Communicating in English is difficult if it’s not your native tongue. There are verbs to conjugate, grammar to master, vocabulary to internalize, and pronunciation to nail. You can hover over books and practice all you want, but it’s a completely different story the first time you communicate with a native speaker. Suddenly you realize that all your preparation hasn’t quite readied you for the way English is spoken by native speakers. This is especially compounded when you are communicating across continents. The words are all the same, but somehow the meaning is quite different.
Say for example, you could hear a native speaker say, “I’m fed up with this traffic.” You might say to yourself, “I know fed is the past tense of feed. Up? What is going up? How is he up? How can a person feed traffic?” (Fed up actually means to be frustrated with a situation.) It’s at that moment you realize the need for a working knowledge of phrasal verbs, idioms, and slang.
Let me quickly explain the meanings and differences among phrasal verbs, idioms, and slang.
What is a phrasal verb?
A phrasal verb is a verb that is composed of two parts: the verb and the particle (which consists of one or more preposition). When these two parts come together, they generally have a different meaning than the parts have individually. That means that phrasal verbs do not usually have literal meanings. Examples of phrasal verbs include take on, leave out, write up, turn off, bring about, and listen in. Notice how there is a base verb coupled with a preposition.
Remember that these phrasal verbs do not usually have literal meanings. Non-native speakers will have to learn the meaning of these phrasal verbs similar to learning new vocabulary words. For an excellent way to learn more about phrasal verbs, you can watch my video playlist of phrasal verb meanings.
Phrasal Verb Examples
ask around = ask many people the same question
bring up = start talking about something
call back = return a phone call
catch up = get to the same point as someone else
do away with = throw away, discard
get up = stand, get out of bed
run out = have none left
take back = return an item
What is an idiom?
Like phrasal verbs, idioms are composed of multiple words that have a different meanings than the sum of the individual words. The difference is that idioms are not simply verbs + prepositions. They can take many forms. Idioms have non-literal meanings, and you can learn more about idioms with this playlist of idiom meanings.
an arm and a leg = very costly
at the drop of a hat = instantly
bite off more than you can chew = take on a task that is too big to complete
cut corners = when something is done badly to save money
get it = understand something
hit the road = to leave
shoot the breeze = make relaxed, casual conversation (see video)
what for? = why?
I really enjoy idioms so much that I even created a course you can take online!
What is slang?
Slang is a particularly informal kind of language. It’s when we use a standard word or phrase in a non-standard way. Slang can be a single word, or it can be a group of words used together. Slang is generally not used in formal settings. Instead, it is reserved for informal settings. This means that you should generally be hesitant to use most slang in the workplace.
awesome = great, wonderful, amazing
chicken = a cowardly person
chill = relax
fam = family
guts = courage
jack = to steal
plastic = credit card
sick = cool, awesome
Don’t forget that phrasal verbs, idioms, and slang are an important part of communicating with native English speakers. Get the guts to bring up these new expressions once you really get it.
Andrea is the founder of StudyWithAndrea.com and has taught more than 1,000,000 students from 180 countries. Andrea is a proven leader in online English teaching and is driven by her passion to help you speak English clearly. You can study with Andrea at the following places:
English with Andrea podcast
Clear English Pronunciation course
The Study With Andrea YouTube channel