Like phrasal verbs that end in words such 'out', 'in', 'up', 'down', on, etc., those that make use of the adverb 'off' are numerous and varied. While native English speakers use these types of phrasal verbs instinctively, for learners of English, many of these can prove tricky at the best of times.
As was discussed in my last blog post about phrasal verbs ending in 'out', the greatest quantity, and also the most diverse variety, of phrasal verbs are found in colloquial usage. Undoubtedly, the easiest types of phrasal verbs with 'off', from a learner's point of view, are those that express the concept of physicality (i.e. what is tangible). Here are some common examples:
To turn off a switch
To break off a square of chocolate
To cut off a chunk of meat
Little guesswork is required here as the meaning is almost always straightforward. Yet the notion of physicality can also be incorporated into phrasal verbs using 'off' in a more figurative sense. This is where colloquialisms come into play. Take, for example, the very common colloquial expression "to turn someone off." In this case, the physical concept of turning something off (be it a switch, a light, a pump, etc.) is transformed into a kind of metaphor for one individual causing another to dislike or even feel repulsion towards him/her due to their actions or words. Another common example of a figurative kind of physicality in phrasal verbs with 'off' is the widely used imperative colloquialism "knock it off!" This essentially means the same thing as "stop it!" but as humans beings we like to add diversity to our speech and this is an expression you are likely to encounter if you are socialising with groups of English speakers who know each other well and are having an argument. They could also be family members.
The next semantic variety of phrasal verbs that make use of the word 'off' are those that express the sense of travel or motion. In the UK and Ireland it is common to hear young college graduates talking about heading off abroad to places like Australia or North America on a study or work visa. The phrasal verb to head off has a fairly neutral tone. A more optimistic sounding alternative is jetting off (evoking the idea of an aircraft's jet engine propelling the plane as it takes off).
Comparing phrasal verbs
While phrasal verbs that use the adverb 'out' (such as work out, figure out, hammer out) can often emphasise the process involved in completing a task or series of tasks, those that end in 'off', whether or not they have a physical connotation, more often than not are primarily concerned with the end result or the specific moment in which an important action takes place. When a sports commentator states that a match kicks-off at 8pm, they imply the exact moment in which the game begins. When a person tells a friend that they really hit it off with someone they met for the first time, they are implying that they got to like them very quickly and that this feeling was reciprocated by the other person. Likewise, when a journalist refers to how a politician might fend off criticism from other (rival) politicians, the emphasis is mainly on the immediate moment or period in which the verbal or written self-defence takes place rather than the thought processes behind it. When it is reported that an individual or group pulls off an amazing feat, the focus is generally being placed on the immediate time frame in which the endeavour turns into a success.
It is often said that verbs have moods just like people do. We might conclude that phrasal verbs ending in 'off' are the most likely to bear a tone of impulsiveness and immediacy when compared to other phrasal verbs. Most English native speakers are subconsciously aware of this and it is for this reason that the word 'off', in phrasal verb form, can also signify extreme hostility, forming the basis for the predominant expletive in the English language. Not that I'm going to give you a sample sentence using this example. Most people have seen or heard it in action too many times before!