Phrasal verbs are very common in everyday spoken English – and many students ask me about the definitions of phrasal verbs they’ve heard in conversations, TV shows, or movies. Today I’m going to explain the meanings and uses of five phrasal verbs that you might not know yet.
One student read the phrase “square away the paperwork” in a newspaper article, and was wondering what it meant. First of all, the word “paperwork” refers to forms, applications, contracts and other documents. And to square away means to finish something – we usually use it for minor tasks, not huge projects or goals. For example, before you go on vacation, you might have a few things to square away at work – you handle and finish those tasks before traveling.
What’s one thing you need to square away at home, work, or school?
Another student was watching a movie and heard a boss tell his employees that everyone needed to step up. What does this phrasal verb mean? In general, step up can mean to increase – for example, a charity that needs more donations might step up its fundraising efforts. But when we talk about a person stepping up, it means the person improves their performance and/or takes on more responsibility. If the mother of three children is sick, the father will have to step up and do more things around the house.
Describe a time you have stepped up or seen someone else step up.
Next we have the expression space out. A student heard someone apologize for “spacing out” for a moment. If you space out, it means you are temporarily distracted and not focused on the present. Someone who is spacing out isn’t paying attention to things around them – they might appear to be lost in thought, or staring at nothing in particular – and you might need to call their name or touch them in order to bring their attention back to the current task or conversation.
Have you ever spaced out or seen someone else space out?
Another student heard a news commentator say that a politician would wait for a scandal to blow over. This phrasal verb refers to when something intense and negative – usually a scandal, crisis, argument, etc. – eventually passes and gets forgotten by most people.
What was a big news event in your country that has now blown over?
Finally we have the phrasal verb swear off – a student saw a character in a TV show say that she’d “sworn off drinking a long time ago.” This phrasal verb means resolve not to do something or use something anymore. So the line from the TV show means she had resolved to stop consuming alcohol a long time in the past.
What’s something you’ve sworn off?