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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

Verb phrases and phrasal verbs - what’s the difference?

The verb system in English (as in many languages) is quite complex, and one point which is often misunderstood surrounds phrasal verbs (or is it verb phrases)? This short article gives a quick definition of each of these terms, and some examples to use in your own teaching.

Phrasal verbs

A phrasal verb is a two-part or three-part structure which contains a verb and a small particle which functions as an adverb. The two words function together as a single verb chunk, as in the following examples:

Look up (a word in a dictionary)

Walk around (without a specific destination)

Get on (and do some work)

The second part of each of these examples (up, around and on) are often misidentified as prepositions, but in fact are adverbs which modify the verbs look, walk and get. We can test whether a small piece of language like this is a preposition or an adverb by thinking about what it relates to. The following examples are useful to differentiate the two:

  1. He looked up the new word in a dictionary

  2. He looked up the chimney to see if it was blocked

Each of these ‘look up’ structures look the same at a glance, but in fact are quite different. In ‘look up a word’, the particle ‘up’ describes the way of ‘looking’ that is being performed, modifying the verb and creating a new kind of looking, different from the simple meaning of ‘look’, as in ‘use your eyes to see something’.

In the second example, ‘up’ connects the general meaning of the word ‘look’ to where the person is looking: up the chimney.

We can break this down as follows:

  1. He looked up / the word in the dictionary (‘up’ goes with ‘look’)

  2. He looked / up the chimney (‘up’ goes with ‘chimney’)

Try breaking these sentences the other way (looked / up the word and looked up / the chimney) - the meaning of both ways of looking is lost, and it feels incorrect. This shows that the particle used in phrasal verbs is in fact an adverb.

Task: Can you do the same breakdown of the other two examples above (walk around and get on)? What meanings do they have if 'around' and 'on' function as prepositions...?

Verb Phrases

A verb phrase is simply a phrase (more than one word) which represents a single verb. For example, in the sentence:

He ran as fast as he could

‘Ran as fast as he could’ belongs together, representing one action, and contains more than one word, so is. Verb phrase.

As phrasal verbs (as defined above) contain more than one word and represent a single verb or action, they are also verb phrases.

So in summary, all phrasal verbs are verb phrases, but not all verb phrases are phrasal verbs!

Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.


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