Phrasal verbs

This page has information about English phrasal verbs.


A phrasal verb Grammarians do not agree on what can be classified as a phrasal verb. And some, for example The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, reject the term altogether.

Other terms have been suggested, including: prepositional verbs, phrasal-prepositional verbs, verbal idioms and multi-word verb constructions.
is the combination of a lexical verb Lexical verbs are all verbs except for auxiliary verbs. such as make or put with one or two particles. In some cases the particle is an adverb such as up, together. In other cases it is a preposition such as through, in.

@ Phrasal verbs are very common in everyday spoken and informal written language. ~ Here are a few examples: make up, pull in, get together, make do with, put down to.

The difficulty of phrasal verbs

English language learners often have great difficulty with phrasal verbs. Not only in understanding them, but also in using them correctly.

Firstly, phrasal verbs can be difficult to understand because they often have meanings that are idiomatic. The meaning cannot be deduced from the elements of the verb. So, for example, the phrasal verb to put down can be used literally to mean to put down - on the table or floor. But it can also be used idiomatically to mean a. to criticize and humiliate someone , b. to kill a sick or old animal or c. to stop or put an end to (a riot, etc.).

Secondly, phrasal verbs can also be difficult to use because of variations in the placement of the particle. In some cases the particle can be put in more than one position in the sentence. In other cases the particle usually appears in only one position. So, for example, you can say both I put my reading glasses on and I put on my reading glasses*. But it can only be: The teacher is always putting his students down. The sentence The teacher is always putting down his students is non-standard.

* Note: The particle can come before the object (as in the put on example above) only if the object is a noun or noun phrase (my reading glasses).

If, on the other hand, the object is a pronoun, then it is much more natural to put the object before the pronoun: I put them on. The alternative placement (I put on them) would probably sound unacceptable to most native English speakers.

Despite their significant semantic and grammar difficulties, @@ it is important for learners to try to use phrasal verbs in spoken English. Using a formal synonym often produces language that sounds very odd to a native speaker. ~~ For example: Oh, do desist from talking! instead of the common Oh, do shut up! or Oh, do belt up! or Oh, do pipe down!

On the English: An easy language? section of this site is a further discussion of the difficulty of phrasal verbs.

More resources on phrasal verbs

There is more about phrasal verbs, including lists and quizzes, on the phrasal verb index page.

The Collins Cobuild Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs is recommended for learners who want to see more examples of this difficult but important aspect of English grammar. There is also a comprehensive list of phrasal verbs on the UsingEnglish website.

For teachers: There is an analysis of phrasal verbs in: Lui, Dilin. "The Most Frequently Used English Phrasal Verbs in American and British English: A Multicorpus Examination." TESOL Quarterly 45.4 (2011): 661-688.