Phrasal Verbs – A Nightmare for English Language Learners

Despite the idiot linguists who say that all languages are equally difficult or easy to learn, it’s clear that some languages are harder to learn than others. One of the maddening things about English is phrasal verbs – in most cases, foreigners never completely get the phrasal verbs and continue to have problems with them.

Let us look only at the preposition up combined with various verbs to form a dizzying array of phrasal verbs with widely varying meanings, meanings of which are not always clear and often have little to do with the base verb to which up has attached itself. I assume this list is by no means exhaustive, but I had to stop sometime.

Up combines to form 104 different phrasal verbs that has significantly different meanings from what one might expect. I did not include many phrasal verbs with up in which the meaning is fairly clear – buckle up, pack up, fill up, etc. Note that in many cases, the phrasal verb has more than one meaning and the meanings at times are quite variant. Feel free to add your own, if you can think of any!

Drink up and drink down mean roughly the same thing, as do slip up and slip down. Light up – to torch. Mess up, slip up – to fail.  Walk up, run up, creep up, crawl up, sneak up – various ways to approach s.t.. Cook up – to prepare a meal. Brush up – to go over a previously learned skill. Bone up – to study hard. Play up – to dramatize. Read up – to read intensively as in studying. Stay up – to not go to bed. Come up – to approach closely, to occur suddenly or to overflow. Patch up – to put together a broken thing or relationship.

Make up – to make amends, to apply cosmetics to one’s face or to invent a story. Burn up – burn completely or to be made very angry, burn down – reduce s.t. to ashes, like a structure. Turn up – to increase volume or to appear suddenly somewhere. Run up – to tally a big bill. Dry up – to dessicate. Take up – to develop a new skill, to bring something to a higher elevation, to cook something at a high heat to where it is assimilated. Blow up – to explode.

Dress up – to dress oneself in formal attire. Shake up – to upset a paradigm, to upset emotionally. Hit up – to visit someone casually or to ask for a favor or gift, usually small amounts of money. Wake up – to awaken. Stir up – stir rapidly, upset a calm surrounding or scene or upset a paradigm. Cheer up – to elevate one’s mood. Talk up – to try to convince someone of something by discussing it dramatically and intensively.

Chat up – to talk casually with a goal in mind, usually seduction or at least flirtation. Hang up – to place on a hanger or a wall, to end a phone call. Trip up – to stumble mentally over s.t. confusing. Mop up – to finish off the remains of an enemy army or finalize a military operation. Clean up – to make an area thoroughly tidy. Pick up – to grasp an object and lift it higher, to seduce someone sexually or to acquire a new skill, usually rapidly.

Put up – to hang, to tolerate, often grudgingly, or to put forward a new image. Tear up – to shred. Ring up – to telephone someone. Cut up – to shred or to make jokes, often of a slapstick variety. Meet up – to meet someone or a group for a get meeting or date of some sort. Start up – to initialize an engine or a program, to open a new business to go back to something that had been terminated previously, often a fight; a recrudescence. Crank up – elevate the volume.

Shoot up – to inject, usually illegal drugs, or to fire many projectiles into a place with a gun. Drum up – to charge someone with wrongdoing, usually criminal, usually by a state actor, usually for false reasons. Kiss up – to mend a relationship after a fight. Wait up – to ask other parties to wait for someone who is coming in a hurry. Whip up – to cook a meal quickly or for winds to blow wildly. Touch up – to apply the final aspects of a work nearly finished.

Suck up – to ingratiate oneself, often in an obsequious fashion. Stop up – to block the flow of liquids with some object(s). Suit up – to get dressed in a uniform, often for athletics. Pass up – to miss an opportunity, often a good one. Pop up – for s.t. to appear suddenly, often out of nowhere. Own up – to confess to one’s sins under pressure and reluctantly. Live up – to enjoy life. Lighten up – to reduce the downcast or hostile seriousness of the mood of a person or setting. Knock up – to impregnate. Beat up – to defeat someone thoroughly in a violent physical fight.

Listen up – imperative – to order someone to pay attention, often with threats of aggression if they don’t comply. Man up – to elevate oneself to manly behaviors when one is slacking and behaving in an unmanly fashion. Lock up – to lock securely, often locking various locks, or to imprison, or for an object or computer program to be frozen or jammed and unable to function. Mix up – to confuse, or to disarrange contents in a scattered fashion so that it does not resemble the original.

Measure up – in a competition, for an entity to match the competition. Mark up – to raise the price of s.t. Move up – to elevate the status of a person or entity in competition with other entities- to move up in the world. Hook up – to have a casual sexual encounter or to meet casually for a social encounter, often in a public place; also to connect together a mechanical devise or plug something in.

