Vocabulary and Idiom: Phrasal Verbs

     An idiom is an expression peculiar to a language and not
readily understandable from its grammatical construction or from
the meaning of its parts.  For example, the American English idiom
"put up with," in a sentence such as "I put up with a lot from
him," means tolerate or endure.  Idiom study is an important part
of vocabulary development because much of the living language of
any country is idiomatic.

     Often, American English idioms are created by adding various
prepositions to a basic verb, changing the verb's meaning in many
different ways.  For example, the verb "to drop" means to let
something fall.  But the idiom "drop in" means visit someone
without having received an invitation.  And the idiom "drop out"
means to stop doing what one usually does.  You will find that many
idioms have more than one meaning.  For example, "turn in" means to
give something to someone, as in "I turned in my test paper to the
instructor," and it also means to go to sleep, as in "Because it
was late, I decided to turn in for the night."

     Sometimes a difference in syntax or word order of an idiom
will result in different meanings.  The meaning of the idiom "turn
on," for example, depends a lot on how it is combined with other

     He turned on me.  (He betrayed me; he attacked me.)
     He turned me on.  (He excited me.) 

     Because idiom usage, like English spelling, is quite
irregular, it can be learned more efficiently by memorization and
frequent practice than by learning rules.

     The following lists will help you master a variety of American
English idioms.  Each list presents one verb with several idioms
that have been derived by adding a preposition or other words to
the verb.


1. break down Meaning: stop working Example: I was late to school because my car broke down. 2. break even Meaning: neither gain nor lose Example: I was lucky to break even at the casino last weekend. 3. break in Meaning: initiate, train Example: The cowboy worked long and hard to break in the new horse. 4. break off Meaning: end abruptly Example: She broke off the conversation by hanging up the telephone. 5. break out Meaning: escape Example: Three prisoners broke out of jail. Meaning: happen suddenly Example: A huge fire broke out on the fifth floor. 6. break through Meaning: penetrate Example: The explorer broke through the underbrush to find the temple. 7. break up Meaning: end a relationship Example: Mary broke up with Joe more than a year ago.


1. bring about Meaning: cause Example: She hopes to bring about a change in his attitude. 2. bring in Meaning: yield, earn Example: His investments bring in a profit, and his wife brings in fifty thousand dollars a year. 3. bring on Meaning: cause Example: The assassination brought on the first world war. Meaning: cause to come forth, produce Example: Bring on the wine! 4. bring [something] on [oneself] Meaning: cause problems for oneself Example: By refusing to listen to his teacher, he brought the failure on himself. 5. bring out Meaning: emphasize Example: That blue shirt brings out the color of your eyes. Meaning: inspire Example: That teacher is able to bring out the best in her students. 6. bring to mind Meaning: remind someone of Example: The smell of baking bread brings my mother's kitchen to mind. 7. bring up Meaning: raise, rear Example: After my parents died, I was brought up by my grandmother. Meaning: introduce Example: She brought up the subject of having children. 8. bring down Meaning: cause to fail Example: The war brought down the government.


1. call it a day Meaning: stop an activity Example: The ballet master told the dancers that it was time to call it a day. 2. call [something] off Meaning: cancel [something] Example: The picnic was called off because of the rain. 3. call on Meaning: visit Example: We plan to call on the Smith family when we visit Arizona. Meaning: select Example: The teacher called on Juan for an answer to her question. 4. call it quits Meaning: stop an activity, end a relationship Example: Brenda and Eddie called it quits before their second anniversary. 5. call up Meaning: telephone Example: A salesman called me up this morning. Meaning: induct, summon Example: The army called up twenty men from my home town. 6. call the roll Meaning: take attendance Example: The professor stopped calling the roll after two weeks of class. 7. call out Meaning: speak loudly Example: Call out your name when I point at you. Meaning: challenge Example: He called her out on her racist remark.


1. come about Meaning: happen Example: The event you were waiting for has come about. 2. come across Meaning: find unexpectedly Example: Reading a book I came across a photo of my hometown. Meaning: provide services on demand Example: She pressured her manager, but he didn't come across with her raise. 3. come across as Meaning: give the impression of Example: He comes across as a reasonable man, but in fact, he is crazy. 4. come down with [an illness] Meaning: get [an illness] Example: I don't feel well; I think I'm coming down with the flu. 5. come in handy Meaning: prove useful Example: I kept batteries in my flashlight because I know it could come in handy in an emergency. 6. come out Meaning: be published, appear Example: The new issue of the magazine came out last week. Meaning: reveal one's homosexuality Example: His parents were shocked when he came out. Meaning: emerge Example: From our discussion it came out that we all disagreed on every point. 7. come through Meaning: survive Example: She came through her illness at last. 8. come through for Meaning: support through difficulty Example: He really came through for me when my daughter was in the hospital. 9. come up Meaning: be mentioned Example: We were talking about students, and your name came up. Meaning: happen Example: I didn't know what to do because the situation had never come up before.


