Phrasal Verbs, A New Approach To Learning
“I don’t understand” he said, “I just don’t understand”.
These words from a student in early 2003 set me off on a quest to resolve a problem that has for centuries defeated teacher and student alike.
My student, Jos? Garc?a Bes, like millions before him, wanted an explanation that I was unable to give him. “There is no apparent logic behind phrasal verbs” I told him “you will just have to memorise them like everyone else”. Jos? was not a man to be so easily fobbed off with such a glib reply. “There is logic behind all language, we simply have to find it”.
It was then that Jos? stopped being my student and became my colleague and co-explorer in the uncharted realms of the English language.
We spent around on average 40 hours a week, analyzing the seemingly impossible, I spent many extra hours on the internet reading thousands of references, papers discussions etc., but we appeared to be getting nowhere. If there was a logical approach, then the logic was so tortured that we too had to think in a completely different manner. Fortunately I had a good man with me, for Jos? is one of Argentina’s most brilliant minds.
One of the principle problems we faced was the question of what constitutes a phrasal verb. There is no consensus of opinion among lexicographers and what may be described in one dictionary as a phrasal verb, in others it appeared as a normal verb or as an idiomatic phrase. English lacks a governing body such as the Real Academia Espa?ola or the Acad?mie Fran?aise, so who is to say what is what, and who is right or wrong.
In our work we have identified 41 particles, with other verbs they are adverbs or prepositions that radically change their properties when conjoined with simple verbs to form phrasal verbs.
Our studies have resulted in what we think is a startling breakthrough, and has provided a simple way to teach and learn these most used and little understood foundations of spoken English.
Each particle represents a unique part of medieval society, or events and or ubiquitous locations within the medieval world. Without wishing to give the game away, as we are publishing our findings in 2005, I would suggest you read the explanation below with an imaginative approach.
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 or selling and overwhelmingly suggest the following: idleness, time-wasting, and non-production, 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. “I see she’s going around with that boy again”. Here we suspect that “that boy” is not someone who you would like your daughter to go about with, the inference is tacit, yet is obvious when one hears the words spoken because the inflection of the voice makes it so. This is one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, that the profoundly deaf native speakers have difficulties with phrasal verbs. If they cannot hear the subtleties of the voice, they are only left with the words, which confound the listener as they confound the foreign student.
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.
Sniffing around the crowd, the clown could show delight at some apparent perfume and conjure flowers the clothing of a victim of his attentions, or showing disgust at some apparent stench, produce a dead rat, cheers and laughs all round.
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.
Our journey into the world of phrasal verbs has taken us down many thorny paths, with more than a few dead-ends. We have not been able to accommodate each and every verb that has been decided by consensus of opinion to be a phrasal verb, but this can be explained by the fact that the language is evolving. Many phrasal verbs are modern, such as “log on”, “switch off” etc. and have nothing to do with the medieval world, yet we have identified a common base for some modern phrasal verbs within the context of our explanation.
So if you can wait a little while until our publication is available, hold on, you can look forward to an easier way to master these demons and learn a little history at the same time. We are forging ahead and if our plans do not fall through, you should be able to count on seeing it in February.
For further information contact me at