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Grouping by Concept - ON

It's common knowledge that categorizing new vocabulary, or placing them in groups, enhances memory retention. The most popular ways to categorize phrasal verbs are by root verb (come in, come out, come on, come over) and by situation or context. For example, these verbs: wake up, get up, put on (clothes), come down, eat up, clean up, and go out, could all be grouped in "daily routine). But it's a little difficult to create a comprehensive list of root verbs and contexts, unless you want to write a dictionary.

A new and well-researched way to group phrasal verbs is according to particle - the preposition or adverb thingy that attaches to a verb (usually verb of motion) and adds spatial orientation.

Think about it: How many verbs of motion are in the English language?...I don't know

How many situations can occur that use phrasal verbs?....a lot.

How many particles attach to phrasal verbs? Here's a list of 18:


up, down; in, out; on, off; back, to; away; after; under (below), over; across; along; about/around; through; apart, together


This list came from Ryan Spring's (2018) research on creating a particle list. He listed 17 - I added "to" because it often combines with other particles, as in "Go on to the kitchen" and "Go up to the door and knock."

Categorizing by particle makes sense. Research shows that the majority of the meaning in a phrasal verb lies in the particle. Side (1990) showed that when a synonym is created, it is usually the root word that changes - not the particle.

put on, throw on, toss on, slip on = add an item of clothing to your body

throw up, hack up, toss up = vomit

get in, jump in, step in, hop in, go in = enter

Sometimes all you need is the particle/preposition/adverb/whatever for meaning:

Whew, it's on! = the jacket fits

"In! In!" = Hurry up and get inside, people!

You're on in 5 minutes = Get ready to start/move to the stage

I'm out = I've lost and I'm done with the game

I'm off at noon = I can leave work at noon.

But there is one caveat: Each of these particles has more than one meaning. Look at my previous examples: "It's on," and "You're on in 5 minutes." ON can mean physically touching your body, or, in the second example, moving to start a show, game, competition. So, instead of grouping according to particle, let's break the groups down further. Let's break them down according to CONCEPT.

In this video (and please excuse me, I am a MUCH better writer than performer!) you'll see me present different concepts for the particle ON represented in visual images or image-schemas.

It's not a perfect science - these are drawings I came up with, starting with the core meaning of ON (CONTACT with a surface). I analyzed the meanings of a variety of phrasal verbs, sorted them, made connections, and drew what I thought those connections meant. You can do the same with your students: Have them gather phrasal verbs. Sort them according to particle. As a class, see if you can find similarities in meaning, and group the verbs according to these similarities. Then have your students draw or create an image that represents their understanding of how the verbs are interrelated and connected to the core meaning of ON. This is called "Semantic Mapping" - more on this later!

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