Are Phrasal Verbs Difficult to Learn?


Are they, really?

Everything is difficult when we don't know how to do it. But once you know HOW to learn something, it becomes a real piece of cake.

Phrasal verbs are, definitely, one of the most difficult parts of English grammar. On one hand, they are short, look very simple and they can make our sentences much shorter. On the other hand, they are all alike, sometimes they make sense, but sometimes, it's very difficult to figure out what they mean.

So, we are faced with the following questions:

1. Do we have to use them?

2. Why do we need them?

3. Are they that important?

4. How can we learn them?

Let's see:

1. No, we don't. We don't have to use them. We (the learners) can choose not to use them. We can express ourselves without them. We can be fluent and not use them.

2. But, do we need them? YES, we do! Why? Because they form part of English language, native speakers use them, you can hear and see them everywhere: on the news, in the newspapers, magazines, ads... So, if you want to be able to understand the native speakers, at least you have to be aware of them and understand some of the most frequent ones.

3. Yes, they are important. They help us express ourselves quickly and concisely. We can use just 2 or 3 words to say something we can express with a long sentence. They save time and space, therefore, they are used a lot in the media and in everyday life. If you really want to have good level of English, you need to learn them.

4. Now, how can you do that? Not easy, but not rocket science either. The traditional way of learning them is: take a list of different ones, memorize them and finally do some Fill in the blanks exercises. Simple? Yes. Effective? Not so much. However, I must emphasise that I'm not saying that this method does not work. I'm just saying that we all learn in different ways and that we should find the learning method that works best for us. I'm simply suggesting the following:

a) First, try to understand what a phrasal verb is. One of possible definitions of a phrasal verb is: A combination of words (a verb + a preposition or verb +adverb) that, when used together, usually take on a different meaning to that of the original verb. And that's what's difficult about them: we know the meaning of its constituent parts but we usually don't understand the meaning of the entire phrasal verb

b) Is there a way to overcome this problem? Yes, there is. First, let's get one thing clear: Each one of these little parts of any phrasal verb (up, down, off, with...) has certain meaning it's trying to convey. For example: "up" - usually suggests lifting, appearing, creating, ending...; "down" usually means breaking, decreasing, lowering, simplifying...; "off" usually suggest separation or ending, etc. Once we learn that, phrasal verbs will make more sense. Let's try this out:

Break up - to end  a romantic relationship with someone.

(They broke up) - Much shorter, right?

Break down - to become very upset, broken.

(She broke down in tears. / My car broke down)

Break off - to break a piece from something, separate, stop.

(The kids broke off a big piece of pie. / They broke off their diplomatic relationship).

You get the idea, right? Basically, you have to pay attention and try to deduce the meaning.

c)  DO NOT learn lists of phrasal verbs. Choose just one group every week. This is important because, sometimes, similar phrasal verbs may mean something completely different, and different phrasal verbs may have very similar meaning. That's why you should choose one group every week and learn just 3-4 of them in order not to mix them up.

d) And finally, NEVER learn them separately! ALWAYS make sentences with them and try to remember them within a certain sentence, certain context or situation. If you do it like this, you will never forget them. What's more, you will learn when and how to use them.

Good luck, stay safe and don't forget to be happy!