Phrasal Verbs – Definition and Guide

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Phrasal-verbs-Definition

This post explains what a phrasal verb is. You will also find common usage examples.

Phrasal Verbs – In a Nutshell

  • Phrasal verbs are very common in spoken English.
  • The extra word changes the definition.
  • Some have both literal meanings and idiomatic meanings.
  • Some are separable, whereas others are inseparable.
  • Intransitive multi-word verbs, i.e., those with no object, are always inseparable; we must keep the verb and preposition together.

Definition: Phrasal verbs

Multi-words or phrasal verbs consist of a verb with one or two other words called particles or prepositions: on, in, out, down, over, etc.

In addition, we can include prepositional verbs – verbs followed by a preposition – within this category.1

How to conjugate phrasal verbs

In the present simple, we conjugate phrasal verbs in the same way as ordinary verbs. The third-person singular (he, she, or it) takes the suffix -s.

Examples:

Every morning, I go through my email and reply when necessary. My boss usually goes through his messages at midday.

  • Simple past tense: Yesterday, I went through my pending email.
  • Future simple tense: I will go through my email before the meeting.

Sometimes, the continuous form of the verb is more usual. We might say that we are looking forward to a holiday. Here, the infinitive is ‘to look forward to something,’ one of several examples with two particles.

Types of phrasal verbs

We can subdivide these verbs into transitive and intransitive categories, as well as separable and inseparable. Let’s explore these concepts.

Transitive phrasal verbs

A transitive phrasal verb has an object which follows in the same sentence. For instance, one literal meaning of to take off is to remove a garment.

Example:

When they arrive, we invite house guests to take off their coats.

Intransitive phrasal verbs

Intransitive verbs do not take an object. In some instances, a phrasal verb can be either transitive or intransitive. To extend the above example, the verb ‘to take off’ also has an idiomatic or non-literal meaning.

Example:

When an airplane starts its flight, it taxis to the runway, accelerates, takes off, and climbs to a safe altitude.

Separable phrasal verbs

If a phrasal verb is separable, we may put the object noun (or pronoun) between the verb and the particle. Broadly, the choice is one of sentence emphasis, style, or habit.

Example:

  • To turn on the computer

OR

  • To turn the computer on.

However, if we use a pronoun, it goes immediately after the verb:

to turn it on

to turn on it

Inseparable phrasal verbs

Sometimes, a phrasal verb with a preposition and particle is inseparable, so we do not separate the verb from the next word.

Example:

‘To come across (something)’, which means to find by chance.

  • While tidying the attic, I came across the old photo album.
Phrasal verbs types

List of common phrasal verbs

Infinitive Meaning Example
to get to

to arrive somewhere I usually get to college early.
to go on
to continue

The meeting went on for hours.
to get on
to board a bus, train, plane or seagoing vessel.

to have a good relationship with someone OR to continue (working).
Be careful when getting on trains.

I get on with my sister-in-law.

We need to get on and finish the job.
to take out

to remove or to contract something

The dentist took out my tooth (OR ...took my tooth out).

Motorists have to take out insurance.
to take up

to carry something upwards

to start a new sport or pastime
Let's take the shopping up now!

Some retired people take up golf.

to go in/into

to enter Yesterday, I went into the hardware store.

Other frequently-heard examples include to back up data, check out, end up, find out, give up and let (someone) know.2

FAQs

Common phrasal-prepositional verbs include to go on, go in and go out. You can find more in the article above.

They came from the old Norse, Germanic and Saxon roots of English, in which short words dominated. However, after the Norman invasion of England in 1066, Anglo-French (Latin-based) language inputs prevailed.3

Generally, these verbs are more conversational and informal than their Latin-based equivalents. Thus, they tend to be more common in everyday conversation.

Yes, many have multiple meanings. For instance, making up can mean reconciling, applying cosmetics, inventing a story, or compensating for lost time.

Sources

1 English Grammar Today. “Phrasal verbs and multi-word verbs.” Cambridge Dictionary. Accessed October 12, 2022. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/phrasal-verbs-and-multi-word-verbs.

2 Ellis, Matt. “80 Most Common Phrasal Verbs.” Grammarly blog.  August 12, 2022. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/common-phrasal-verbs/.

3 Lamont, George J. M.. “The Historical Rise of the English Phrasal Verb.” Cpercy. Accessed October 12, 2022. https://cpercy.artsci.utoronto.ca/courses/6361lamont.html.