1. do away with Meaning: dispose of, eliminate, abolish Example: To do away with social injustice was her goal. Meaning: kill Example: The villain decided to do away with his mother. 2. do over Meaning: repeat Example: The only way to correct the mistakes was to do the assignment over. Meaning: redecorate, refurbish Example: It was very frustrating to wait six months to do my apartment over. 3. do without Meaning: give up, forego Example: When my father lost his job, we had to do without many luxuries. 4. have nothing to do with Meaning: shun, avoid Example: The new neighbors are so unfriendly that they will have nothing to do with us. 5. do in Meaning: tire, exhaust Example: After running five miles without stopping, I was done in. Meaning: kill Example: I was so angry that I wanted to do him in, but I didn't.


1. get ahead Meaning: advance, prosper, succeed Example: He studied hard in order to get ahead. 2. get over Meaning: overcome, recover Example: She got over her cold after two weeks. 3. get around Meaning: travel widely, frequently Example: They get around a lot. Meaning: avoid, evade Example: They got around the high prices at the market by growing their own vegetables. 4. get hold of (get ahold of) Meaning: contact Example: I got hold of him by telephone. 5. get out of Meaning: remove from Example: Get him out of here. 6. get up Meaning: arise from a sitting or lying position Example: I get up every day at seven. 7. get after Meaning: criticize Example: He will get after you if you don't do your work well. 8. get by Meaning: pass Example: She was so pregnant that I couldn't get by her in the hall. Meaning: survive Example: Times are hard, but we will get by somehow.


1. give and take Meaning: compromise Example: We hope there will be some give and take at the conference table. 2. give in Meaning: yield, accept a position or viewpoint one had opposed Example: We expected the other side to give in. 3. give out Meaning: cease functioning because of age or deterioration Example: We were afraid that our tires would give out during the trip. 4. give way Meaning: collapse Example: The town was flooded when the dam gave way. Meaning: yield Example: The boss refused to give way to the workers. 5. give up Meaning: surrender Example: The soldiers gave up when they knew they were beaten. Meaning: stop Example: The dancers would not give up practicing even though they were exhausted. 6. given to Meaning: in the habit of Example: Because he was given to fast driving, his license was soon suspended.


1. keep house Meaning: manage a home Example: He found it hard to keep house when his wife left him. 2. keep out of Meaning: stay away from Example: Last year he was warned several times to keep out of trouble. 3. keep [one's] word Meaning: fulfill a promise Example: John has lied to me so often that I will never trust him to keep his word. 4. keep track of Meaning: stay in touch with, find the whereabouts of Example: Unfortunately, I can never keep track of my glasses. 5. keep up Meaning: maintain, preserve Example: We can no longer afford to keep up the stables and the formal garden. 6. keep up with Meaning: stay abreast of Example: The third runner kept up with the second one. 7. keep still Meaning: be quiet Example: He told his little girl to keep still during the performance.


1. let alone Meaning: stop disturbing Example: Tell Charles to let that boy alone. 2. let down Meaning: disappoint, fail Example: Mrs. Smith is so reliable that I know she will never let me down. 3. let go Meaning: release Example: The police told the terrorist to let the hostages go. 4. let off Meaning: permit to leave Example: Ask the bus driver to let you off at Fifth Avenue. Meaning: to excuse Example: They caught me with the stolen items, but the judge let me off. 5. let pass Meaning: overlook, disregard Example: I will let your remarks pass. 6. let up Meaning: pause, decrease in intensity Example: The storm did not let up until the following day. 7. let out Meaning: lengthen, expand Example: He had gotten taller and fatter, so I had to let out his pants.


