Phrasal verbs have been one of the most difficult areas of English to both teach and learn, and for the intermediate and advanced student a source of a feeling of inadequacy when they are proficient in grammar and vocabulary. The dedicated student, who has mastered the seemingly endless list of irregular verbs (the list is quite small really) has grappled with and overcome most of the grammatical difficulties, can spell and pronounce the ridiculously troublesome words such as hiccough, has a mountain to climb.
Whereas in Spain and France the English language is not governed by a body such as the Real Academia Española or the Académie Française, and dictionaries differ as to what is a phrasal verb and what is idiomatic speech. If the dictionaries cannot agree and one may describe a phrase as idiomatic and another as a phrasal verb, then the problem for the teacher and student alike is twofold.
Since there are thousands of idiomatic phrases, and thousands of phrasal verbs, how is the student ever going to speak like a native?
When I took my TESOL course many years ago, I and other prospective English teachers were told that the only way to learn phrasal verbs was by heart, the reason being there was no apparent logic behind them. Yet these phrases make up a huge amount of the daily spoken vocabulary of native speakers who acquired them in the same way they acquired their grammar, unaware and completely ignorant of their origins.
When a native English teacher attempts to explain the meaning finds that he or she cannot give a reason why ‘give over’ translates to ‘stop doing’ and the same goes for thousands of other phrases.
Now, learning these phrases by heart can become a thing of the past.
My colleague José García Bes and I have dedicated ourselves to the task of deciphering the seemingly impossible and have discovered a logical framework that can be used to explain English phrasal verbs.
Our quest for the answers led us to the medieval period and has been a sort of linguistic archeology. There are 41 particles (prepositions or adverbs) that combine with verbs to form phrasal verbs. We have identified almost 4000 different definitions which fit within the framework of our hypothesis, and I am sure that the average student would find 4000 different definitions a daunting sum to commit to memory. We have found that one only needs to know the general significance of each particle in order to have a command of the verbs, thus reducing the problem by a hundredfold. Without giving the game away completely, I will give an example of how easy the problem can be overcome.
Each particle represents a social level, activities or events, or locations where these societies and events took place during the medieval period.
The following is our explanation of the phrasal verbs that take the particles around/about.
The particles in this case can be used as alternatives such as roll around, or roll about. When the particle about is used with no alternative, then the significance of the particle is different from the meaning of around/about.
The particle around, when used with no alternative is also different from the meaning when it is used with around/about.
Around/about suggests situations, actions, attitudes and certain activities that took place around the medieval town centre or market-place, but unrelated to commercial activities such as buying and selling.
The alternatives around/about overwhelmingly suggest the following:
1 idleness, time-wasting, and non-production.
2 people who are common, badly behaved, ill-mannered, clownish, unsophisticated, lacking control and being spectators at a show.
Several verbs give a clue as to the meaning of around/about: fool, horse, lark, play and slap.
Here we have key elements of street theatre dating from medieval times that continue to be widely represented in many parts of rural England and can be seen in the performances of today’s Morris Dancers. Morris Dancing is a traditional pastime in many parts of England performed in the open air as a form of street theatre. The dancers are troupes of men who continue the traditions of folk-dancing and mummer’s plays ( a simplistic type of early theatre depicting the struggle between good and evil, often religious in content but retaining pagan symbolism from the pre-Christian era). For more information go to
The street theatre in those days was ribald, bawdy and unrefined, with unambiguous use of references to bodily functions as a basis for much of their humour and comedy, which today we call ‘toilet humour’.
The spectators would crowd around/about, sit, lie, roll, hang, wait, gad, and mill around/about. The actors were looked down on by the upper-classes as vagabonds, wastrels, prostitutes and sturdy beggars, and as such subject to imprisonment and hard-labour.
The public was entertained by the antics of the players who often poked fun at people in the audience as well as within their own group of actors, as still happens today at many morris dancing events. Two of the most important protagonists of these ancient plays remain with us in the morris dancing teams, the fool and the hobby-horse.
The fool, armed with an inflated pig’s bladder on a stick would hit victims, selected at random from the audience (knock sb/sth around/about). Slap means to hit with the open hand to cause a painful stinging sensation but little or no damage. The fool would hit people with a slapstick, a device made of wood with a loose, hinged section. When a blow is delivered with the stick it produces a loud crack that gives the spectator the impression that the blow was hard, violent and obviously painful, whereas the exact opposite is true. From this comes the _expression “slapstick comedy”.
The fool would lark around/about (lark being a derivative of laik, meaning to play or not do work, and is still commonly used in many parts of northern England).
The antics of the fool appealed to the coarser nature of the crowd with references to arse, bum, fart, piss, bugger and fuck. He may even poke, sniff, scratch, touching his victim in a genuine or simulated sexual manner in order to get cheap laughs from the victims friends and other spectators, who then fall or roll about/around laughing.
It is no coincidence that today’s morris dancers delight the crowds by performing in the street, but always outside a pub or country inn. The dancing appears to have only two reasons for being.
One is to dance to entertain and the other is to spend the money collected from the bystanders on alcoholic drink, such as beer or cider and hence the chosen venue being outside the pub. When drinking a toast to the health of the company these days, glasses are raised and gently tapped together. Medieval revellers under the influence of large amounts of alcohol were less refined, clashing their metal tankards together so that beer or wine sloshed (spilled) out of their drinking vessels and onto the table or floor. To slosh money around/about, now means to have money to waste, as in the wasted beer that is spilled.
Horse around/about comes from the hobby-horse, a regular protagonist in mummer’s plays and a common feature in many morris teams.
For more information go to
The hobby-horse capering around could quite easily knock over a small child or bump into one of the spectators, thus meaning to behave in a way that is both careless and potentially dangerous.
As I stated at the beggining, each particle represents a particular aspect of medieval society and daily life. For more information, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
A complete list will be published in 2006, until then, memorise, learn by heart, but as we phrasal verb maestros say, don't GIVE UP.