The Use of Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

What are idioms and phrasal verbs?

Idioms and phrasal verbs are parts of English grammar which have specific and unique use within sentences and typically contribute to building sentence structure and hence meaning to the whole phrase. Therefore, it is essential that you understand the use of phrasal verbs and idioms within a sentence, the appropriate instances when they are to be used and the exact place in the sentence where they are to be included in a sentence. Idioms and phrasal verbs when used appropriately go a long way in improving the sentence structure and making your write up interesting.

What is an idiom?

An idiom is a combination or group of words put together to give a figurative meaning (has a hidden meaning) that is distinctly different from the constituent words that make up the idiom.

Idioms, in some cases, may also be used to refer to certain words or phrases used by a group of people with similar characteristics such as people speaking the same dialect, people in the same occupational field among others. This may at times create a communication barrier, especially where you come across a new phrasal verb and do not understand the context in which the idiom was used. It is therefore vital for a writer using any dialect related idiom to try and expound on it and any reader to always be cautious about idioms he or she has not come across and try to understand some of the culture and dialect of the people and not just assuming the meaning of the idiom used.  It is also important to note that most phrasal verbs also form idioms since they have a figurative language.

Definition of phrasal verbs

A phrasal verb is a phrase formed from a combination of a verb and an adjective, preposition or both either before or after the verb that results in an idiomatic phrase. The phrasal verbs typically give a different meaning from the specific words combined to form it. As mentioned earlier, the combination of a preposition and a verb leads to a prepositional idiom. Besides, some phrasal verbs are formed with a verb and two prepositions for example; look forward to where look is the verb, forward is the first preposition and to is the second preposition.

Phrasal verbs can be either transitive (verbs that take a direct object) or intransitive (verbs that cannot take the direct object). Some transitive verbs can be separated, that is, the verb and adverb or preposition making the phrasal verbs are not written on after the other in a sentence but rather separated by a direct object. The noun does not come between the noun and the preposition, but a pronoun will come in between the verb and preposition. For example;

  1. The committee agreed to take on James.
  2. The committee agreed to take him on.

Intransitive phrasal verbs, on the other hand, never take on direct objects and hence cannot be separated. For example;

  1. The community is slowly getting over the situation.
  2. The watchman came across a deserted house near the premises.

Moreover, there are also phrasal nouns which are formed by making a noun from a verb and particle complex. For example;

  1. Standby: every institution should employ the use of a standby generator to provide electricity during power outages and electrical malfunctions.

It is prudent to note that: Some phrasal verbs may have more than one meaning, and hence one has to understand the different meanings and how to incorporate them in a sentence correctly to bring out the intended meaning. For example;

Check in – The students checked into the hotel at precisely 9 o’clock. (here it is used to mean making reservations at a place).

Parents have to check in on their children’s activities regularly. (here it means to monitor or see how someone is doing or fairing on).

Grow up – The student confidently said that he wants to be a neurosurgeon when she grows up. (used to mean to become older).

We are fed up with people who callously throw litter in the environment. It is time they grew up and become more responsible. (used to mean to mature)

  • You cannot deduce the meaning of phrasalverbs from their constituent words. For example, brought up means to raise and not the meaning of brought and up as they mean literally.
  • Phrasal verbs have to be placed at the appropriate position within a sentence to ensure that the intended meaning is brought out by the phrasal verb. For example;
  • He came across what he is hesitant to reveal to his colleagues. (incorrect)
  • He is hesitant to reveal to his colleagues what he came across. (correct)
  • Most phrasal verbs are polysemous. Polysemous describes a property in which the phrasal verbs have a literalmeaning and a figurative or idiomatic meaning. For instance, put down means to place something on a surface and can also be used to mean to criticize, to kill or destroy or to stop or put an end to something.
  • Phrasal verbs should never be used in formal articles such as formal letters, letters of reference or recommendation letters, academic assays among others.

Applications of idioms and phrasal verbs

As mentioned earlier, phrasal verbs and idioms are particles of English grammar which are applied in different situations to bring out the intended meaning in a much more exciting way. Hence, it is prudent for everyone especially students to understand the appropriate use of these parts of English grammar effectively. Idioms and phrasal verbs can be applied when: writing stories, books and articles that are only meant for entertainment, writing plots for plays, movies and other acting scenes, writing poems and songs. In essence, idioms and phrasal verbs are widely used in the entertainment industry and academic set-up but strictly in personal documents such as informal essays and articles.

