Monthly Archives: July 2009

ESL Focus: Phrasal Verbs

It is no surprise that many ESL students find idioms frustrating. Luckily, there are many resources which can help English learners improve their grasp of phrasal verbs (as well as other idioms). Today, I will focus on print and online resources for understanding phrasal verbs.

First of all, what is a phrasal verb? Here’s a helpful definition from the Academic Center at the University of Houston, Victoria:

Phrasal verbs are compound verbs (more than one word) that result from combining a verb with an adverb or a preposition. The resulting compound verb is idiomatic (e.g. its meaning cannot be derived from the dictionary meaning of its parts).

(To see the Academic Center’s complete pdf handout on phrasal verbs, visit


Since phrasal verbs are idiomatic, figuring out their meaning can be a challenge. When you encounter a phrasal verb, first attempt to guess its meaning from the context. Consider this excerpt from an article in the online newspaper, the St. Louis Business Journal:

Belden said late Monday that it plans to stop production at one of its two manufacturing plants in Leominster, Mass., by July 2010, cutting about 170 jobs there.

The wire and cable maker said production from the shuttered plant will move to Belden’s other plant in Leominster, as well as to existing company facilities in Monticello, Ky., and Nogales, Mexico.

About 170 employees will be affected by the move and will be eligible for severance benefits, the company said.

The plant closing is part of a restructuring Belden announced in December, when it said it would lay off 1,800 workers, or 20 percent of its work force, in dealing with a drop in demand for its products.

The article is about the closure of a wire and cable factory, which will result in the company “cutting about 170 jobs.” This plant closing is part of a plan to restructure the company in response to declining sales demand. Part of the plan is to lay off 20% of the company’s work force. Thus, the reader can assume that the phrasal verb lay off means something similar to “to cut.”

Sometimes, however, the context offers no clear clue to an idiom’s meaning, or the reader may wish to verify her guess. In such cases, the reader may use one of two resources: a dictionary or the internet.

If a dictionary is handy, use it. Most common phrasal verbs will be included in the verb’s entry. For example, you can find the meaning of the phrasal verb lay off by looking up the verb lay. Be prepared to find multiple meanings for phrasal verbs. Lay off can mean “to terminate the employment of (a worker), especially temporarily,” “to mark off,” “to stop doing something,” or “to place all or part of (an accepted bet) with another bookie in order to reduce the risk” (American Heritage Dictionary).

If you are more adventurous and want to see the phrasal verb in additional contexts, do a quick internet search for it. For example, go to, enter “lay off” (including the quotation marks) in the search box, and click “Google Search.” The results will be thousands–possibly millions–of websites on which the phrase lay off has been used. Either read the short excerpt on the search result page or click on the links and find lay off in the text. You will have a richer understanding, not only of the definition of the phrasal verb, but also of how writers use it in a variety of genres and for a variey of purposes. For example, when I search lay off, I find that, when it refers to a worker’s termination, it can also be written as one word.


In addition to basic dictionaries, there are also dictionaries and text/workbooks devoted solely to phrasal verbs and other idioms.

  • The American Heritage Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs – $15.56 on
  • Cambridge Phrasal Verbs Dictionary – $21.90 on
  • Longman Pocket Phrasal Verbs Dictionary – $5.75 on
  • McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs – $15.61 on
  • NTC’s Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs and Other Idiomatic Verbal Phrases – $17.90 on
  • Oxford Phrasal Verbs Dictionary – $18.67 on
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Posted by on 30 July 09 in ESL/EFL, Grammar & Usage