Phrasal verbs: bridging the communication gap.


There are pickup trucks, pick-up bars, and dropped items that need to be picked up. When your friends are depressed, you take them to dinner to pick up their spirits. Then, at the end of the meal, you say, “My treat—I’ll pick up the check this time.” And before a storm, you may notice the wind picking up.

As a native English speaker, you naturally pick up (there it is again!) on the nuances in meaning for each use of “pick up” above. But for the rest of the planet’s population, constructions like these—called phrasal verbs—are among the greatest obstacles to mastering English as a second language.

That’s something to bear in mind if you’re doing business with companies abroad or serving customers here at home who aren’t native English speakers, because phrasal verbs can drive some ESL learners to the brink of a psychological breakdown. Which is not to be confused with a statistical or mechanical breakdown. Nor the tendency of sentimental people to break down in tears when they watch a sad movie. Not to mention the way permissive parents break down and give in to their children’s demands.

“Give in” is another phrasal verb, by the way. As is “give out.” Pity the poor ESL teacher who has to explain this sentence to a non-native English learner: “At the 24th mile, the marathoner felt his knee give out, and he had to give in and quit the race.”

If you know someone who’s learning English and struggling with these pesky constructions, these resources might help. There’s a Cambridge University Press app called The Phrasal Verbs Machine that’s available for iPhones and Androids. Another good resource is Purdue University’s OWL (Online Writing Lab) site, which offers this phrasal verb overview.

Beyond that, there’s not much we can do about the existence of phrasal verbs. Our funny little language is riddled with them, and we understand them because…well, because we just do. But we can watch our use of them when doing business with people who don’t comprehend them as easily. By adding a component of cultural awareness to our communication with ESL speakers, we can add a component of profitability to our business.

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