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Categories of Semantic Difficulty of Phrasal Verbs

Nobody has succeeded in finding a successful way of categorizing phrasal verbs semantically, that is, in terms of meaning. Linguists who try to categorize them disagree sharply. But for the purpose of learning and teaching them more easily, it is quite useful to posit the following three broad categories of semantic difficulty:

1. Literal
2. Semi-idiomatic
3. Idiomatic

1. Literal

In this category, the verb retains its basic concrete meaning while the short adverb or preposition maintains a literal meaning (Frazer, 1976). Such combinations are the easiest for language learners to understand and learn.

Examples with adverbs (VA, VAO, and VOA):

walk out
fall down
hang up your coat
hang your coat up
take down the picture

Examples with prepositions (VPO):

walk out the door
fall down the stairs
come into the house
stay in the car
walk across the bridge
run through the house

Examples with adverbs plus prepositions (VAPO):

jump up on the table
come out of the house
walk away from the car
get down off the ladder
climb out through the window

2. Semi-Idiomatic

In this category, the verb retains its concrete meaning, but the short adverb or preposition adds a nuance that would not be discernible from its basic meaning (Spasov, 1966). Even though the exact meaning of these phrasal verbs might not be clear, an approximate meaning might be grasped by a language learner. Examples include the following:

Examples with adverbs (VA, VAO, VOA):

write up
write down
write out

The basic notion of the three phrasal verbs above is the activity of writing, but each of the short adverbs conveys a different nuance to that activity of writing. Other examples include these below:

wash up
wash off
wash down
read over
read through
read off
hand over
hand in
hand out
dry up
dry off
dry out
pay up
pay off
pay out
drive up
drive off
drive on

Examples with prepositions (VPO):

believe in (believe that someone will succeed)
work on (work to fix, develop, or improve something)
feed on (feed oneself with)
trust in (trust that someone will do something)
exist on (exist by using a limited resource)
insist on (insist that something happen your way)

Like the short adverbs, most prepositions of this VPO category add a nuance to the meaning of the verb. Some, however, may serve merely as an empty connector between the verb and its object.

Examples with adverbs plus prepositions (VAPO):

read up on (study quickly and thoroughly by reading)
sneak up on (sneak towards)
listen in on (eavesdrop by listening)
fit in with (fit harmoniously, match, suit)
hold on to (hold for support)
move in on (move towards for the purpose of attacking)
meet up with (meet again by chance)

3. Idiomatic

These combinations are fully idiomatic. No part of the meaning of the combination is predictable from the meanings of the verb and the short adverb or the preposition.

Examples with adverbs (VA, VAO, VOA):

work out (come to a successful solution)
work out (perform physical exercise)
bring up (suggest a topic)
bring up (raise children)
carry on (continue)
carry out (perform duties)
make out (see clearly)

Examples with prepositions (VPO):

count on (depend on)
run into (meet by chance)
happen on (notice something important by chance)
come across (notice something by chance)
wait on (serve someone in a restaurant)
go by (base one's judgment on)

Examples with adverbs plus prepositions (VAPO):

do away with (kill)
put up with (tolerate)
make off with (steal something and escape)
come down with (contract a disease)
run out of (exhaust one's supply of something)
live up to (meet someone's expectations)

Summary of Semantic Categories of Phrasal Verbs

Here is a summary of the three syntactic categories:

lift up
jump off
climb down off

wash up
work on
read up on

make out
wait on
put up with