What is a phrasal verb?
Phrasal verbs are verb phrases that have idiomatic meanings—that is, their meaning is not obvious from the individual words that make up the phrase. Because of this, we have to learn what they mean by understanding them in context.
In this section, we’ll look at how phrasal verbs are formed and how they are distinct from prepositional verbs, and then look at a list of common phrasal verb examples.
Constructing Phrasal Verbs – Particles vs. Prepositions
A particle is very similar to a preposition—in fact, they are almost always identical in appearance. (There are a few words that will only function as particles in verb phrases: away, back, out, backward, forward, upward, and downward.)
However, particles are used more like adverbs, modifying and uniquely expanding the meaning of the verbs they are paired with. For this reason, particles are sometimes referred to as adverbial particles, or even just adverbs. The key difference between particles and prepositions, however, is that particles do not (and cannot) introduce a prepositional phrase, while the preposition in a phrasal verb always will.
Below, we’ll look at some examples of phrasal verbs that use particles, prepositions, and combinations of both.
Particle Phrasal Verbs
- “My table takes up too much room.” (The table occupies too much space.)
Takes up is made up of the verb take + up. Up changes the meaning of the verb, but it does not introduce a prepositional phrase expressing direction, location, time, or possession—therefore, it is functioning as a particle.
- “Please look over the proposal and let me know what you think.” (Please quickly examine the proposal.)
Again, the particle over is changing the meaning of the verb look, but it is not introducing a prepositional phrase.
Here are some other examples of phrasal verbs formed with particles:
- “I can’t believe that you’re giving up!” (I’m surprised that you’re going to stop trying.)
- “There will always be setbacks that we have to allow for.” (We always have to consider and be ready for possible setbacks.)
- “We have to wait for the fire to die down before we can enter the building.” (We have to wait for the fire to become less intense.)
- “The plane took off an hour late.” (The plane rose into the air and began to fly later than scheduled.)
- “She is always making up excuses.” (She is always inventing excuses that are not true.)
- “When I am on the bus, I always give up my seat to the elderly.” (I vacate my seat and give it to an older passenger.)
Preposition Phrasal Verbs
As we’ve seen, a phrasal verb can be formed from a preposition when that preposition acts as the head of a prepositional phrase, followed immediately by its object. For example:
- “He has been looking after his mother.” (He has been caring for his mother.)
- “I came across that old watch of mine when I was cleaning out the drawers.” (I found my old watch unexpectedly.)
- “Stop picking on your brother like that!” (Stop teasing or harassing your brother in that way.)
We can see that, in each of the above, the phrasal verb is comprised of a verb + a preposition—the preposition always forms a prepositional phrase with the object of the phrasal verb.
Particle-prepositional phrasal verbs
Some phrasal verbs have both a particle and a preposition. These are sometimes known as particle-prepositional phrasal verbs. All three elements—verb, particle, and preposition—act together to form a unique meaning.
- “She comes across as a really confident person.” (She gives the impression of being confident by the way she acts.)
In this context, across functions as a particle, while as functions as a preposition, introducing the prepositional phrase as a really confident person.
- “You’re going too fast, so I can’t keep up with you.”
The phrasal verb here is made up of the verb keep + the particle up + the preposition with. Up changes the meaning of the verb keep, while with introduces the prepositional phrase with you.
Let’s look at some other examples.
- “I’ll make sure that she doesn’t get away with her plan.” (I’ll make sure she is caught and/or punished.)
- “A substitute teacher has been filling in for Mr. Davis all week.” (The substitute teacher is taking the place of Mr. Davis.)
- “I’ve been trying to cut back on junk food lately.” (I’m trying not to eat as much junk food as I had been before.)
Differentiating prepositional and particle verb phrases
Because a preposition in a phrasal verb must always form a prepositional phrase, the phrasal verb must be transitive because it requires a direct object. Therefore, if a phrasal verb is intransitive, we can assume that it is formed from a verb and a particle. For example:
- “Please don’t give up.”
