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What Are Phrasal Expressions?

What Are Phrasal Expressions?
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When you learn a new language, you must learn the meaning of individual words.

But, there is another area that you should pay attention to: expressions, or groups of words.

Some expressions are especially useful whether you want to improve your speaking, listening, reading or writing skills.

These expressions are common in everyday speech, newspaper writing and academic writing. What are these expressions?

In this week’s Everyday Grammar, we will explore phrasal expressions.

Phrasal expressions

In recent Everyday Grammar stories, we explored phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs are groups of words that have a verb and one or more short words. Together, these words have an idiomatic meaning – a meaning that differs from what the individual words suggest. For example, the phrasal verb "hang out" means to relax, or enjoy some time without any planned activity. You can hang out alone or with others.

There are also phrasal expressions – groups of words that work together to take on a meaning that is different from what the individual words suggest.

Consider this example: the words “there is.” This is a phrasal expression. This group of words appears together as a unit. But if you try to think about each word, the meaning might be difficult to understand. Consider this:

“There is a bug in my tea!”

The word “there” takes the subject position in the sentence, but it does not really give any meaning. It is what grammar experts call an expletive. Together, the words “there” and “is” make a kind of expression – “there is.”

Without “there is,” the sentence would be:

“A bug is in my tea!”

Do not fear. You do not need to remember the grammar that we just talked about. What is important is that you understand that English has groups of words that act together. These groups of words are generally formulaic, meaning set, fixed and commonly used.

More examples

Eli Hinkel is a language expert. She writes that formulaic expressions “have to be used and learned as whole units.”

Hinkel gives many examples, such as “you are welcome,” “who knows?” “how are you?” and “by the way.”

Let’s consider “by the way.” If you think about the words individually, you might have a difficult time understanding this phrasal expression.

When someone says “by the way” they mean they are about to propose a new, and perhaps less important idea, to a conversation. So, you might hear an American say the following at the end of a business meeting:

“Thanks, John. By the way, could you send me those budget estimates when you get a chance?”

Norbert Schmitt and Ron Martinez published a report in the Journal of Applied Linguistics about some of the most common phrasal expressions in the British National Corpus, a 100 million word collection of written and spoken language.

They suggest that some of the more common phrasal expressions include there is, there are, such as, of course, a few, at least, I mean, you know, a bit, sort of, and in order to.

If you listen to everyday speech, you will hear these words often. Many of them are common in writing, too.

Closing thoughts

Today we explored phrasal expressions – groups of words that mean something different from what you might expect. The good news is this: these expressions are common, useful and not too difficult to learn. But they do require careful study and practice in using them!

Ashley, by the way, Schmitt and Martinez also published a list of common phrasal expressions along with examples. It might help our listeners and readers learn common phrasal expressions.

That’s right! I almost forgot! You can find it, along with other useful information, at Schmitt’s vocabulary resource page.

And that’s Everyday Grammar.

I’m Ashley Thompson.

And I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

phrasal – adj. grammar: of, relating to, or consisting of a phrase or phrases

unit -- n. a single thing, person, or group that is a part of something larger​

expletive – n. a word or phrase that fills out (or takes a slot) in a sentence without adding to the meaning

conversation – n. a talk involving two people or a small group of people

practice – v. to do something again and again in order to become better at it