1. look after Meaning: take care of Example: Someone has to look after the children while we are away. 2. look forward to Meaning: anticipate with pleasure Example: I am really looking forward to meeting you! 3. look into Meaning: investigate Example: Do you want to ask the police to look into the disappearance of your jewelry? 4. look like Meaning: resemble Example: My dog looks like Lassie. Meaning: seem possible or probable Example: It looks like we won't be going on vacation this year. 5. look out for Meaning: be careful of Example: When you go on the hike, look out for bears. Meaning: be responsible for, tend Example: Her big brother looked out for her when she started school. 6. look up to Meaning: admire Example: Her students really look up to her. 7. look over Meaning: examine, inspect Example: Look over the papers before you sign them.


1. make up Meaning: invent Example: We believed his story, but it turned out that he had made the whole thing up. Meaning: reconcile Example: A week later, he tried to make up with his girlfriend by buying her flowers. 2. make a living Meaning: earn money, support oneself Example: While I was a student, I made a living by babysitting. 3. make headway Meaning: progress Example: There is less traffic in the evenings, so we should make better headway later. 4. make up one's mind Meaning: decide Example: I like both choices, so I can't make up my mind. 5. make room for Meaning: clear a space for Example: By pushing our chairs closer together, we were able to make room for another person at our table. 6. make sure Meaning: ascertain Example: Make sure you have your books with you before you leave. 7. make good Meaning: succeed Example: When the movie star was still a little girl, she told her parents that she would make good someday. 8. make good time Meaning: get somewhere quickly Example: The trip only took us an hour because we made good time. 9. make out Meaning: succeed Example: I made out pretty well on that test. Meaning: perceive, read Example: I can't make out the signature on this document. Meaning: engage in kissing and caressing Example: The teenagers were making out in the bushes during the party. 10. make do with [something] Meaning: accept a substitute Example: I wanted steak, but I had to make do with peanut butter.


1. put off Meaning: postpone, delay Example: George put off writing his paper for class until the night before it was due. 2. put on Meaning: dress oneself in Example: Put on your raincoat for the weather looks bad. Meaning: fool [someone] Example: He said he was a famous actor, but he was just putting us on. 3. put out Meaning: annoyed, irritated Example: Because he lost the election, the candidate was put out at his staff. Meaning: have sex with someone Example: She thought she would be more popular if she put out on the first date. 4. put something over on [someone] Meaning: trick [someone] Example: The dishonest merchant tried to put something over on us, but we didn't buy his goods. 5. put up a fight Meaning: resist Example: They may force me to leave this school, but I will put up a fight before I go. 6. put across Meaning: present or deliver convincingly Example: Jennifer got the job because she was able to put her ideas across so convincingly. 7. put down Meaning: insult, degrade Example: Edward was angry because his boss continued to put him down. 8. put away Meaning: store in the proper place Example: Adrienne's father told her to put her toys away.


1. run up Meaning: accumulate Example: Alex ran up a large bill at the bar. 2. run across Meaning: encounter, meet by chance Example: In London, we unexpectedly ran across our friends Beth and Hugh. 3. run out of Meaning: use entirely Example: She came home because she ran out of money. 4. run an errand Meaning: perform a task involving movement or travel Example: I was late because I had to run errands. 5. run low Meaning: become scarce in quantity or supply Example: As we crossed the desert, our water began to run low. 6. run up against Meaning: encounter unfavorably Example: We ran up against a problem with the telephone company. 7. run for Meaning: campaign for Example: Bill Clinton ran for governor successfully before he ran for President. 8. run along Meaning: go Example: I've got to run along now.


1. take a break Meaning: stop an activity briefly, rest Example: I need to take a break between classes. 2. take care of Meaning: be responsible for, handle Example: Does this office take care of financial problems? Meaning: nurse, tend Example: My mother always took care of me when I was sick. 3. take charge of Meaning: be responsible for, direct Example: Sandra decided to take charge of the campaign. 4. take [something or someone] for granted Meaning: assume Example: He took it for granted that I would have enough money to pay the bill. 5. take it easy Meaning: rest, relax Example: Peter has decided to take it easy by not working for the rest of the summer. 6. take [something] out of Meaning: remove from Example: My supervisor asked me to take all the old files out of the file cabinet. 7. take [someone] out Meaning: date [someone] Example: The handsome stranger wants to take Judy out on Saturday night. 8. take up Meaning: begin an activity Example: Would you like to take up a new hobby? Meaning: use, consume Example: I'm sorry to take up so much of your time. 9. take over Meaning: gain control of Example: The angry workers took over the boss's office. 10. take [something] back Meaning: retract Example: I take back all the nasty things I have ever said about you.
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