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The Key to Fluency in English

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

Do you feel like your English is stuck at an intermediate or upper-intermediate level? Have you been learning English forever, but still have difficulties keeping up with native speakers in conversation? Do you practice English by watching series and films in English, but get demotivated when you don’t catch the jokes?

If these feelings sound familiar, you are not alone.

Fortunately, there is a key to perfecting your speaking and listening skills in English.

If there is one thing I have noticed in my 25 years of teaching, it is that English learners often glide from a beginner to intermediate level quite swiftly – but reaching near-native fluency takes much more time and specific training. Fortunately for you, I know the key!

If you are open to following the simple advice I point out in this article, I promise you will start finding all aspects of English, especially speaking and listening, a whole lot easier!

Idiomatic phrases are essential to fluency in English

Do you ever hear or read a sentence in English and think, “Hey, I know the individual words in this sentence, but I just don’t catch the meaning when the words are used in this combination.” If this sounds like something you would say, then I can guarantee that the culprit here is phrasal verbs!

What is a phrasal verb?

A phrasal verb is a phrase that contains a verb and either a preposition or an adverb. A phrasal verb can have a literal meaning, like sit down, or an idiomatic meaning, like make up.

Let’s look at an example sentence:

My brother made out that everything was fine, but in truth he will never live down the embarrassing things that went down on his last visit.

Now, the individual words in the above sentence are not complicated or advanced at all. However, the sentence does contain three phrasal verbs with idiomatic meaning:

To make out = to imply or assert

To live down = to make people forget an embarrassing act

To go down = to happen

If we rewrite the example sentence with standard vocabulary, i.e. without phrasal verbs, it reads:

My brother acted as if everything was fine, but in truth he will never regain the reputation he had before the embarrassing events that occurred on his last visit.

Why do we even need phrasal verbs?

In conversation, the use of phrasal verbs can make our speech sound much more casual and informal. For this reason, it is important to be aware of phrasal verbs and to use them when conversing in the informal setting. Phrasal verbs come to a native speaker’s mind when speaking, whereas the more formal or standard vocabulary is often reserved for written texts.

The English language contains over a thousand phrasal verbs and I would not recommend setting out to memorize them all. Nevertheless, learning the most common phrasal verbs and how to use them in context will greatly help you achieve a higher level of fluency and sharper listening comprehension.

Knowing the grammar of phrasal verbs will speed up fluency

I know, I know. Grammar is boring. But still, once you are aware of the different types of phrasal verbs, you can incorporate them into your speech with much more confidence and fluency. I promise!

Let’s have a look at these four areas so that you can become an expert not only at phrasal verb meaning, but also phrasal verb structure!

Knowing how to use phrasal verbs in a sentence will make you more confident!

Transitive vs intransitive phrasal verbs

If a phrasal verb is transitive, it means it must be followed by a direct object. An object is a noun (a person or a thing) that the action is being done to.

Notice how this phrasal verb is transitive:

He turned off the light before bed.

Turn off is the phrasal verb.

The light is the object.

Because “turn off” is transitive, we can say:

He turned off the light.

He turned the light off.

He turned it off.

In each of the above sentences, the phrasal verb (turn off) is happening to the object (the light/it).

Here is a list of a few common transitive phrasal verbs:

Hang up your jacket over there.

Clean up this mess!

Look at that dog over in the garden.

Bring up your question at the next meeting.

Look up the word in the dictionary if you don’t know the meaning.

If a phrasal verb is intransitive, the sentence does not take an object.

Here is an example of an intransitive phrasal verb:

I turned around when I heard the noise.

The phrasal verb “turn around” is intransitive in this sentence. In other words, It is not an action that is performed on a person or thing. An intransitive phrasal verb is not followed by an object.

Here are a few more examples of intransitive phrasal verbs:

When does your plane take off?

What time do you want to get up?

Sorry for interrupting. Please carry on.

