Phrasal verbs are verbs that are used with prepositions or adverbs, thus creating a different meaning from the original verb. For example, TURN is different than TURN ON (meaning to flick the switch to on, or the more sexual meaning of to excite) or TURN INTO (which means to become or convert into something different.)

One thing to remember is that, with phrasal verbs, we put emphasis on the preposition (technically called a particle for grammatical reasons.) So we say, “WATCH OUT,” making the word OUT louder and higher and longer than we would normally pronounce a preposition. This increased stress is one thing that indicates a phrasal verb.

Here’s an example of how confusing a phrasal verb can be. “Mary RAN INTO her old friend Hassan, who is visiting from Pakistan.” A non-native speaker could be forgiven for wondering whether Mary physically collided with her visiting friend – the use of the verb “to run” is misleading, if read literally. But, in day-to-day meaning, this phrasal verb could be used to describe an unexpected, chance meeting.

Here’s another phrasal verb that can connote something unexpected: “I thought that Mary would still be out of town last weekend, but she SHOWED UP at the party.” For non-native speakers who are familiar with the common use of the verb “to show,” the use of a phrasal verb like this might sound confusing.

One more example: “Mary wanted to come to the concert last night, but she CAME DOWN with the same cold virus that Hassan caught on the weekend.” Obviously, in context, the use of “to come” or “to come down” does not depict the arrival of someone or something, nor does it illustrate a descent. Rather, “come down” is used to describe the act of contracting, catching or developing something, like an illness or a case of nerves. Naturally, for non-native English-speakers, this phrasal verb lays a potential trap for confusion or misunderstanding.

Despite the endless variations of phrasal verbs, paying attention to the stressed preposition or particle will help you to identify its presence. Then you can ask or look it up to see what it means.