English matters (asuntos de inglés)

Phrasal Verbs

Tic en la Lengua

by Gwen Bloomsburg

Phrasal Verbs

Years ago, as a teaching-learning experiment, a colleague tried to help me improve my Spanish, and I attempted to teach him English. One day, he informed me that Spanish had many more words than English, and I responded that most linguists estimate (nobody really wants to count) that English likely has more words than other modern world languages. He countered that this was impossible, and one need look no farther than common verbs, as English repeats the same verb frequently with different meanings. He complained this was confusing and that the English lexicon of verbs must be pobre indeed to reuse so many.

Of course, I figured out that we had not properly dealt with phrasal verbs, which, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us, “[consist] of a verb and another element (typically an adverb or preposition) which together function as a single syntactical unit, as to break down, to make up, or to take out.” There are two in my previous sentence: figured out and dealt with. The OED treats most such phrasal verbs as subentries to the verb, and although many have highly specific meanings (for example, nautical jargon is full of phrasal verbs), in other cases a phrasal verb itself has multiple meanings.

Take the ordinary English verb come. Dictionary.com lists 30 phrasal verbs for come with a combined total of more than 70 definitions; some even combine two prepositions (e.g., come up with). This presents quite a challenge to English language learners, especially when combined with the vastly greater number of prepositions that exist in English as compared to Spanish. I could go on about this topic, but as I am running out of space and readers are likely to tire of the topic, I will wrap up by recalling that despite my being of little use to my colleague, thanks to our collaboration I discovered the work of Julio Cortázar and thus consider it a success—even if my Spanish does not show it.


Phrasal verbs. (2012). In the Oxford English Dictionary online. Retrieved from