- “I know you want me to lie, but I just wasn’t brought up that way.”
- “I hope that my idea came across well.”
None of the above phrasal verbs has a direct object, and so each one is intransitive and a particle phrasal verb.
When phrasal verbs are transitive, they always take direct objects. This can make it difficult to tell whether a particle or prepositional phrasal verb is being used. However, there is a quick test that we can perform to be sure. First, we substitute a personal pronoun for the object of the phrasal verb. If it can be arranged before the particle/preposition and still make sense, then a particle is being used; if it has to come after to make sense, then a preposition is being used. Phrasal verbs that can be divided by objects are commonly referred to as being separable; those that cannot be divided are known as being inseparable.
Let’s look at this in one of our previous examples:
- “Please look over the proposal and let me know what you think.”
It might seem as though over does in fact introduce a prepositional phrase: over the proposal. However, if we substitute the personal pronoun it for the proposal, we can see that the object can come immediately after the verb:
- “Please look it over and let me know what you think.”
Therefore, look over is a particle phrasal verb and is considered separable.
Let’s look at another example to see when this can’t be done:
- “He has been looking after his mother.”
Using the personal pronoun her instead of his mother, the sentence now reads:
- “He has been looking after her.”
Now let’s try rearranging it in the sentence:
- “He has been looking her after.” (incorrect)
We can see that the sentence no longer makes sense: the object, her, must follow the phrasal verb and form a prepositional phrase to be logically complete. Therefore, look after is a prepositional phrasal verb and is inseparable.
Transitive and Intransitive Phrasal Verbs
Finally, some phrasal verbs can be both transitive and intransitive, depending on which idiomatic meaning is being used.
Consider these sets of examples that use the same phrasal verb:
- “I was a bit of a skinny kid, but I filled out nicely during high school.” (Intransitive, meaning “to become larger or fuller in one’s figure.”)
- “Make sure that you fill out the form correctly.” (Transitive, meaning “to complete (a document) by providing the required information.”)
- “The two friends made up after their bitter argument.” (Intransitive, meaning “to reconcile or resolve a quarrel.”)
- “Please stop making up excuses.” (Transitive, meaning “to fabricate or invent.”)
Prepositional verbs vs. phrasal verbs
Sometimes, a prepositional verb may be mistaken for a phrasal verb. Although both combinations appear to be very similar, you can differentiate them by examining their meaning. Prepositional verbs use the literal meanings of verbs, whereas phrasal verbs tend to be idiomatic.
For example, the meaning of the verb ask doesn’t change when combined with the preposition for; however, it changes dramatically when combined with the particle out:
- “Kelly asked for a raise.” (The literal meaning of to ask is to inquire. Kelly inquired about a raise, making it a prepositional verb.)
- “Kelly asked out Chad.” (Ask out means to invite someone on a date, making it an idiomatic phrasal verb.)
We can see this difference even more clearly with a set of examples that use the same verb-preposition pairing:
- “They sailed through the waters with plenty of time to spare.”
- “They sailed through their exams with plenty of time to spare.”
Both examples use the verb sail + the preposition through. However, because the first sentence uses the literal meaning of sail, we know it is a prepositional verb—the preposition is merely describing the movement of the verb, without changing the meaning of the verb itself. If, for instance, we change the sentence to “They sailed along the coast,” the meaning of sail does not change.
The verb phrase of the second sentence, however, has the idiomatic meaning of “to complete with ease and speed.” It can only have this meaning if sail and through are paired together. Changing the preposition would also completely change the meaning of the verb phrase; therefore, it is functioning as a phrasal verb in this context.
Recognizing Common Phrasal Verbs
The only way to truly feel comfortable with phrasal verbs is to recognize them in everyday writing and speech, understand their unique meanings, and then begin to use them in the same way in your own writing and speech.
With that in mind, head to the section on Common Phrasal Verbs to see an extensive list of examples of common phrasal verbs as they are used in both spoken and written English.