. This phrasal verb is generally used with money, e.g. 'with tax the total cost works out at €320'. In Spanish: "calcular".

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Works out:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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6. A new shop has opened, we're going to check it out.              

Check out:
The infinitive is 'to check something out'. With this context it means to have a look at or listen to something new. It could be a restaurant, new album, recommendation etc..., e.g. 'thanks for the recommendation, I'll check it out tomorrow'. In Spanish: "mirar".

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Check out:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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7. You need to check out from reception before 12pm.              

Check out:
The infinitive is 'to check out'. With this context it means to pay the bill and then leave a hotel. With this meaning it is only used for hotels, e.g. 'I'd like to check out please'. In Spanish: "marcharse".

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Check out:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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8. I'm not sure I believe him. Can you check out if he was there.              

Check out:
The infinitive is 'to check something/somebody out'. With this context it means to investigate or check a fact, a story, a person's background, alibi etc..., e.g. 'I checked his work references out and there doesn't seem any problems'. In Spanish: "investigar".

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Check out:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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9. I always go through the park on my way to work.              

Go through:
The infinitive is 'to go through something'. With this context it means to walk/cycle/drive across a place like a square, park etc..., e.g. 'it is banned to go through the square on a bicycle'. In Spanish: "atravesar".

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Go through:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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10. He's gone through a lot this year since his wife died.              

Gone through:
The infinitive is 'to go through'. With this context it means to suffer or experience bad things happening. It is normally used for people. This phrasal verb is normally followed by 'a lot', e.g. 'after the divorce, I went through a lot. But it's made me stronger'. In Spanish: "pasar por".

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Gone through:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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11. I'll go through the plans with you tomorrow morning.              

Go through:
The infinitive is 'to go through something'. With this context it means to explain in more detail a plan, an idea, a proposal etc.. to somebody. When you want to say to who it was explained, you use the preposition 'with' followed by the person, e.g. 'she went through the proposal with us yesterday'. In Spanish: "explicar".

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Go through:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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Practice

Now that you understand the use of these types of phrasal verbs, practice them by creating your own sentences in English.

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