139. Phrasal Verbs


Combinations of a verb and a preposition-like adverb have various interesting properties 


In some grammar descriptions a “phrasal verb” is any closely-combined verb and other small word. Here, however, I am giving it the common alternative meaning of a particular subgroup of such combinations: those where the other small word is an adverb resembling a preposition, but never a preposition. Examples include MAKE OUT (= “understand”), TAKE OFF (= “mimic” or “leave the ground by flying”), TURN ON (= “put into functioning mode”) and PICK UP (= “remove from the ground”). It will be seen that the meanings expressed by the two words together are often not discoverable from the meanings of the individual words.

It is easy to mistake the adverb in a phrasal verb for a preposition, since elsewhere it often is one. For example, on is a preposition in the verb DEPEND ON, despite being an adverb in TURN ON. Verbs like DEPEND ON are called “prepositional” and can be read about in depth in the Guinlist posts 44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs and 123. Prepositional Verbs Containing a Noun.

Phrasal verbs are described in most grammar books for learners of English, but the details can be sparse at times. My aim here is to provide the more extensive overview that I feel is often lacking, in order to assist a more effective use of phrasal verbs and related expressions. Some of the points are also made elsewhere within this blog, but hopefully there will be benefit in having them all together here.



The difference between phrasal and prepositional verbs is the combinations that they can make with neighbouring words. One of these involves a directly-following noun or noun equivalent (i.e. an “object” – see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). All prepositional verbs need one, but some phrasal verbs are found without one, like this:

(a) Permission is required for the plane to take off.

Here, the verb take off has no directly-following noun that can be identified as its object. Prepositional verbs cannot be used without an object in this way. They need one because the preposition within them is by definition a noun-requiring word (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions).

If an object is present, the main indication of a phrasal verb is variability of the object’s position. Consider this:

(b) Night workers must switch on the lights.

Here, the object the lights follows on, but it could also go before it (… switch the lights on). Indeed, if the object is a pronoun (e.g. them), this position is compulsory. The same choice is not possible with prepositional verbs: if the verb in (b) was depend on, the lights would always have to go after on. The ability of on to follow the object when part of a phrasal verb is not illogical, since adverbs as a whole often occupy this position (see 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs).

Another difference between phrasal and prepositional verbs involves adverb positions. Only prepositional verbs can have an adverb directly after their verb, as in this example:

(c) Plants DEPEND continually ON water.

Placing an adverb in this position with a phrasal verb like the one in (b) would sound incorrect (*switch fully on the lights). Instead, the adverb must follow either the object (switch the lights fully on) or the second half of the verb (switch the lights on fully).



The following properties of phrasal verbs seem especially worth noting:

1. Transitive and Intransitive Usage

“Transitive” verbs have an object and “intransitive” ones do not. Important phrasal verbs in each category include the following:


BREAK UP (= separate into smaller pieces), BRING BACK (= return), BRING IN (= introduce), CLOSE/SHUT DOWN (= bring to a permanent end), CUT OFF (= block), HAND OUT (= distribute directly to people), FILL IN (= complete with requested information), GIVE BACK (= return), GIVE UP (= yield), GO OVER (= review), LOOK OVER (= briefly examine), MAKE OUT (= understand; discern), MAKE UP (=compose a falsehood), PICK UP (= remove from the ground; receive), SWITCH ON/OFF (= give power to), TAKE AWAY (= carry to another place), TAKE OFF (= mimic; remove), TAKE ON a challenge (= accept), TAKE OVER (= acquire responsibility for), TURN DOWN (= refuse), WRITE DOWN (= put on record)


BREAK OUT (= escape; appear as an epidemic), BREAK UP (= end a relationship or formal activity), CLOSE/SHUT DOWN (= come to a permanent end), COME BACK (= return), FADE AWAY (= gradually disappear), FALL OFF (diminish), FALL OVER (= trip and cease to stand), GET AWAY (= escape), GIVE UP (= quit), GO AWAY (= depart), GO OUT (= exit), GO THROUGH (= progress successfully), GROW UP (= become an adult), KEEP ON (= continue), LOOK AWAY (= change the focus of the eyes), MAKE UP (= stop quarrelling), MISS OUT (= fail to get something), PICK UP (= improve), RISE UP (= rebel), TAKE OFF (= fly into the air), TURN OVER (= change the manner of lying down)


2. Informality

The Guinlist post 108. Formal and Informal Words has much to say about the unsuitability of many phrasal verbs in formal writing. In most cases English has a more formal alternative that it has borrowed from the ancient language Latin (see 45. Latin Clues to English Spelling). For example, GET AWAY corresponds to ESCAPE, KEEP ON to CONTINUE and TURN DOWN to REFUSE. Speakers of Latin-related languages are unlikely to think of phrasal verbs instead of their more formal alternatives, but others, if they can think only of a phrasal verb during writing, are advised to seek a one-word synonym in a thesaurus.


