English Phrasal Verbs

A phrasal verb consists of a verb + a particle (preposition or adverb). For example:
  • get out (out is a preposition)
  • get together (together is an adverb)
  • pass by (by is a preposition)
  • pass away (away is an adverb)
Phrasal verbs are very common in spoken English, but they can be challenging to learn. It can be difficult to guess the meaning of a phrasal verb, because the particle often changes the original meaning of the verb. For example, you probably know the meaning of the word run. But what does it mean to run up a bill? In this case, run up has nothing to do with jogging; it means someone has allowed a bill to reach a large amount, like running up an expensive bill at a restaurant. In cases like this, you will need to look up the definition of the phrasal verb.

Phrasal verbs can be transitive or intransitive. Transitive verbs are followed by a direct object. Intransitive verbs are not followed by a direct object but can optionally be followed by an indirect object. Here are a few examples:
  1. Transitive: Please pick up some bread.
    • We can’t just say ‘please pick up’ because this phrasal verb needs a direct object. What are we picking up? Some bread.
  2. Intransitive: Let’s hang out.
    • We can’t add a direct object to this phrasal verb because it’s intransitive. You don’t hang out something. You just hang out.
  3. Intransitive: Let’s hang out at the park.
    • Still intransitive! In this case, ‘the park’ is an indirect object. Usually an indirect object comes after a preposition like ‘in’.
  4. Transitive: Let’s hang out/up the laundry.
    • This might look like a trick because you just saw that ‘hang out’ is intransitive. But this is a different meaning of hang out! This meaning is transitive. What are we hanging out? The laundry.
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Phrasal verb can also be separable or inseparable. When a phrasal verb is separable, a direct object can be placed in between the verb and the particle. Let’s compare some examples:
  1. Separable: I want to think over the offer. → I want to think the offer over.
    • Think over means to consider.
    • Think over can be separated by the direct object ‘the offer’.
  2. Separable: Will you turn down the music? → Will you turn the music down?
    • Turn down means to reduce the volume.
    • Turn down can be separated by the direct object ‘the music’.
  3. Inseparable: I will look after the children.
    • NOT: I will look the children after.
    • Children is a direct object, but it can’t go in between the verb and preposition.
  4. Inseparable: I grew up in Michigan.
    • NOT: I grew in Michigan up.
    • Michigan is an indirect object. There is no direct object.
As we saw in examples 1 and 2 above, when a phrasal verb is separable, a direct object can go either in between the verb and particle or after the particle. BUT if you want to use a pronoun as a direct object, you must put the pronoun in between the verb and particle. For example:
  1. I picked Julie up from the airport. → I picked her up from the airport.
    • NOT: I picked up her from the airport.
  2. I’ll take off my shoes. → I’ll take them off.
    • NOT: I’ll take off them.
If a direct object is long, it may sound strange to put it in between the verb and particle. In that case it is better to put the direct object after the particle. Compare these examples:
  1. I cleaned up the room. → I cleaned the room up.
    • Both are correct because ‘the room’ is short.
  2. I cleaned up the mess that the children made.
    • NOT: I cleaned the mess that the children made up.
    • ‘The mess that the children made’ is too long to go in between the verb and particle. It results in an awkward sentence.
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Phrasal verbs can also be used as nouns. If you know the meaning of the phrasal verb, you may be able to guess the meaning of a phrasal noun. Here some examples:
  1. When you take your meal out of a restaurant, what did you order? Takeout!
  2. When you start up a new company, what do you have? A start-up!
  3. When it’s time to check out of a hotel, what can you call it? Checkout time!
  4. When you want to get away on a nice vacation, what do you book? A getaway!
Phrasal verbs and phrasal nouns allow for a lot of flexibility in the English language. New phrases can easily be invented to describe concepts that would otherwise require many more words to explain. For example, you might have heard a song that is a combination of two or more other songs. Or you may have seen a video that combines several videos into one. Since the word ‘mash’ means ‘combine’, we can simply call this a mash-up!

If you’re ready to brush up on your phrasal verbs, check out some movies, TV shows or online videos. Write down a few phrasal verbs that you hear. Look them up in a dictionary. Find out whether they are transitive or intransitive, separable or inseparable. Then chat up a friend and try them out! (Can you count up all the phrasal verbs that I used in this paragraph?)