Idioms are mostly used in art and some examples of such idioms include:

  • To fine-tune- means to small improvements on something.
  • Change one’s tune- to change your view of something.
  • To whistle in the dark- means to be very optimistic about something.
  • It’s not over till your fat lady sings- describes making decisions in haste without considering all the avenues possible or weighing all your options.
  • It takes two to tango- used to describe a situation where two or more people are at fault.
  • In the spotlight- used to describe someone who captures the attention of everyone around him or her.
  • Application of idioms and phrasal verbs in your write up helps to:
  • Avoid clichés especially where a word appears in your document for sometimes. This is true especially for phrasal verbs which may be written in place of the repeated words.
  • Improves creativity and makes the write up more interesting- idioms, most especially, help in making the document lively and even interesting to read due to their hidden meanings and figurative language. This goes a long way toward reducing boredom even as the reader goes through the document.
  • Emphasize a point- most idioms and phrasal verbs when included in a document give stress to the stated idea. For example, rains cats and dogs when used in a sentence emphasized how the rain was heavy.
  • Spark off critical thinking in the mind of the reader- this is especially true in terms of idioms which make use of figurative language and hence as a reader, you really have to ponder upon what the writer was trying to put across when he or she used that specific idiom and tried to identify the meaning of the same.

Examples of phrasal verbs and idioms

Some of the most commonly used examples of idioms and their meanings include;

  • Speak of the devil- this means that you are speaking of someone and she or he appears immediately at that time.
  • Face the music or pay the piper- both are used to mean to face the consequences of one’s actions.
  • See eye to eye- share the same opinion or idea as someone hence you agree with the person.
  • Once in a blue moon- used to describe an event that is seldom or not done frequently.
  • A piece of cake- used to describe something that is very easy to handle.
  • Bite off more than you can chew- getting yourself in a situation that you are incapable of redeeming yourself.
  • Let the cat out of the bag- disclose a secret.
  • Add insult to injury- used to describe a situation that is already bad but has been made even worse.
  • Do not judge a book by its cover- used to warn against giving your opinion about something or someone without carefully interacting with the person or having an experience with the thing.
  • Break a leg- this is an idiom meaning to have good luck.
  • Hit the nail on the head- used to describe the process of finding out the exact problem in a situation or going straight to the point concerning a specific matter.
  • Kill two birds with one stone- used to describe a situation where you use one solution to solve two problems or issues.
  • Cut corners- to describe a situation where you use short-cuts to do something or rather to do something sloppily. The outcome, in this case, is not necessarily bad but the means of achieving the result is what is in question.
  • Raining cats and dogs- raining heavily.
  • Head in the clouds- having an unrealistic ambition or goal or thinking of something that is impossible.
  • Turn a blind eye- refers to not considering or rather pretending that you have not noticed a certain situation happening.
  • Cocksure- means that you do not have any doubts about a certain matter in question.
  • A hip on your shoulder- means that you are holding a grudge.

Other idioms take a different route from the ones mentioned above. These idioms make a comparison between one object and another and are essentially used to create emphasis on the intended meaning. These include;

  • As white as snow- very white.
  • As cold as ice- extremely cold.
  • As light as a feather- very light.
  • As high as a kite- very high level.
  • As pure as gold- very pure, without any impurities.
  • As hard as a rock- very hard.
  • As sure as the sun- very sure.

Some of the examples of phrasal verbs and their meanings include;

  • Pull over- to stop a vehicle or come to a halt.
  • Look forward to- wait anxiously for something or an event.
  • Look into- examine something thoroughly.
  • Fed up- tired of something or someone.
  • Bring up- raise up a child, raise an issue
  • Give in- to surrender.
  • Makeup – tell something that is not true especially a story.
  • Take after- to resemble someone or something.
  • Take off- remove from the body as in clothes or shoes, to depart as in airplane.
  • Sort after- want something or desire something.
  • Put up- to build as in a structure or building or to persevere as in an individual.
  • Put across- share some information
  • Call off- to cancel
  • Put off – to postpone to a later date or time.
  • Fall apart- to break into pieces.
  • Get away- to escape.
  • Get around- means to avoid a situation as its solution.
  • Get along- to be in a good and understandable relationship with someone.
  • Hang on- refers refusing to give out something.
  • Look up- to check the meaning of something may be in the dictionary.
  • Turn up- refers to someone appearing abruptly after disappearing for quite a while.

This guide will help you understand how to use phrasal verbs in order to make you work more appealing.

More helpful hints about Transitive Verbs.