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Phrasal Verbs

What are Phrasal Verbs?

A phrasal verb is a verb like pick up, turn on or get on with. These verbs consists of a basic verb + another word or words. The two or three words that make up a phrasal verb form a short "phrase" - which is why we call them "phrasal verbs". But a phrasal verb is still a verb. Look is a verb. Look up is also a verb - a different verb. They do not have the same meaning, and they behave differently grammatically. You should treat each phrasal verb as a separate verb, and learn it like any other verb. Look at these examples. You can see that there are three types of phrasal verb formed from a single-word verb:

  verb definition example
single-word verb look direct your eyes in a certain direction You must look before you leap.
phrasal verb verb + adverb look up search for and find information in a reference book You can look up the word in a dictionary.
verb + preposition look after take care of Who is looking after the baby?
verb + adverb + preposition look forward to anticipate with pleasure I look forward to meeting you.

Phrasal Verb: VERB + ADVERB

The structure of this type of phrasal verb is:

verb + adverb

These phrasal verbs can be:

Look at these examples of transitive and intransitive::

    meaning example sentence
  direct object
transitive put off postpone We will have to put off the meeting.
turn down refuse They turned down my offer.
intransitive get up rise from bed I don't like to get up.  
break down stop working He was late because his car broke down.  

Separable

When this type of phrasal verb has a direct object, we can usually separate the two parts. For example, "turn down" is separable. We can say: "turn down my offer" or "turn my offer down". Look at these example sentences:

tick They turned down my offer.
tick They turned my offer down.

However, if the direct object is a pronoun, we have no choice. We must separate the two parts of the verb and insert the pronoun. Look at these examples with the verb "switch on". Note that the last one is impossible:

tick John switched on the radio.
tick John switched the radio on.
tick John switched it on.
cross John switched on it.
Separable or inseparable?
Many dictionaries tell you when a phrasal verb is separable. If a dictionary writes "look (something) up", you know that the phrasal verb "look up" is separable, and you can say "look something up" and "look up something". It's a good idea to write "sthg/sby" as appropriate in your vocabulary book when you learn a new phrasal verb, like this:
  • get up
  • break down
  • break sthg off
  • turn sthg/sby down

This tells you if the verb needs a direct object (and where to place it).

Phrasal Verbs reference: hundreds of phrasal verbs with definitions, example sentences, quizzes and answers

Phrasal Verb: VERB + PREPOSITION

This type of phrasal verb is also called a "prepositional verb". The structure of a prepositional verb is:

verb + preposition

Because a preposition always has an object, all prepositional verbs have direct objects (ie they are transitive).

Look at these examples of prepositional verbs:

prepositional verb meaning example sentence
  direct object
believe in have faith in the existence of I believe in God.
look after take care of He is looking after the dog.
talk about discuss Did you talk about me?
wait for await John is waiting for Mary.

Prepositional verbs cannot be separated. That means that we cannot put the direct object between the two parts. For example, we must say "look after the baby". We cannot say "look the baby after":

tick Who is looking after the baby?
cross Who is looking the baby after?
It is a good idea to write "something/somebody" in your vocabulary book when you learn a new prepositional verb, like this:
  • believe in something/somebody
  • look after sthg/sby
This reminds you that the verb needs a direct object (and where to place it).

Phrasal Verb: VERB + ADVERB + PREPOSITION

This type of phrasal verb is also called a "phrasal-prepositional verb". The structure of a phrasal-prepositional verb is:

verb + adverb + preposition

Look at these examples of phrasal-prepositional verbs:

phrasal-prepositional verb meaning example sentence
  direct object
get on with have a friendly relationship with He doesn't get on with his wife.
put up with tolerate I won't put up with your attitude.
look forward to anticipate with pleasure I look forward to seeing you.
run out of use up, exhaust We have run out of eggs.

Because phrasal-prepositional verbs end with a preposition, there is always a direct object. And, like prepositional verbs, phrasal-prepositional verbs cannot be separated. Look at these examples:

tick We ran out of gas.
tick We ran out of it.
cross We ran gas out of.
cross We ran out gas of.
It is a good idea to write "something/somebody" in your vocabulary book when you learn a new phrasal-prepositional verb, like this:
  • get on with somebody
  • put up with sthg/sby
  • run out of something
This reminds you that the verb needs a direct object (and where to place it).