Phrasal Verbs — The Good News (The Pronunciation)

The pronunciation pattern of phrasal verbs is less complicated than the grammar. Phrasal verbs have a stable, predictable stress pattern, which is: the 2nd word gets the stress. That means that the 2nd part is said more strongly (or, it sounds louder, longer and higher).

Some examples:
call OFF
pass aWAY
run INto
make UP
hang ON to
look UP to
drop IN on

This stress pattern holds true whether the phrasal verb is un-separated, or when separated by just one or by several words.
They called OFF the meeting.
They called it OFF.
They called all of the remaining sessions OFF.

Listening for the stress can help you distinguish between a normal preposition and a phrasal verb. Prepositions are normally weak, unstressed words in a sentence, but as part of a phrasal verb, they are stressed clearly. The following two sentences show the difference.

We turned on the wrong street.
In this sentence “on” is a preposition. It is pronounced weakly and can be hard to hear because prepositions are not normally stressed.

We turned on all the lights.
In this sentence “on” is part of a phrasal verb. It is strong and easy to hear because the second word of phrasal verbs do receive stress.

When speaking it is important to say phrasal verb stress correctly because you could accidentally say something you didn’t intend. Let’s use the sentence “I ran into the store” for an example. The meaning will be different if you change the stress pattern.

“Into” as a preposition
As a preposition, “into” should be unstressed, and the words “ran” and “store” are both strongly stressed, which gives: I ran into the store. You would say it this way if you were in a hurry or if you wanted to get out of the rain.

“Into” as part of a phrasal verb
As part of a phrasal verb, “into” should be stressed, making “into” and “store” the two strongest words in the sentence. That would give: I ran into the store. Now, I hope that you don’t ever need to say it that way, because that would mean that you crashed — if you walked without looking where you were going, or if you had a driving accident and hit the store with a car.

So, the good news is, knowing about the stress pattern of phrasal verbs can help you improve your pronunciation, and also help you with figuring out a little bit of grammar.

(There are so many phrasal verbs in English that it might help to study them a bit — here are some books that I would recommend.)


Phrasal Verbs — The Bad News (The Grammar)

The topic of phrasal verbs includes a little grammar and a little pronunciation. Since the grammar part is more complicated than the pronunciation part, this introduction to phrasal verbs covers the “bad news”.

First, what is a phrasal verb?
In order to speak in English, it is important to know about phrasal verbs. They are used very frequently in spoken English — much more than in written English — and so students who have studied English mostly through reading and writing are sometimes not be aware of them.

Phrasal verbs are also sometimes called two-word verbs or three-word verbs, because they use two or three parts to make up one verb. In a two-word verb, the first part is a basic verb, and the second part looks like a preposition. Here are some examples:

“pass away” which means: to die. For example: His grandfather passed away last year.
“make up” means: to invent. She had to make up a story for drama class.
“call off” means: to cancel. The meeting was called off at the last minute.
“run into” means: to meet by chance. I ran into an old friend last week.

For three-word verbs the third part also looks like a preposition.
“hang on to” means: to keep. I think I’ll hang on to this, it might be useful later.
“look up to” means: to respect or admire. It’s hard to look up to someone who is not honest.
“drop in on” means: to make an unexpected visit. Let’s drop in on Joe to see if he wants to join us.

Here are some important things to know about the grammar of phrasal verbs.

1. Are they separable or non-separable?
Some phrasal verbs can be separated and some cannot. If they are separable, other words can be in between the two parts.

An example of a separable phrasal verb is “call off”. It can be used together or separated.
They called off the meeting.
They called the meeting off.

But if a pronoun is used in place of the noun, then the phrasal verb must be separated.
They called it off.
It is not correct to say: ! They called off it.

An example of a non-separable phrasal verb is “run into”.
I ran into an old friend.
It is not correct to say: ! I ran an old friend into.

2. Some phrasal verbs have more than one meaning.

“make up” can mean…
invent: She had to make up a story for drama class.
compensate: We can make up the lost time if we hurry.
reconcile: They were angry with each other all day, but finally decided to make up.

Phrasal verbs can be confusing because there are thousands of them, some have several meanings, some are separable, and some are not. The bad news is that you can’t easily predict which ones are separable and which are non-separable. So you need to be aware of them, and watch out for them. They are used all the time in spoken English.

(Note: There are workbooks and dictionaries available just for phrasal verbs — here are a few that I would recommend.)

