Translation Challenges with Phrasal Verbs

July 06, 2011

Phrasal verbs are so common in informal English speech that they are used almost unconsciously. In fact, many of us who frequently use phrasal verbs are unaware of just exactly what they are!

*Unfortunately, phrasal verbs tend to have a negative impact on language translation, as the meaning of two or three words must be translated to a single verb which may have a very different tone or nuance than the combined words. This blog focuses on just one of the many ways that source English sentence structure can affect the quality of a translation project.

Phrasal verb defined

A phrasal verb is a combination of a verb and a preposition, a verb and an adverb, or a verb with both an adverb and a preposition. Any of these combinations are not only part of the syntax of the sentence, but are considered a complete semantic unit as well. Phrasal verbs are sometimes also referred to as 'compound verb', 'verb-adverb combination', or 'verb-particle construction (VPC.)'

Phrasal verbs are particularly common in the English language and a phrasal verb often has a meaning which is quite different from the original verb. The idiomatic meaning allows a phrasal verb to be replaced with a single word verb. For instance, the phrasal verb "find out" can be replaced with "discover" or "determine," as seen below:

  • Phrasal Verb: Find out the meaning of the error message.
  • Single Verb: Determine the meaning of the error message.

Phrasal verbs are commonly used in informal English speech, to avoid sounding formal or pretentious. Thus the phrase "let's get together in the social hall after Church" sounds more inviting amongst friends than "let us congregate in the social hall after Church."

How the meaning of a phrasal verb is determined

The phrasal verb is not considered as two parts but as one lexical unit. In most cases, the meaning of the combined words cannot be determined from the meaning of the verb or the adverb in isolation. A characteristic of the phrasal verb is that the individual verb rarely carries the same meaning when the adverb or preposition has been deleted or replaced by another one.

For example:

  • It is not easy to bring up children nowadays.
  • It is not easy to bring children nowadays.

To bring children clearly does not have the same meaning as to bring up children and therefore the verb "bring" needs the adverb "up" in order to convey the meaning "raise children." According to this example, bring up is a phrasal verb.

How phrasal verbs affect translation

*Difficulties arise when English-to-Spanish translators at your translation company need to translate phrasal verbs. These verb combinations are a clear example of "Nil Equivalence", given that they only exist in English. The most common errors made by Spanish translators when translating phrasal verbs are semantic errors, which reflect an incomplete understanding of the meaning of phrasal verbs. Some Spanish language translators tend to confuse phrasal verbs and single-word verbs whose meanings are related. On the other hand, when Spanish linguists translate into English, they generally avoid phrasal verbs.

In view of all the difficulties that phrasal verbs entail, content creators would do well to make a list of over-used phrasal verbs and avoid their usage in technical documentation. Obviously, phrasal verbs will continue to be used in source English for persuasive marketing literature which often uses a more informal tone to make the message more inviting. During Spanish translation, phrasal verbs should be dealt with in light of their syntax and context, not in isolation.

Replacing phrasal verbs with a single verb

The chart below shows some examples of how a phrasal verb can be replaced with a single verb that has obvious meaning during the translation process.

Phrasal verb Intended Meaning Example Alternate wording for phrasal verb
fill out complete a form Fill out the rebate form and mail it to customer service. Complete the rebate form and mail it to customer service.
look up search in a list or reference Look up the error message meaning in Appendix A. Consult Appendix A for the error message meaning.
make up invent a story or lie He tended to make up statistics. He tended to invent statistics.
take down make a written note Please take down the key points of each presentation Please note the key points of each presentation.

Useful research on phrasal verbs

Since phrasal verbs do not exist in Spanish, translators should be made aware of that and should try to become familiar with them by reading about the subject in grammar books and specialized dictionaries of phrasal verbs.

The references list below helped me "find out" more and more about phrasal verbs. If these word combinations still present a challenge for you, "go ahead" and review these materials as well; I'm sure you will "figure it out!"


  • Biber, D., Conrad, S., & Leech, G. (2002) Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited
  • Celce-Murcia, M. & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999) The Grammar Book. Boston: Heinle & Heinle
  • Darwin, C. & Gray, L. (1999). Going After a Phrasal Verb: An Alternative Approach to Classification. TESOL Quarterly.Vol. 33, Nº 1, Spring 1999
  • Hatim, B. (2001) Teaching and Researching: Translation. Applied Linguistics in Action Series. Edited by Christopher N Candlin & David R Hall: Longman

Further resources on Spanish translation and localization

You may find two of our previous blogs on Spanish translation challenges to be of interest:

Globalization Partners International has created a more extensive overview of website globalization for U.S. Hispanic consumers in two white papers: Website Globalization and E-Business U.S. Hispanic Market and Website Globalization and E-Business U.S. Hispanic Market - In Depth are available in PDF format via a free download. You may contact GPI at or at 866-272-5874 with your specific questions about the U.S. Hispanic market and your project goals. You may also request a complimentary Translation quote for your project as well.

