This is the third in a series of articles based on excerpts from a presentation made by Heather Chetwynd at the ING Cafe in downtown Toronto in Fall 2012. Please watch out for more upcoming posts based on the variety of topics that were covered at that event.
Phrasal verbs are composed of two words – a verb and a particle. (A particle is identical to a preposition but with a different function.) The verb by itself has one meaning which changes when we add the particle. For example, TURN has a different meaning than TURN ON which is different from TURN INTO, etc.
Phrasal verbs can be really difficult to learn. First, there are so many of them. Then phrasal verbs can have two or even three different meanings depending on the context. In addition, you need to learn whether the two words can be separated or not. (For example, GO ON cannot be separated but TURN ON can.) And in addition to these issues, you also need to pay attention to stress. I will explain.
Let’s look at a simple sentence. TURN ON THE LIGHT. I can also say, TURN THE LIGHT ON. But I can extend that to say TURN THE RED LIGHT SWITCH THAT IS OVER IN THE CORNER ON.
The problem in the last sentence is that the particle is so far away from the base verb that I may not realize the verb is actually TURN ON and not just TURN. So how do we indicate this?
In neutral stress patterns, we don’t stress prepositions. Here’s an example (I have capitalized the stressed words:)
TURN the LIGHT SWITCH on the WALL to the RIGHT.
This means I want you to move the switch clockwise.
TURN the LIGHT SWITCH on the WALL ON.
This means I want light.
So we generally stress particles attached to phrasal verbs. Here’s another example:
LOOK out the WINDOW.
LOOK OUT! The WINDOW!
The first means to look outside, while the second means to be careful since the window might fall or break.
In Canada we use phrasal verbs all the time. Many can be used very appropriately in business settings, while others are very informal and sometimes rude. Mastering them is an ongoing process but listening for how the speaker stresses these small words can play an important role in deciphering what is being said. Good luck!