Hurry up – imperative, usually an order to quit delaying and join the general group or another person in some activity, often when they are leaving to go to another place. Face up – to quit avoiding your problems and meet them head on. End up – to arrive at some destination after a long winding, often convoluted journey either in space or in time. Clear up – for a storm to dissipate, for a rash to go away, for a confusing matter to become understandable.

Close up – to close, also to end business hours for a public business. Cheer up – to change from a downcast mood to a more positive one. Curl up – to rest in a curled body position, either alone or with another being. Crack up – to laugh, often heartily. Back up – to go in reverse, often in a vehicle, or to go back over something previously dealt with that was poorly understood in order to understand it better. Bruise up – to receive multiple bruises, often serious ones.

Break up – to break into various pieces, or to end a relationship, either personal or between entitles, also to split a large entity, like a large company or a state. Build up – to build intensively in an area, such as a town or city, from a previously less well-developed state. Buy up – to buy all or most all of something. Catch up – to reach a person or group that one had lagged behind earlier, or to take care of things, often hobbies, that had been put off by lack of time.

Do up – apply makeup to someone, often elaborately. Dream up – to imagine a creative notion, often an elaborate one. Drive up – to drive towards something, and then stop, or to raise the price of something by buying it intensively. Feel up – to grope someone sexually. Get up – to awaken or rise from a prone position. Give up – to surrender, in war or a contest, or to stop doing something trying or unpleasant that is yielding poor results, or to die, as in give up the ghost.

Grow up – to attain an age or maturity or to act like a mature person, often imperative. Hold up – to delay, to ask someone ahead of you to wait, often imperative, or to rob in a public place with a gun – He held up the liquor store. Keep up – to maintain on a par with the competition without falling behind. Lay up – to be sidelined due to illness or injury for a time. Let up – to ease off of someone or something, for a storm to dissipate, to stop attacking someone or s.t.

Pay up – to pay, usually a debt, often imperative to demand payment of a debt, to pay all of what one owes so you don’t owe anymore. Rise up – for an oppressed group to arouse and fight back against their oppressors. Run up – to spend a lot of money, often foolishly. Show up – to appear somewhere, often unexpectedly. Shut up – to silence, often imperative, fighting words. Sit up – to sit upright.

Speak up – to begin speaking after listening for a while, often imperative, a request for a silent person to say what they wish to say. Take up – to cohabit with someone – She has taken up with him. Think up – to conjure up a plan, often an elaborate or creative one. Throw up – to vomit. Bid up – to raise the price of something, usually at an auction, by calling out higher and higher bids. Be up – to be in a waking state after having slept. “I’ve been up for three hours.”

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5 thoughts on “Phrasal Verbs – A Nightmare for English Language Learners”

  1. Dear Robert
    What makes English phrasal verbs more dificult than in other Germanic languages is that the particle of a phrasal verb usually occupies the same position as a preposition while in the other Germanic languages it is a prefix, although usually a separable one. For instance, get UP = AUFstehen, look UP = OPzoeken, take ON = ANnehmen, look DOWN on = NEERkijken op.
    A phrasal verb can be told apart from a verb with a prepositional object by the position of the pronoun. In a phrasal verb, the pronoun has to stand between the verb and the particle, while in the case of a verb with a prepositional object, the pronoun follows the preposition. I looked it up – I looked at it. Of course, when the phrasal verb is intranstive, no pronoun can stand between the verb and the particle, I look up to him, I look down on him.
    Also a particle is stressed while a preposition is unstressed. I turned ON the volume, but I turned on the wheel. He turned IN his best friend, but he stirred in the soup.
    Regards. James

  2. jew up (with apologies to Mort and Olive) – to overcharge – got that one from a James Ellroy novel ” ….he tried to jew me up” ; don’t know if it’s in common use.

    beam up – first a bit of preparatory exposition. In the ’70s , the leader of the British Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe, was charged with the attempted murder of his gay lover, Norman Scott, who was blackmailing him – big scandal. A joke that did the time was: what do Jeremy Thorpe and Captain Kirk of Star Trek have in common? A : They both get beamed up by Scotty.

  3. yeah that must be very tricky for non-english speakers to grasp.

    i think they way to get your mind around it would be to consider that the inclusion of “up” means something good or positive…but then you see “break up” and “close up” and it seems kind of weak. but maybe to the American (English too?) mind those are all positives. Breaking up means you move on to the next and presumably better partner, closing up means you get to go home from a days work…because you have a job…because all Americans work at jobs and make money.

    I like languages for this reason. Even if my hunches are misguided it’s fun to think about.

  4. Phrasal verbs with “Up” can be dangerous for 2nd language English speakers. Think of the innocent phrase “You’re up” meaning “it’s your turn”, and in reverse “Up yours” as the vulgar expression “put it where the sun doesn’t shine.” Be careful!

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