put on, take off and phrasal verbs in general

An article about safety work boots described their major features in complete sentences and some minor ones in a bullet point list. My editor doesn’t like bullet point lists, so I either rewrite them as complete sentences if they are interesting or delete them if they’re not. One feature in the bullet point list was that the boots, in addition to laces, had a side zip for ‘easy on and off’. 

Standard English uses ‘put on’ and ‘take off’ or remove’. There is no standard synonym for ‘put on’. If there was, I could have written ‘for easy ____ and removal’. Instead, I had to write ‘for easy putting on and taking off’, which is not completely elegant.

‘put on’ and ‘take off’ are both phrasal verbs. Many phrasal verbs have a single-word synonym which is usually longer and usually more formal. One feature of phrasal verbs is that the opposite is not formed simply by changing its second element to its opposite. ‘Put off’ and ‘take on’ both mean something completely different.

While this was in my head from one of my two jobs (magazine subediting), my other job (English language teacher) threw up a chapter on phrasal verbs. It started by asking questions like “What time did you go to bed last night?” and “What time did you get up this morning?”, to which I added “What time did you go to sleep last night?” and “What time did you wake up this morning?” (which aren’t necessarily the same answer), and “What is the last thing you put on?”. Most students said jumper or jacket. One said glasses and another perfume. When I said that the last thing I put on was my shoes, they said “Oh, shoes!”. (I commented that the first thing you put on is probably underwear, which we are not going to talk about in class.)

I then talked about ‘take off’. The other main meaning of ‘take off’ refers to aeroplanes. While there is the same basic idea of ‘removal’, the grammar is different: we ‘take off’ our workbooks, but the pilot doesn’t ‘take off’ the plane – the plane ‘takes off’ by itself. In fact, I am trying to think of how we might describe what the pilot did: ‘the pilot ?launched the plane’.

‘take off’ has at least three other meanings – to leave in a hurry, to become successful/popular and to parody – and possibly more. Many more phrasal verbs (possibly most) have multiple meanings. 

ESL textbooks tend to under-represent phrasal verbs, in comparison to how common they are in real life. Native speakers tend to use them without really thinking about it, especially in casual speech.


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