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  • cudOn Jul 07, cud said:
    Excellent post. Living in Spain, I can attest to the problems people here have with phrasal verbs. They straddle an interesting threshold between vernacular and formal lexicon. For example, British English has a different set of phrasal verbs than American English. What *does* it mean to catch out a person, anyway? That's hard enough for an American... Imagine a Spanish translator.

    I wonder if there's such a thing as a phrasal verb dictionary out there. Maybe one could build a phrasal verb checker that a translator could run over a text to get a listing of instances and definitions...
  • CarolinaOn Jul 07, Carolina said:
    Thank you for your comment cud; I am glad that you benefited from the blog.
    Actually there are several phrasal verb dictionaries in print. You can go to, choose books as a category and search for Phrasal Verb Dictionary. I hope this helps. Carolina
  • cudOn Jul 07, cud said:
    Hi Carolina... Actually, I'm interested in a digital dictionary that could be automatically run over a file to identify phrasal verbs and list their definitions. This could be a good translation tool... You get a new file, run the PV checker, and that solves your problem... Or at least it brings the answers right to you and it identifies a specific category of problem in the text. I suspect I could create such a tool if I had the source data (and rights to it).
  • Deb CarrOn Jul 07, Deb Carr said:
    As a former teacher, I can understand the difficulties prevalent in today's use of the English language. These "phrasal verbs" were once considered colloquialisms, not to be used on formal speaking. However, the lowering of educational standards has allowed these phrases to become accepted parts of our language. Not long ago, my niece was taught that sox was an acceptable spelling for socks. Just two weeks ago, I received a corporate emails containing this message: "my bad, the position has been put on hold". "MY BAD"? As an acceptable business message? I think not. Had I used phrases like that one, I would have been fired years ago. Perhaps we should all return to proper English, so the rest of the world has a better chance of understanding our message.
  • Maxwell HoffmannOn Jul 07, Maxwell Hoffmann said:
    Deb, thanks for your insights on the declining use of good grammar in English. As a ray of hope for younger English speakers, you may want to follow @grammargirl on Twitter; she has made proper grammar her mission in life and has written an excellent and engaging book on the subject.

    Few people remember the huge controversy over a Madison Avenue jingle, "Winston tastes good *like* a cigarette should." Proper grammar would not allow "like" as a conjunction, the correct phrase should have been "Winston tastes good *as* a cigarette should." The jingle was introduced in 1954; Walter Cronkite refused to repeat the jingle on TV. Seven years later, in 1961, the Merriam-Webster New International Dictionary refused to condemn the use of "like" as a conjunction, and cited "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" as an example of popular colloquial use. (see Wikipedia article:

    It goes to show how quickly improper grammar or spelling becomes acceptable as it spreads through popular use. (The improper use of a possessive apostrophe in decades, like "the 1960's" comes to mind.)
    Agreed! The man in the street would be incapable of classifying a Phrasal Verb [PV] construction as such but, as a native speaker, would use PVs competently. (Ahem! I have noted many “incompetent” uses of PVs by native speakers. I could wax lyrical!) We teachers and translators are aware of their grammatical classification just as we are aware of conjunctions, prepositions and so on. Carolina is quite right about PV dictionaries. In fact, they have been around for a very long time. If you are in this business, you cannot have failed to notice that PVs are given excellent coverage in most up-to-date bilingual dictionaries. By the way, here in London, Aeolus is in charge of the weather.
  • CarolinaOn Jul 11, Carolina said:
    Thank you for your comments Deb and Phil; I am glad that you enjoyed the blog. I like Ph Vs so much but they of course represent a real challenge to me as a native Spanish speaker and translator. FYI, the Longman Dictionary of Phrasal verbs has been one of my best friend since I was at University in Argentina, you can check it out ;)
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Daniela has over 16 years' experience in the translation, localization and language instruction professions. She holds a degree in Sworn, Literary, Technical, and Scientific Translation from the Instituto Nacional de Enseñanza Superior Olga Cossettini in Rosario, Argentina. Starting her career as a translator for English-Spanish/Spanish-English in 1990 over the years she has worked for several Localization Agencies as a translator, assistant project manager and senior project manager. She has completed a wide range of professional certifications in document and website localization with emphasis on translation, budgeting, quality control and project management including The Localization Institute’s Triple Certification in Localization Project Management (Localization Institute Chico, CA, USA). She has managed a wide variety of document, website, software and audio-video localization projects utilizing different Translation Management Systems (TMS), Translation Memory (TM) and I18n and L10n tool suites.