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Keep up with new phrasal verbs in English

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Phrasal verbs are the stuff of many students’ nightmares. Most native speakers of English are blissfully unaware of their existence (they’re those short verbal phrases that include a little word like up or outcatch up, for example), but for those learning English, they have a reputation for being difficult to learn and impossible to use correctly. (Not exactly true – it’s more about the way they’re taught.)

Unfortunately for these learners, their number is growing all the time. The Cambridge dictionary is always on the lookout for them, and they’ve added to the dictionary in the same way as other new words.

Some phrasal verbs make the transition from technical language or other varieties of English to the everyday, often via the medium of TV, where most of these examples come from.

Cookery shows on TV have made us familiar with some technical terms from the chef’s world, including plate up:

Your time’s up – start plating up your dishes now!

We’re also familiar with mike up, heard on TV talent shows:

Let’s get you miked up for the auditions!

And judges on these shows will criticize performers for phoning in their performance if they appeared not to be giving a thousand percent:

Joe, I’m your biggest fan, pet, but for me that performance was phoned in.

And in TV home makeover shows, stylists are keen to zhuzh things up, or to make things that are plain look more interesting or attractive:

Let’s zhuzh up these sad cushions with some sparkly sequins!

As well as the phrasal verbs themselves, there are also words, usually nouns or adjectives, that are derived from them, as the noun dropout comes from the phrasal verb drop out. In entertainment, the Jamaican English phrasal verb mash up, meaning “break” or “destroy”, gives us mashup, a type of music, video, etc. where different sections from different sources are mixed up together. And tune-up, from US sports coverage, is the act of preparing for something:

In volleyball, Falcons went head-to-head in a tune-up game with their opponent, Dragons, yesterday.

As well as phrasal verbs, there are some new idioms. One that is new to British English is step up to the plate, meaning to come forward and take responsibility for something. Well-established in American English, it is now widespread in Britain, although most people who use it have no idea that it originates in baseball, where it refers to taking your turn to bat at the home plate.

If it’s any consolation to learners, native speakers make frequent mistakes with phrasal verbs. In particular, they mistakenly combine the phrase into a single word. At a pub near my house that offers accommodation, the sign says “Please check-in at the bar”. If you’re a learner, you’ll know this should be check in. Get it right, native speakers!

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Mary Jane

Mary Jane Go has been teaching English for over 13 years. She believes that it is very important to learn English and learn it by heart. For her, it's always the right time for a dance party and that hanging out with friends is indispensable.

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