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Getting Smarter through Language

About Phrasal Verbs

Learn about what phrasal verbs are, what separable and inseparable phrasal verbs are, and when you should use or avoid using phrasal verbs.

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Intermediate-advanced reading level

Also available at basic reading level

What Phrasal Verbs Are

Phrasal verbs consist of a verb and other words. They can be composed of (a) a verb and a preposition, (b) a verb and an adverb, and (c) a verb, a preposition, and an adverb.

For example,

  • verb + preposition
    • break into a building
    • settle on someone or something
    • pass by a place
  • verb + adverb
    • bring a topic up
    • turn down an invitation
    • pick up some food
  • [verb + adverb + preposition]:
    • come down with an illness,
    • get along with someone,
    • take something up with someone.

What Makes Phrasal Verbs “Special”

Adding adverbs and prepositions to the verb, changes the meaning of the verb.

Sometimes you can tell what the phrasal verb means by looking at the parts that make it up; however, it is often very difficult or impossible to guess the exact meaning of a phrasal verb unless you know the expression.

As with other words in English, the phrasal verb can also have multiple meanings, which you undertand from the context. For example, when you bring up a topic, you mention it or start talking about it in a conversation; however, when you bring up a child, you take care of and teach the child as the child grows up.

The structure of the phrasal verb can sometimes also change along with its meaning.

For example, compare the structure of these sentences using blow up:

  • [blow something up]: to fill (something) with air or gas
    He blew up the balloons before the party.
  • [blow up (no object)]: burst, explode
    The balloons blew up because he over filled them.
  • [blow up at someone]: become angry and shout at someone
    When I said I would not lend him the money, he blew up at me.

Here is another set of examples using look up:

  • [look something up]: find a particular piece of information as in a book, list, etc.
    I need to look this word up so I can understand this paragraph.
  • [look someone up]: see or visit someone when you go where they live
    When you come to Chicago, you should look me up so we can have dinner together.
  • [look up (no object)]: improve (of a bad situation)
    After I got my new job, things started looking up for me.

What Separable and Inseparable Phrasal Verbs Are

Separable phrasal verbs

Some phrasal verbs can be broken up by other words. These are called separable phrasal verbs. For example, you can say

  • look up the word in the dictionary, or
  • look the word up in the dictionary.

When using the object pronoun (me, him, her, etc.), you must separate the separable phrasal verb as in

  • look it up in the dictionary.

Inseparable phrasal verbs

Inseparable phrasal verbs cannot be broken up. For example, you can only say

  • Do not drop in on people without calling them first to let them know you’re coming.
  • When I was cleaning my closet, I came across some old photos.
  • I look forward to your party.

You cannot separate them even if you use the object pronoun. For example, you can only say

  • Do not drop in on me without calling first.
  • I came across them yesterday.
  • I look forward to it.

Verbs “Posing” as Phrasal Verbs

Simply having a verb followed by a preposition does not mean you have a phrasal verb. For example, on of the sentences below has a phrasal verb; the other does not. Can you tell which is which?

  1. I ran across the street to talk to my neighbor.
  2. I ran across my neighbor on the street.

In Sentence 1, you have a simple verb (run); “across the street” is a prepositional phrase showing where of the action took place. If you use a different preposition (e.g., along), you would not change the meaning of the verb, only the meaning of the prepositional phrase. “Run” and “across” work independently from each other.

Sentence 2, on the other hand, has a true phrasal verb. To “run across someone” means to meet someone by chance. “Run” and “across” work together to create a new verb with a different meaning from the original verb.

When to Use Phrasal Verbs

As a general rule, phrasal verbs are used in informal speech and writing. You can use phrasal verbs in some types of formal writing, though you should be careful about the tone some of them convey. Some phrasal verbs have a very informal, relaxed tone that may not be the tone you want for your formal writing.

In formal and academic writing, writers tend to avoid phrasal verbs, especially the ones with a very informal tone. Writers typically choose a verb with a similar meaning instead. For example, you may say “the meeting was called off” but write “the meeting was canceled.”

Really? Are you sure about that?

Please note that using or avoiding phrasal verbs in formal speech or writing is a general rule only. You will see people frequently using phrasal verbs in formal situations.

A business meeting is a formal social situation, yet businesspeople would probably say “let’s wrap it up” instead of “let’s conclude the meeting” (which may sound a little stilted).

At the same time, the same business people might write an email saying “we concluded the meeting” or "the meeting ended..." to avoid too informal a tone for a business email.

How can you tell which is which? Only experience using the language can give you a feel for which words to use in a particular linguistic register.

Related Lesson

Read about formal and informal registers in American language and culture for more information on how people change the way they speak to adjust to the social situation.