Boss or bus?

Do those two words sound the same to you? If so, you’re not alone. Many students of English have trouble with the difference between Short-o and Short-u.

These two vowel sounds are similar in some ways, but in English they are definitely different. The difference between them may seem small to the ear of a student of English, but the difference in the meaning is big. There are many words that depend on that small difference in the sound.

Here is a fairly short list of examples:
Short-o / Short-u
long / lung
cop / cup
dock / duck
not & knot / nut
dog / dug
doll / dull
lost / lust
got / gut
sock / suck
gone / gun
bomb / bum
talk / tuck
crossed / crust
lock / luck
caught & cot / cut
song / sung
collar / color
hot / hut
cost / cussed
rob / rub

So, what is the difference between Short-o and Short-u?

First, the similarities. They might seem the same to your ear because:
— they are both made with a relaxed tongue,
— they are both in the central part of the mouth (not in the front or the back),
— and they are both made without rounding the lips.

The difference is:
— how high or low the tongue is.

Short-u is in the middle center of the mouth — this is the same as Schwa (see “The Sound of “Schwa”) — the tongue is neither up high nor down low.  But for Short-o, the tongue needs to be lower, which means that the mouth needs to be more open.

Try it!
Let’s use the words “fun” and “fawn”. Start with the word “fun”. This word needs Short-u, so the tongue should be relaxed in the middle of the mouth (not high, not low, not front, not back), and do not round your lips: fun.

Now, the next word is almost the same, but the mouth needs to be more open so that the tongue can go down lower: fawn.

That is the difference between “bus” and “boss”.

One other reason that these two sounds might seem confusing is that the Letter “O” sometimes borrows the Short-u sound. For example, the word “love” uses Short-u rather than Long-O or Short-o. There are several frequently used words that do this, such as: “nothing”, “some” and “of”. (See more examples in “The Sounds of O” and in “What is Schwa?”)  In addition, there are a few words that look like they should sound the same, but use different vowel sounds: the word “gone” uses Short-o, but “done” and “none” use Short-u.

(Try the tongue twister “Fuzzy Wuzzy” for a fun way to practice the Short-u sound)

(Take the video course: Boss or Bus? Short-o vs. Short-u)

What is Schwa?

Schwa is the name for the most frequently used vowel sound in English. It is used for Short-u, the alternate Short-o, and reduced vowels.

The Short-u sound is in many words that are spelled with a “U”, such as: fun, up, just, much, under, bug, shut, must, such, us, but, luck, mud, number, rush, judge, truck, deduct.

Alternate Short-o
The letter “O” often borrows the Short-u sound, especially in frequently used words. For example: love, month, some, done, from, of, son, front, among, other, nothing, none, wonder, does, mother, come.

Reduced vowels
Schwa is the sound that any vowel letter can take in an unstressed (or weak) syllable.

“A” — In the word “ago”, the stress is on the 2nd syllable, so the letter “A” is in the weak or unstressed syllable. So instead of sounding like Long-A or Short-a, it becomes schwa.

“E” — In the word “system” the stress is on the 1st syllable, so the letter “E” sounds like schwa. In the word “before” the 2nd syllable is stressed, so the “E” in the 1st syllable becomes schwa.

“I” — In the word “pencil” the 1st syllable is stressed, leaving the “I” in the unstressed syllable, so it sounds like schwa.

“O” — In the word “second” the stress is on the 1st syllable, so the letter “O” takes the schwa sound.

It would be hard to say very much in English without using the schwa sound. The good news is that it is the easiest vowel sound to make! If you’re not sure how to say it, The Sound of Schwa gives an explanation.

The Sound of Schwa

The schwa sound is the most frequently occurring vowel sound in English. The good news is that it is also the easiest vowel sound to make.

Tongue position
To make schwa, the tongue does not have to go up or down, or forward, or back. It stays right in the middle.

Tongue tension
The tongue should not be tense for schwa. Keep it completely relaxed in the middle of the mouth.

Try it!
Keeping your tongue relaxed in the center of your mouth, you just need to open your mouth a little bit and make a sound: uh.

Schwa is so easy that you could say it in your sleep. Imagine that you are sleeping, with your mouth open just a little bit, and make a sound – “uh”.

A student once said that it would be the sound you made if you were unexpectedly punched in the stomach. “Uh!” But of course, you wouldn’t be quite so relaxed!

So now you know how to make the most frequently used vowel sound in English.