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What are phrasal verbs?

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

He came out to talk to us. | Not a phrasal verb. 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. | Not a phrasal verb. Just came in.
We were in shock when the result came in. | Phrasal verb. It was announced or published.
She came up to say hello. | Not a phrasal verb. 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. | Not a phrasal verb. Just looking.
That's the only part I regret, looking back on it. | Phrasal verb. It means remember.
She looked up and saw the plane. | Not a phrasal verb. Just looking.
She looked up the word in the dictionary. | Phrasal verb. It means search.
She looked into the box and found it. | Not a phrasal verb. Just looking.
The police are looking into the cause of the accident. | Phrasal verb. It means investigate.
In phrasals with look, you're not literally looking at anything. You're doing something else, remembering, searching, and so on.
Let's run down to the beach. | Not a phrasal verb. Just running.
The service is being deliberately run down. | Phrasal verb. It's gradually deteriorating.
They ran out of the house. | Not a phrasal verb. Just running.
They ran out of money. | Phrasal verb. He spent all his money.
She ran up the stairs. | Not a phrasal verb. Just running.
She ran up a huge bill. | Phrasal verb. She spent quite a lot.
In phrasal verbs with run, you're not literally running. You're doing something else, like spending time or money.


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phrasal verb builder

give up, take off, wear out, put off, do up
give up | give, giving up, gave up


grammar and word order

Most phrasal verbs can be separated, as in turn on the light or turn the light on. This is something you need to be aware of, so always check. Different dictionaries will show this in different ways.

there are 3 types

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.


She's decided to give up smoking.


unlocking the secret in phrasals

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 Logic 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.


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.


Single word alternative

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. There are no clear patterns here other than that and they're often interchangeable. In the end, you would have to learn how to use each verb.


If you're in a hurry to learn just a few verbs, take a look at our quick takeaway list.


Two prepositions

Phrasal verbs like put up with sb/sth have two prepositions and are never separated. There are few verbs with two prepositions and they're not usually a problem. The word order doesn't change and they're easy to understand.


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.

When we refer to the preposition on this site, please bear in mind, it can be a preposition or an adverb. Again, this is not important at all. The important thing is being able to understand and use phrasal verbs properly.


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 Logic 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.