Phrasal verbs

This page gives examples of the difficulty of phrasal verbs for learners of English.


Among the first words encountered by non-native learners of English are one-syllable verbs like make, get, take, go, put, and prepositions or adverbs such as in, on, up, down, for, out, over. These words are very easy to understand when used in isolation. Sentences such as He made a cake or She climbed up the tree cause no difficulties at all.

The great problem for the learner is when they occur in fixed combinations called phrasal verbs. The English language is full of such verbs and in many cases their meaning cannot be guessed from the component parts.

Difficulty 1

A beginning learner of English hearing the sentence He took off his hat should have little difficulty understanding what it means. But she may have problems with the sentence The plane took off (The plane rose into the air) and she is unlikely to have any idea of the meaning of He took off his teacher (He imitated his teacher). Similarly, she will no doubt understand He put a picture up, but how can she begin to make sense of He put me up (He gave me a bed for the night)?

A learner who knows that to tick is to make a checkmark may have difficulty in understanding the sentence The teacher ticked off the student for being late, in which the phrasal verb to tick off means to reprimand or to express disapproval.

Difficulty 2

The second difficulty of phrasal verbs is exemplified in the previous section. Namely, many of them have more than one meaning. So, the learner who is familiar with one meaning of the verb is very likely to be confused when meeting the same verb in a different context with a different meaning.

Consider the phrasal verb with the components put and down. Each of the following uses has a different sense:

  • He finished the book and put it down on the table.
  • You're always putting me down. (criticise / humiliate)
  • The police quickly put down the riots. (stop / crush)
  • I had to have my dog put down. (kill)

Difficulty 3

Many phrasal verbs have not just two but three components. Such verbs are often particularly difficult to understand because the learner hears a string of words, each of which she knows very well, but which in combination do not make any sense. Here are some common three-part verbs with their meaning and an example:

  • get up to (do) - What have you been getting up to lately?
  • put up with (tolerate) - I can't put up with his rudeness any more
  • go in for (like) - I don't go in for team sports
  • come out with (say) - She's always coming out with the most outrageous remarks
  • go/come down with (fall sick) - Sorry, I won't be at work today. I think I've come down with the flu.

Difficulty 4

It is not enough, however, to simply understand phrasal verbs. Because they are so common in every-day conversation, second language learners who wish to sound natural when speaking English need to know how to produce them correctly themselves.

But @using a phrasal verb correctly is not only a matter of knowing its meaning; the learner also has to know its grammar.~ The particular meaning of transitive A transitive phrasal verb has an object. For example, I turned off the light, where the light is the object.

Intransitive verbs have no object. For example, I gave in (= I surrendered).

It is the position of the particle in relation to the object that is the difficulty with transitive phrasal verbs.
phrasal verbs often determine the order of their component parts in a sentence. So, for example, you can say both Could you put up my parents? and Could you put my parents up? when the meaning of put up is give a bed for the night.

But if the meaning is show or produce, there is only one possible order of words. It has to be for example He put up a good fight but was finally defeated . It is not possible to say He put a good fight up... .

Similarly you can say He put the light out or He put out the light meaning extinguish or turn off. But when put out has the sense of doing something inconvenient in order to help someone else , only one order of words is correct. It has to be Don't put yourself out. It is not possible to say Don't put out yourself.

Difficulty 5

A final problem for the learner is to judge the appropriateness or formality of the phrasal verb. So both to get at and to go on about more or less mean to say, to mean. But it is too informal to ask your teacher or boss What are you getting at? And it is both informal and impolite to say What are you going on about?


Each of the following sentences contains a commonly-used phrasal verb. Try to guess the meanings of the ones you don't already know before clicking to see the answers.

1. It's up to him.
2. He's not up to it.
3. He's in for it.
4. He's got it in for me.
5. I don't get on with him.
6. I don't take to him.
7. He takes after his father.
8. He took me in with his story.
9. He took it out on me.
10. He took me up on my offer.
11. He is put out you didn't come.
12. He turned down my suggestion.
13. I think he's gone off me.
14. He turned up late again today.
  1. It's up to him. - It's his decision.
  2. He's not up to it. - He's not good enough or strong enough to do it.
  3. He's in for it. - He's in trouble for something he's done.
  4. He's got it in for me. - He makes my life unpleasant. (He's always getting at me.)
  5. I don't get on with him. - We don't have a friendly relationship.
  6. I don't take to him. - I don't like him
  7. He takes after his father. - He is similar to his father.
  8. He took me in with his story. - He deceived me with his story.
  9. He took it out on me. - He was feeling angry about something and made me suffer as a result.
  10. He took me up on my offer. - He accepted my offer.
  11. He is put out you didn't come. - He's annoyed you didn't come.
  12. He turned down my suggestion - He rejected my suggestion.
  13. I think he's gone off me. - I think he doesn't like me any more.
  14. He turned up late again today. - He arrived late again today.


If you didn't know what to make of these sentences (i.e. you didn't understand them), don't let it get you down (i.e. don't be despondent). You could just do with (i.e. you need) extra practice!

There is a lot more about this topic, including interactive quizzes, on the Phrasal Verbs index.