Student Stumper 10: Figuring out phrasal verbs

QUESTION: How can we know if a phrasal verb is separable or inseparable?

ANSWER: There isn’t always an easy way to find this out, but a good appendix like those in the upper level books of the Focus on Grammar series will prove to be a useful reference for students. The authors of books 3, 4, and 5 included lists of intransitive and transitive phrasal verbs, noting in the latter which transitive phrasal verbs can or must be separated.

You can explain that three-word verbs are easier to work with than two-word verbs. Three-word verbs end with a preposition. The preposition must be followed by an object. One general rule is not to separate a three-word phrasal verb:

                Come up with something

                Follow through with something

                Get out of something

               Go along with something

               Keep up with someone

There are exceptions to the rule but not many. Consider three-word verbs that take two objects. The first object must separate the verb from the adverb particle:

                Give it up for John! = Let’s applaud John!

                Put it down to inexperience = The cause is/ was inexperience.

Of course, since prepositions are followed by objects, students could be taught to categorize phrasal verbs according to whether the verb is followed by an adverb, a preposition, or both. This practice makes the distinction among phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, and phrasal prepositional verbs. I’ve come to prefer simplifying my instruction and using the term particle to refer to the short words following the verb.  I think it’s less taxing to simply view the phrasal verb as a unit: a verb plus one or two particles. As each two- or three-word unit is studied, the student must learn three things about it: what it means, if it’s transitive or intransitive, and if it’s transitive whether it can be separated or not.

How do you teach phrasal verbs? What terms do you use with your students when talking about structure?


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