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About Phrasal Verbs

Learn about phrasal verbs: what they are, what separable and inseparable phrasal verbs are, and when you should use them.

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Basic/Beginner reading level

Also available at interm./advanced level

What are Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are verbs that have a verb multiple words. They can have

  • a verb and a preposition (e.g., to break into a building);
  • a verb and an adverb (e.g., bring a topic up; or
  • a verb, adverb, and preposition (e.g., come down with an illness)

What Makes Phrasal Verbs Special

When you add adverbs and prepositions to the verb and create a phrasal verb, the meaning of the expression changes; sometimes it changes completely.

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 a topic up, you mention it or start talking about it in a conversation; however, when you bring a child up, you take care of and teach the child as the child grows up.

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.

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.

When to Use Phrasal Verbs

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

In formal and academic writing, writers tend to avoid phrasal verbs (especially ones with a very informal tone, of course). Writers typically choose a verb with a similar meaning. 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 only a very general rule.

You could say that a business meeting is a formal social situation, yet businesspeople would probably say “let’s wrap it up” (which uses a phrasal verb) 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.” In a formal situation and in writing, the phrasal verb may seem too relaxed.

Related Lesson

See Levels of Formality in American Language and Culture for more information on how people change the way they speak to adjust to the social situation.