What’s up? Conceptual metaphors and the teaching of phrasal verbs

“Fundamentally, this guest post by Elaine Hodgson is about concepts – and concepts matter for several reasons. They matter because they make us think about what we do, about why we do what we do the way we do and about what we could do differently. Concepts, and the big ideas embedded in them, also matter because they’re the most basic ingredient for good writing. And I could go on. But what I want to say here is that this thought-provoking post is a joy to read and it may change the way you teach or learn phrasal verbs in English. Are you up for it? ;-)”

Denise Santos
Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Some language features are considered a real challenge for both teachers and learners. In English, for example, phrasal verbs are certainly amongst these challenging features: they are seen as important and, at the same time, almost impossible to be learnt. This probably happens because their meanings are often thought to be arbitrary and sometimes illogical. Being considered arbitrary, it is believed that these verbs cannot exactly be taught, but that they should, most of the time, be learnt by heart. For the regular EFL student, understandably, this can be extremely off-putting, as one cannot be expected to memorise thousands and thousands of different verbs, especially if we consider that new phrasal verbs are constantly being created and being incorporated into the lexis. Would it be possible to facilitate the path to the learning of phrasal verbs, which are an important aspect of the English language? The answer, I believe, is yes, even though it may seem very unusual at first: conceptual metaphors. The teaching of a few conceptual metaphors would probably help students (and teachers) deal with phrasal verbs in a more productive manner.

What are conceptual metaphors?

Traditionally, metaphors are simply considered a purely linguistic strategy, a figure of speech which is used to express ideas which would be difficult or even impossible to express in literal language. Metaphors, in general, have also been associated with literary language as a tool for making language sound more beautiful and poetic. We hardly ever think of metaphors as being part of everyday language, let alone a natural part of human thought and reasoning. However, several researchers have called our attention to the fact that common, everyday language has plenty of metaphors which generally go unnoticed.

Note the expressions: 

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.


Look at how far we’ve come.
We’re at a crossroads.
We’ll just have to go our separate ways.
We can’t turn back now.
I don’t think this relationship is going anywhere.


His pent up anger welled up inside of him.
Bill is getting hot under the collar.
Jim is just blowing off steam.
He was bursting with anger.
She blew up at me.

These are fairly common utterances both in spoken and written language and they would be easily understood both by native people and people whose first language is not English. Why does that happen? Why do we produce utterances like these and understand them without any difficulty? They are all metaphorical expressions, but they would certainly not occur only in poetry or in any kind of literary work, but rather in an oral conversation or in a written message, for example. 

Lakoff & Johnson, who launched the Conceptual Metaphor Theory in 1980, have shown that metaphors are present not solely in language, but in our thoughts and actions, as our conceptual system has a metaphoric nature. According to these researchers, metaphors influence and permeate the way we express ourselves in a language. This means that the expressions mentioned above only make sense because the conceptual metaphors ARGUMENT IS WAR, LOVE IS A JOURNEY and ANGER IS A HEATED FLUID IN A CONTAINER motivate their meanings. In other words, these expressions are possible because in an argument, for example, not only do we talk about arguments in terms of war, but we actually see the person who is arguing with us as our opponent; we defend our point of view and attack the other’s. In the same way, we understand and talk about love as being a pleasant (or an unpleasant) journey. In the case of anger, we experience it as being a fluid inside our body: when the intensity of anger increases, the fluid in the container (our body) rises and, if the pressure of the container becomes too high, this container tends to explode.

There are several conceptual metaphors which are present in any language. Several conceptual metaphors have a physical base, i.e. the human body is the origin of many of these metaphors. They are also culturally motivated. Some are common to different cultures, such as MORE IS UP, which probably has its origin in our sense of verticality and which would lead to expressions such as Prices have been going up recently, and some are present in some cultures only, such as TIME IS MONEY, which leads to expressions such as We are wasting our time here

However, even though they are quite common, metaphors are very often neglected in EFL teaching, with very few exceptions. When they are taught, they occur mainly in literary texts, reinforcing the idea that metaphors are not part of our everyday language, but a rhetorical resource. Could metaphors, and more specifically, conceptual metaphors, help us in the EFL classroom? If so, could they help us in the teaching of phrasal verbs? How could that be done?   

How are phrasal verbs usually taught?

Think of the course book you currently use. How does it approach phrasal verbs? There are usually three different ways in which course books approach these verbs:

  • Phrasal verbs are contextualised with the use of pictures, which can be isolated or occur in a story or sketch;
  • Phrasal verbs have to be matched to their definitions. For example, in a sentence such as I’ve broken up with my girlfriend, the phrasal verb break up would have to be substituted by end a relationship. The opposite, i.e. substituting a definition by a phrasal verb, is also possible;
  • The student is given a series of verbs, usually in a sentence, and they have to supply the correct particle. Sometimes the particles are given (in a wordpool, for example) and the student has to complete the sentence by forming the correct phrasal verb.

In a more meaning-focused approach, phrasal verbs can be presented and practised according to a topic. For example, in the topic family, verbs such as look like, get on with, bring up and grow up would be quite frequent. Another frequent type of exercise is to present a single verb, for example, look, combined with different particles, for example, after, down on, for, and so forth. 

The general feeling, one that you might have experienced as an EFL student, or a teacher, is that phrasal verbs are fairly illogical, as mentioned before, and that their meanings happen by chance. However, research has shown that, far from being arbitrary, phrasal verbs follow certain patterns and when a new combination between a verb and a particle happens, it will fit this pattern. This explains why new phrasal verbs are created and how they quickly become part of the language. 

