What are phrasal verbs?
Phrasal verbs are the combination of a normal verb + a preposition resulting in a new verb with a different meaning.
|She looked back and said good-bye. This is not considered a phrasal verb. It's just looking in that direction.|
|That's the only part that I regret, looking back on it. This is a phrasal verb. It means remember.|
|She looked up and saw the plane. This is not considered a phrasal verb. It's just looking at the plane.|
|She looked up the word in the dictionary. This is a phrasal verb. It means search.|
|She looked into the box and saw it. This is not considered a phrasal verb. It's just looking in the box.|
|The police are looking into the cause of the accident. This is a phrasal verb. It means investigate.|
The preposition changes the verb so you're not literally looking at anything. You're doing something else, remembering, searching, and so on.
Phrasal verbs are very common in spoken and written English so you need to learn them in order to understand and speak natural English and be fluent.
The preposition is the key to unlocking the secret behind phrasal verbs. This is explained in the Think section.
Up often means that something is finished so give up smoking means the same as stop smoking.
- I've decided to give up smoking.
- If you want to lose weight you'll have to give up eating sweets.
- Don't give up without a fight.
On is often used when we are wearing something.
- Put on your coat. It's cold.
- Can I try on these jeans, please?
- She had a beautiful dress on that evening.
Many phrasal verbs have a single word alternative, often Latin-based, which is sometimes more common in formal or academic English. For instance, the verb discover is an alternative to the phasal verb find out.
If you're in a hurry to learn just a few verbs, take a look at our quick takeaway list.
Grammar and word order
1 Separable: most phrasal verbs can be separated
on the light. verb + preposition + object (better
with a long object)
Turn the light on. verb + object + preposition
Turn it on. verb + object + preposition (when the object is a pronoun)
Turn on it
2 Inseparable: some phrasal verbs always stay together
after the children. verb +
preposition + object
Look after them. verb + preposition + object
Look them after.
Look the children after.
3 Inseparable, no object (intransitive): some phrasal verbs can't be separated and don't take an object
went away. verb + preposition
Why don't we eat out tonight? verb + preposition
Hurry up! We're going to be late. verb + preposition
Carry on working! verb + preposition
So remember that when we have an object (it, him her, the bus, etc) we need to know the word order. This information is shown in most dictionaries. But even if it isn't you should study the example to try to learn how the verb is used.
If you are not sure whether a phrasal verb is separable, don't separate it. You will always be right.
Phrasal Verbs with two prepositions
Phrasal verbs like put up with sb/sth have two prepositions and are never separated. There are few verbs with two prepositions.
Phrasal verb nouns & adjectives
Just like many other verbs in the language, phrasal verbs can also be used as nouns or adjectives.
Phrasal verbs, multi-word verbs, prepositional verbs, and so on. There are many different names for phrasal verbs but you shouldn't worry about this. The name is not important althought the most accepted term is phrasal verbs.
The preposition can be a preposition or and adverb. Again this is not important at all. You can call it a preposition, a preposition or an adverb. On this site we use the word preposition because it covers both prepositions and adverbs.
The important thing is being able to understand and use phrasal verbs.
Learn phrasal verbs properly
What things can help you remember phrasal verbs?
Avoid translations into your own language and focus instead on logic, context, examples and collocations.
Example 1.- To learn keep down try to remember...
- logic of the preposition: down sometimes means reducing
- good example: Excuse me sir, I'll have to ask you to keep your voice down.
- a couple of collocations: you can keep down your voice, the noise, your weight
- grammar: you can separate it. You can say keep your voice down and keep it down
Example 2.- To learn come across try to remember...
- logic of the preposition: across sometimes means finding
- good example: I came across an old school friend of mine when I was travelling in Canada.
- a couple of collocations: you can come across a friend, an old photograph, a good story in the newspaper
- grammar: you can't separate it. You can say come across an old friend but you can't say come an old friend across or come him across
Meaning of phrasal verbs
The meaning of phrasal verbs may not be obvious but it's usually logical.
When you become familiar with the different meanings of prepositions it's easy to understand most phrasal verbs. Try to figure out the meaning of the preposition every time you learn a new phrasal verb.
The meanings are explained in the Understand pages. Compare the new phrasal verb you are learning with similar phrasal verbs that share the same preposition meaning.
Sometimes, though, it's just not possible to understand the logic behind the preposition. But there is surely a reason for speakers to use that preposition. It may just be that the choice of preposition was logical centuries ago to describe a common situation, but social change means we no longer find it logical because things are different now.