Phrasal verbs: their meaning

Recall that a phrasal verb has a verb and a particle. Let's focus on the verb. There is a list of commonly used verbs. These are verbs that a 10-year-old pupil can recite without a thought. Let's have a quick revision and take a look:
break, bring, call, come, cut, get, give, go, keep, knock,
look, make, pass, pick, pull, put, run, set, take, turn.

These verbs involve action or motion. For example, to look is to use your eyes to see the things around your. But an important point we need to get when learning phrasal verbs is that there is a clear distinction between concrete and abstract meanings of a verb. In other words, you should be able to differentiate the abstract meaning from the concrete one when interpreting phrasal verbs. Let's take a look at the following examples:

Phrasal verb Concrete meaning Abstract meaning
Look backSomeone called my name. I looked back and saw my mother.Looking back on his life, he realises that there are still many things he wants to do.
Give inI successfully gave my term paper in before the deadline.I finally gave in because I felt too tired after training for three hours.

And yes, there could be misunderstanding if the context of the conversation is not made clear. So in formal settings, instead of phrasal verbs, their own precise, single-verb synonym would be used. For instance, if in a business setting, phrasal verbs with a sense of casual language should be avoided. I give some examples below. When you learn a new phrasal verb and its synonym, you can take heed of the discrepancy in terms of their formality.

Phrasal verbSynonym
Put off somethingPostpone something
Take something offRemove something
Turn upArrive

Are you ready for some grammar exercises? Click here to learn more.

The basics of phrasal verbs

In English traditional grammar, phrasal verbs are verbs which consist of a verb and a particle. We use the word "particle" to indicate words you already know as prepositions or adverbs. These particles come from different grammatical categories. Together with the very, the combination forms a single unit.

Some of the commonly used phrasal verb particles are:
about, around, at, away, back, down, for, in, into, off, on, out, over, through, to, up.

Grammar patterns
There are some noticeable grammar patterns of phrasal verb. I try to list them out using a table.
Grammar pattern Verb Particle Observation Example
eat out eat out without object We are too tired to cook so we decided to eat out.
bring something back bring back non-human object The video brings back some sad memories
ask somebody out ask out human object Tomorrow is holiday. I will ask Katie out.
look after somebody or something look after human or non-human object I will look after the cat when you are on leave.
ring somebody back ring back object before the particle My boss will ring me back soon.
look after somebody or something look after object after the particle Can you look after
drop somebody off or drop off somebody drop off object before or after the particle I dropped her off at her house.

Learning tips
After reading the table, my learning tip is that, apart from the verb and the particle, you need to note the nature of the object and its position. It may take some time. But the more time you invest in memorising the phrasal verbs, the more knowledge you will gain.

Are you ready for some grammar exercises? Click here to learn more.


Phrasebank: Good or bad?

All of us have to engage with formal writing in our daily life. I think that these are some words or phrases which are frequently used in formal writing. They are associated with a sense of formality which modulates the tone of writing. It is a highly valued big business. You may notice some of such words and phrases in your profession or way of life. Sometimes, stock phrases are good for identifying with a certain group of people belonging to a profession, functioning as labels for describing the properties of their duties. Having some phrases at your disposal is a great insurance against unexpected situations. 

But using stock phrases may have undesirable consequences. While we depend on stock phrases to some extent, we have to be careful not to abuse words and stock phrases. We can be "less wrong" if well-established stock phrases are used in formal writing until we start to sound repetitive and dull. If used too frequently, readers can be distracted from the key messages in the writing. Writers applying for funding for academic research should pay attention to this point. Anyways, we have to diversify the ways we convey our messages. Learning more useful phrases is always a wise investment.

I have located a useful resource called Academic Phrasebank, which was compiled by Dr. John Morley in 2014. If you want a lot of useful phrases for free, please click here.


What to do if I want to feature figures from another paper in my writing?

Some students want to borrow figures or tables from existing research and use in their own paper or thesis. But very they forget giving the information a proper citation. This may expose them to the danger of committing plagiarism which can be a serious offence. Imagine that you want borrow money from a bank and start your own business. But your poor loan record and exhausted credit card limits prevent your business plan. This is the same in the academia. Once you committed plagiarism, your future success in academic research will be hindered.

For example, in this study by Alvares et al. (2013), there is a figure featuring a map of climate classification of Brazil which is a direct copy-and-paste from a classic study.

If you want to write your thesis or paper in a similar manner, be sure to cite the materials in the caption of the tables and figures. Finally, you can see that the material cited in the caption of the figure appears in the reference list of the paper. To demonstrate this good practice, I include the study here as a reference.

Alvares, C. A., Stape, J. L., Sentelhas, P. C., de Moraes, G., Leonardo, J., & Sparovek, G. (2013). Köppen's climate classification map for Brazil. Meteorologische Zeitschrift, 22(6), 711-728.

Five tips for writing a literature review

In a literature review, one should examine existing information about a specific topic or research field. The author provides fundamental knowledge and the current state of research to the readers. Through the literature review, you can justify your own research by spotting the present knowledge gaps. The process of finding out a research gap is comparable to the discovery of a gold mine. You should read on to learn the tips on writing a solid literature review!

Many students may misunderstand the purpose of literature review. A literature review is not a collection of a large amount of information. But you need to summarise and interpret the results (sometimes known as findings) of past research, and report the main points succinctly. Readers should have a grasp of the basic knowledge of the research field after reading your literature review. You need to demonstrate the unique need of future research, in fact, your own research.

No standard format exists for literature review. There is no absolute template for literature review. Still, there are some points you can bear in mind when constructing your literature review.
  • Write Introduction and Conclusion. Very often, a literature review is the first part of a research paper or thesis. Still, the literature review is a stand-alone part of a longer piece of writing. Therefore, provide background information, such as the pioneering studies in the research field in the Introduction Section. Also, give a proper ending to the literature review by stressing the justifications of future research which is often your research.
  • Use paraphrasing. I have read a literature review in which a student directly quoted research studies in exact wordings. But this is a bad practice. You should paraphrase and cite. A literature review shows your understanding of a topic. You are expected to be familiar with a topic and express the related ideas in your own words. You should be confident that readers will gain some understanding of the topic when they read your words.
  • Use thematic organisation of ideas. A literature review often contains many, many sources of information. Some students may simply do paragraphing based on authors. For example, I have seen literature review in which one paragraph summarises the main points of one study. This practice destroys the cohesiveness of the review. Instead, students can sort the information into different groups or themes. A good organisation helps readers understand the layers of ideas.
  • Use headings and sub-headings as signposts. A well-written literature review may have more than a thousand words. In such a long piece of writing, readers expect the author to pack information into groups which are indicated using concise, descriptive terms. Well-placed headings and sub-headings serve as a visual break for readers. Headings can also separate different themes and layers or hierarchies of thoughts.
  • Use linguistic devices. A literature review can be wordy and packed with rich information. You need to use different linguistic devices to signal transition, comparison, shift in ideas and so on. You can break the lengthy text into compact parts that are more readable to the readers. You may look for vocab banks to improve your choice of linguistic devices.