3. Ability to Change into Nouns

This property of phrasal verbs is also considered in the post 26. One Word or Two? The noun form combines the two words into one, is usually countable and often sounds informal. In writing, there may or may not be a hyphen (a runaway, a breakout, a break-in); in speech, the adverb part loses its stress, leaving a single stressed syllable on the verbal part (see 125. Stress & Emphasis).

Not all phrasal verbs can become nouns. The change seems more likely with some base verbs than others, especially BREAK, CUT, GET, MAKE, SET and TAKE. Common nouns derived from phrasal verbs include the following:

breakaway, breakdown, break-in, breakout, breakthrough, check-in, checkout, comeback, come-down, cutback, cut-off, cut-out, drawback, drop-in, drop-off, dropout, follow-up, getaway, get-out, giveaway, handout, hideaway, holdup, makeover, make-up, payback, payoff, pickup, press-up, pushover, putdown, put-in, round-up, run-around, run-in, runaway, selloff, setback, set-down, set-up, shutdown, shutout, sit-in, sit-out, stand-by, start-up, takeaway, take-off, takeover, take-up, turnoff, turnover, turn-up

In some cases, a noun is formed by combining the two words in reverse order. Examples include:

downgrade, downpour, downturn, input, intake, onset, outbreak, outset, overview, throughput, upgrade, upset, upswing, uptake, upturn

It will be observed that PUT IN, BREAK OUT, SET OUT and TURN UP have a derived noun in each list. The meanings, however, are not the same. For example, a breakout is an escape from jail, while an outbreak is an appearance of a quickly-spreading problem (especially illness).


4. Adverb Typicality

Not every preposition can become an adverb in a phrasal verb: at, for, from, of, near and beside, for example, are very unlikely. The main prepositions seem to be in, out, up, down, on, off, along, through and over (away and back are not prepositions at all). Verbs with rarely-used prepositions include COME TO (= regain consciousness), GET BY (= manage) and GO UNDER (= fail; disappear).

Moreover, some of the preposition-like adverbs have quite typical idiomatic meanings, such as the following:

ON: continuation, e.g. CARRY ON, GO ON, KEEP ON, MOVE ON, PRESS ON

ON: initiation, e.g. SWITCH ON, SIGN ON, TURN ON

UP: division into pieces, e.g. BREAK UP, CUT UP, DIVIDE UP, SPLIT UP


AWAY: determined continuation, e.g. BATTLE AWAY, BEAVER AWAY, HAMMER AWAY, PLUG AWAY

It is interesting to note that most of the preposition-like adverbs found in phrasal verbs are also usable by themselves directly after BE, often with a similar meaning (see 154. Lone Prepositions after BE). In addition, they are sometimes used as prefixes in words not derived from phrasal verbs, such as downbeat, onshore and outrun (see 146. Some Important Prefix Types). 


5. Combinability with Prepositions

Some multi-word verbs include both an adverb and a preposition, e.g. PUT UP WITH (= “tolerate”). Grammar books usually call them “phrasal-prepositional”. In fact, though, they are more like prepositional verbs than phrasal ones, since they usually lack the special properties of the latter. The preposition is always the last word, and, as usual, it must be partnered by a noun or noun equivalent, as in this example:

(d) Astronauts put up with numerous inconveniences.

Lists of phrasal-prepositional verbs are easily found in most grammar descriptions. Those that might be used in professional environments include BACK OUT OF, CATCH UP WITH, CHECK UP ON, COME UP AGAINST, CUT DOWN ON, BE CUT OFF FROM, DO AWAY WITH, FACE UP TO, GET ON WITH, GIVE IN TO, KEEP UP WITH, LOOK FORWARD TO (see 35. “To Do” versus “To Doing”), LOOK UP TO, MOVE ON TO and STAND UP FOR.

In a few cases, the properties of a prepositional verb are combined with those of a phrasal one. Consider this:

(e) Not everyone puts global warming down to greenhouse gases.

This means that greenhouse gases are not everyone’s explanation of global warming. It will be seen that two objects are involved: greenhouse gases is the normal one required by the preposition (to), but global warming is positioned between the verb and adverb (down) – a feature of phrasal verbs. Not many verbs can be used in this way. Others include FIX … UP WITH, HELP … OUT WITH and PUT … IN FOR.  Verbs of this kind have some similarities to those in the post 123: Prepositional Verbs Containing a Noun.


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