What are phrasal verbs?

Phrasal verbs are the combination of a normal verb + a preposition resulting in a new verb with a different meaning. Here are some examples:

He came out to talk to us. Just came out of the house.
Lies always come out in the end. Phrasal verb. They are no longer a secret.
She came in and closed the door. Just came into the room.
We were in shock when the result came in. Phrasal verb. It was announced or published.
She came up to say hello. Just came to where we were.
His name came up in the conversation. Phrasal verb. It was mentioned.

It's not literally coming or going anywhere. Something is known, published, revealed or talked about.

She looked back and said good-bye. Just looking in that direction.
That's the only part that I regret, looking back on it. Phrasal verb. It means remember.
She looked up and saw the plane. Just looking at the plane.
She looked up the word in the dictionary. Phrasal verb. It means search.
She looked into the box and saw it. Just looking in the box.
The police are looking into the cause of the accident. 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.

They ran down to the beach. Just running.
The service is being deliberately run down. Phrasal verb. It's gradually deteriorating.
He ran out of the house. Just running.
He ran out of money. Phrasal verb. He spent all his money.
She ran up the stairs. Just running.
She ran up a huge bill. Phrasal verb. She spent quite a lot.

You're not literally running. You're doing something else, like spending time or money.

 

phrasal verb builder

Enter a phrasal verb:  

Examples: give up, take off, wear out

 

grammar and word order

Most phrasal verbs can be separated, as in turn on the light or turn the light on, but this is something you need to be aware of, so always check.

there are 3 types of phrasal verbs

1 Separable: most phrasal verbs can be separated

Turn on the light.  verb + preposition + object (better with a long object)
Turn the light onverb + 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

Look 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

He 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.

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.

unlocking the secret behind phrasal verbs

The preposition is the key to unlocking the secret behind phrasal verbs. The preposition used has a certain logic, shared by many other phrasal verbs. When you're aware of the logic or pattern of meaning everything starts to make sense. This is explained in the Think section.

why up?

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.

 

She's decided to give up smoking.

 

why on?

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.

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.

Find out more: phrasal verb nouns | phrasal verb adjectives

different labels

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.

keep down

To learn keep down try to remember...

  • the logic: down sometimes means reducing
  • examples: Excuse me sir, I'll have to ask you to keep your voice down.
  • collocations: you can keep down your voice, the noise, your weight
  • the grammar: you can separate it. You can say keep your voice down and keep it down

 

come across

To learn come across try to remember...

  • the logic: across sometimes means finding
  • examples: I came across an old school friend of mine when I was travelling in Canada.
  • collocations: you can come across a friend, an old photograph, a good story in the newspaper
  • the 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 Think 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.