Understanding Phrasal Verbs with Down

Phrasal Verbs can be difficult to understand and use if you are not a native English speaker.

Although they are a very important part of English, sometimes it can be tricky to explain exactly what a phrasal verb means and why. As a native English speaker, I intrinsically know the meaning of most, if not all phrasal verbs I hear or see. However, helping my students to understand them is a skill I have tried to learn and develop over the years.

If you are a student of English, then you will have seen and heard some phrasal verbs. But, they are hard to learn and use, especially if you don’t fully understand them.

What is a Phrasal Verb?

Typically, they are 2 or 3-word combinations of a Verb and a Particle (adverb, preposition). These separate words, when joined together, form a phrase with a very specific meaning, that cannot be understood based on your understanding of the individual words. The reason for this is because the Particle (preposition or adverb etc.) actually alters, or changes the action described by the Verb.

For example Calm Down
‘You had better calm down or you will have a heart attack!’
The verb To Calm describes the process of changing a state of being from agitated and angry, to a more tranquil or quiet state. Some people might meditate or do yoga to help themselves achieve this state.

Down is a direction.

So, does the phrasal verb Calm Down mean to sit down on the floor and meditate?

No, it doesn’t. But that might be a good idea if you are angry!

To understand exactly what this phrasal verb means, we need to examine the meaning of the word Down.

Not just its literal meaning of the direction of movement, but also its figurative meanings which are taken from how we all experience the world.
Its literal meaning, a direction of movement, gives us phrasal verbs including Put Down and Fall Down, which are easy to understand because they involve movement in the direction of Down.

But this direction of movement can also mean a reduction or decrease in something in a more abstract way. Some examples of this are,

I have to cut down on chocolate. (I have to eat less chocolate)
Please slow down, you are driving too fast. (Reduce your speed)
I have to cool down after exercise. (I need to reduce my breathing etc.)

You can see that these phrasal verbs mean reducing or decreasing something in quantity or quality.

In general the word Down has a negative connotation, in the following phrasal verbs, this is demonstrated in a situation that is worse than it was before.

My car has broken down. (It no longer works and I need help!)
You have really let me down. (I was expecting you to help, but you didn’t)
I had to close down my business. (I no longer have a business)

This negative meaning can also help us to say no to a situation.

I turned down the promotion. (I said no!)
He offered me an upgrade, but I turned him down. (I said no!)

Some people may communicate with you, or speak to you, in a way that you don’t like. Some people may believe that they are better than you and their style of communication with you may reflect this.

She really talks down to me. (She talks to me as if she is better than I am)

Down is more than just a direction.

In addition to its literal meaning of movement, Down can also give meaning to other situations:

Reducing or Decreasing Quantities

Worse or Decaying Situations

Saying No

Negative Emotions or Feelings

This is not a full list of all the phrasal verbs with Down, nor have I included all of the potential abstract meanings associated with Down. However, I hope I have given you an insight into how you can learn and use phrasal verbs easier in the future.

If you are feeling confident and you can now tell me the meaning of the Phrasal Verb To Calm Down, then please post your answer in the comments below.

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