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Phrasal Verbs


By John-Allen Payne, Ph.D.
Department of English
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

Phrasal verbs represent a practically limitless group of verbs that can be combined with short adverbs or prepositions to produce new meanings. Here are some examples:

With short adverbs:

give up (= surrender; quit)
find out

(= learn; get information about)
take off

(= leave quickly; fly away)
draw out (= prolong)

With prepositions:

work on

(= give effort and thought to developing)
wait on (= serve)
look after (= take care of)
come across
(= find by chance)

With a short adverb plus a preposition:

put up with (= tolerate)
crack down on
(= deal firmly with)
come up with
(= devise)
look up to (= respect)

Phrasal verbs are ubiquitous in all forms of written and spoken modern English, making the ability to understand and produce them a requisite for an adequate command of the English language. Research studies indicate that although phrasal verbs are fairly well established in hearing children at three and four years of age (Fischer, 1972), many deaf children as old as 18 and 19 still have difficulties with them (Payne 1982; 1987).

This module will first present a brief description of phrasal verbs and how they are used in English language discourse. Second, it will summarize a few research studies on deaf children's comprehension of phrasal verbs. Finally, it will suggest ways that teachers may deal with phrasal verbs in their classes.

Major Considerations

1. Phrasal verbs are an essential component of English rhetorical structure.

2. The ability to comprehend phrasal verbs is an indispensable requisite for success in reading English

3. The ability to produce phrasal verbs is an indispensable requisite for success in writing English.

4. The comprehension and production of phrasal verbs pose a significant challenge for many young deaf students.

5. Young deaf students perform better on some types of phrasal verbs than they do on other types.

History of Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs have roots back in the earliest Old English writings, where verbs with short adverbs and prepositions were used in a very literal sense showing mostly the direction, place, or physical orientation of a noun in the sentence (Spasov, 1966; Hillard, 1971; Kennedy, 1920; Meyer, 1976), such as in the following example:

The boy walked out. (direction)
The boy stood by. (place)
The boy held his hand up. ( physical orientation)

Like short adverbs, prepositions also indicated direction, place, or physical orientation; but they also specified a relationship between the verb and an object in the sentence.

The army charged up the hill.
The painter stood by the house.
The thief climbed out the window.
Hang it over the fire. (Physical Orientation)

Over the centuries, the combinations of verbs with short adverbs and prepositions increased. Their meanings diversified by imperceptible degrees. Eventually, they came to be the most productive means for the creation of new verbs that exists in Modern English (Konishi, 1958; Makkai, 1972).

To illustrate this diversification of meaning, below are presented some of the nuances that the short adverb out acquired over several centuries:

In the ninth century, it had the literal meaning of moving toward the outside such as in walk out and ride out. But by the fourteenth century, out had added the idea of making something audible such as in cry out and call out. By the fifteenth century, it had added the idea of bringing something to extinction such as in die out and burn out. By the sixteenth century, it had added the idea of apportioning something to everyone such as in pass out and parcel out. And by the nineteenth century, it had acquired the idea of removing the contents of something such as in clean out and rinse out (Oxford English Dictionary, 1979).