How can conceptual metaphors help us in the teaching of phrasal verbs?

In general, course books, as we mentioned above, deal with phrasal verbs as self-contained units. Hardly ever do we find exercises in course books which attribute to the particle (adverb or preposition) a role in the meaning of the verbs. More recently, however, EFL materials, such as dictionaries, have been including particle indexes in their appendices, which explain how particles are used in phrasal verbs. Note the examples below:

UPIncrease, complete, approach, reject, collect, etc.
DOWNDecrease, stop, defeat, fail, eat and drink, etc.
ONContinue, connect, hold, progress, begin, focus, etc.
OFFDisconnect, decrease, depart, remove, protect, begin, etc.
OUTRemove, search, appear, produce, increase in size, shape, etc.

Although we believe that attributing meaning to the particles is a huge step in helping learners grasp the meaning of phrasal verbs, it might not be enough. The fact is that memorising the various meanings that particles can assume can prove to be as time consuming and ineffective as trying to memorise the meanings of phrasal verbs. 

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In order to make this process more productive and helpful the systematic teaching and use of conceptual metaphors may prove to be an effective tool. Maybe beginning from the most basic meaning of the particle would help students understand and cater for the more metaphorical meanings of phrasal verbs. In other words, it is probably more effective to begin with phrasal verbs which pose little difficulty for students and then move to the more idiomatic ones. Let’s analyse the case of the particle up, the most common particle in this kind of verb, in the examples below:

Go upWhen I tried to go up the stairs he pushed me aside.
Hang upHoward hangs up his scarf on the hook behind the door. 
Pick upHe stopped to pick up two pebbles.
Run upAnna ran up the hill.
Sit upThe baby was sitting up in the cot.
Stand upThe students stood up when the teacher arrived.
Basic meaning of up: vertical, upwards movement

These are examples of phrasal verbs which students would hardly ever have difficulty dealing with. This happens for two reasons: first, these are fairly common verbs, which occur quite frequently in course books and therefore tend to be more familiar to students. Second, in the case of the verbs above, up has the sense of vertical upwards movement, which is based on the experience of our body with the world. 

Now let’s analyse a few phrasal verbs with more idiomatic meanings and the conceptual metaphors that motivate them. 

Conceptual MetaphorVerbExample
MORE IS UPGo upProfits went up last year.
COMPLETION IS UPTear upShe tore up all the documents.
HAPPY IS UPCheer upHer friends tried to cheer her up.
VISIBLE IS UPLoom upExams are looming up.
SOCIAL STATUS IS UPLook upEverybody looks up to her.

The same principle would apply to phrasal verbs with the particle down, as the examples below show:

Conceptual MetaphorVerbExample
LESS IS DOWNTurn downIf you are feeling hot, turn the heat down.
SICKNESS AND DEATH ARE DOWN Come down withHe came down with the flu.
SAD/BAD IS DOWNPut downMy colleagues keep putting me down.
LOW STATUS IS DOWNLook down onEverybody looks down on her.

My claim here is that, by teaching a few conceptual metaphors, the teacher may be helping the students realise that the meanings of phrasal verbs are not totally arbitrary as may seem to be the case at first sight. This does not mean that their meanings will always be clear if the students know conceptual metaphors, but, based on my experience, this knowledge will certainly ease the path, as they help us mentally organise these verbs in a more logical way.    

To sum up…

  • Go from the known to the unknown – start from the basic meaning of the particle, which is usually easy for the students to understand, and then move to the more metaphorical meanings. This will help students build confidence and deal with phrasal verbs in a more positive way;
  • Do not mystify phrasal verbs – I clearly remember teachers who said it was absolutely impossible to learn phrasal verbs. This kind of comment can have everlasting effects. It took me years to believe that, although this may not be the easiest topic in the world, learning phrasal verbs can be very interesting and motivating. Encourage your students to make notes of phrasal verbs they come across and stimulate speculation rather than looking them up immediately in a dictionary;
  • Be consistent and systematic – as with anything else you want to teach, you cannot expect students to learn something the first time you teach it. Phrasal verbs are no exception. If students have no difficulty in understanding and using the verb get up, for example, this is probably due to the fact that this verb has occurred several times in course books for many years. Try to include phrasal verbs, either formally or informally, in every lesson you teach. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.

Elaine Hodgson has over 30 years’ experience in ELT in different educational settings, both in the public and private sectors. She holds a PhD in Linguistics from the Federal University of Ceará and an MA in Applied Linguistics from the State University Ceará (Brazil), where she developed research on Conceptual Metaphors as a tool for teaching and learning phrasal verbs in a more effective manner. She is a Development Editor at Macmillan Education in London, and a volunteer at EVE (Equal Voices in ELT) and Raise Up!

3 thoughts on “What’s up? Conceptual metaphors and the teaching of phrasal verbs”

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. I agree with the fact that phrasal verbs should not be mystified. As a learner, there’s nothing worse than being told you have to grapple with grammar that so few people have managed to successfully navigate before.

    I wrote my Master’s thesis on teaching phrasal verbs using conceptual metaphors back in 2011. Anecdotally, I have found that this approach to teaching does work, but the results of my quantitative studies were not as overwhelmingly supportive of my hypotheses as I had hoped!


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