Watch out! Some phrasal verbs can be transitive or intransitive

To make matters even more confusing, some phrasal verbs can have both a transitive and intransitive meaning. Let’s take the phrasal verb wake up as an example:

I wake up at 8 o’clock every morning = intransitive and doesn’t need an object

My mother wakes me up at 8 o’clock every morning = transitive and takes an object (me) because the act of waking up is done to me

What are separable and inseparable phrasal verbs?

If a phrasal verb is separable, the adverb and preposition (or adverb) can be separated from the verb and remain grammatically correct.

Here is an example of a separable phrasal verb:

My husband told me to take out the trash.

My husband told me to take the trash out.

Both of the above sentences are correct.

“Take out” is an example of a transitive and separable phrasal verb.

Here are some more examples of separable phrasal verbs:

I brought my children up in England.

I brought up my children in England.

I will call my friend up in the morning.

I will call up my friend in the morning.

Would you fill up my cup with coffee?

Would you fill my cup up with coffee?

If a phrasal verb is inseparable, the preposition, or adverb, cannot be separated from the verb.

Here’s an example of an inseparable phrasal verb:

I bumped into my friend in the city last night.

The two words that make up the phrasal verb “bump into” must stay together and cannot be separated.

It is not possible to say I bumped my friend into in the city last night.

These phrasal verbs are inseparable:

Get on the bus before it leaves.

I can’t go without coffee for a whole day.

Could you look after my dog while I’m away?

How should you learn phrasal verbs?

Fortunately, if you expose your eyes and ears to enough English through reading and listening, you will eventually get a feeling for when a phrasal verb should be transitive or intransitive, separable or inseparable. Now that you are aware of the types of phrasal verbs that exist, it will be easier to learn how to use newly acquired phrasal verbs in a sentence. Instead of thinking about all the phrasal verbs you still don’t know, try to concentrate on the new phrasal verbs you pick up every day. If you try to learn phrasal verbs too quickly, you may get confused by all the different uses and meanings. Pace yourself in your learning so that you learn them gradually but confidently.

The key strategy for learning phrasal verbs

The first thing you need to do is to keep a phrasal verb notebook. This can be an old-fashioned paper notebook or an app on your phone or tablet. I don’t recommend memorizing lists of vocabulary. Instead, write down every new phrasal verb that you hear, for instance while reading, watching tv, or listening to podcasts. Try to learn at least 10 new phrasal verbs every week, and keep your own personal database of your new phrasal verbs that includes an example of the phrasal verb in a sentence.

You can look up phrasal verbs in the Merriam Webster dictionary here and it lists whether the verb is transitive or intransitive. Remember, some phrasal verbs have both a transitive and intransitive use with different meanings, so make sure to read the definitions and check whether the phrasal verbs are separable or inseparable in the example sentences.

If you are just getting started with phrasal verbs, you can follow the link to my Quizlet phrasal verb folder below. Always add new phrasal verbs to your phrasal verb database and review them as often as possible, Turn it into a routine, for example reading through your phrasal verbs for 10 to 15 minutes a day at a specific time.

As a general rule, I would recommend learning between 10 and 15 new phrasal verbs per week, depending on your level and how much time you have to commit to learning English.

When it comes to phrasal verbs, context is everything

I have created a folder of phrasal verb exercises on the learning app Quizlet. You can use these quizzes as flash cards or play games where you can memorize the phrasal verbs in context. I hope that you will find time to use the Quizlet app to learn phrasal verbs in a fun and easy way. Conveniently, you can download the app to your phone and practice phrasal verb sets while sitting on the bus or waiting for a friend to arrive.

Access the phrasal verb folder on Quizlet here and get started!

If you are not familiar with Quizlet and how you can use it to study English or any other subject, please watch my Quizlet tutorial here

For over 100 pages of Phrasal Verb Practice and Fun …

What’s your favorite phrasal verb?

Let me know in the comments!

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