Our vocabulary this week is not just for TOEFL—they are helpful phrases for general, conversational English. But those are exactly the same types of phrases that the TOEFL likes to include! After all, you need to understand common idioms for life at an English-speaking university, too.
The phrasal verbs I talk about this week are all troublesome because they include common words with little meaning. There are many phrasal verbs like that: phrases like “go on,” “be into,” and “do without.” This week, the phrases I want to define are based on the adverbs “up” and “down.”
Be Up To
The phrase “what have you been up” is common in conversation, so it’s really important to understand! Here, “be up to” basically just means “doing,” but in particular it has the sense of spending time over long periods. That question is directed at your work, your hobbies, and the parts of your life that take significant time or energy.
In other words, the person asking “what have you been up to” is trying to start a conversation! They want to know more information about your recent life.
But there is another meaning to “be up to” that can be a bit confusing. Sometimes it has a very negative feeling. If I see a man on the street at night pointing a flashlight into windows of people’s homes, I might say “he’s up to something.” In that case, “up to something” means “planning something bad.” We use it when we are suspicious of what another person is doing.
Get Down To
There are two words that often come after “get down to” and so are worth special attention: “work” and “business.” They have the same general meaning when in the phrase. “Get down to work” means “start working,” and “get down to business” means “start discussing work to do.”
So “get down to” basically means “start,” in this use. To be honest, it doesn’t mean much. “Get down to work” is very similar to just “work.” That’s sometimes true of phrasal verbs that are made of very common words like “get” and “down.” Sometimes, they don’t add much meaning to a sentence (but sometimes they really do!).
While we’re talking about “get down to,” I should also note the phrase “When you/we get down to it…” It doesn’t look very meaningful, but it’s a helpful transition phrase. It means that the information coming after the phrase is the most basic or most important. It may also mean that information is the truthful information, implying other information was wrong. For example, a professor in the TOEFL might say “when you get down to it, few animals can really be domesticated.” That implies there is another thought (many animals can be domesticated) that isn’t correct.
Almost all of the phrases and uses above could easily be in a TOEFL listening recording—maybe with the exception of “I think he’s up to something.” Pay careful attention to small words in phrasal verbs like these; sometimes they can have surprising meanings!