Phrasal verbs in English

Phrasal verbs are verbs which have a main verb and a particle which, together, create one meaning (e.g. a plane takes off from the airport; an adult looks after a child). You will come across a great many phrasal verbs when you listen to and read English, and so it is important that you learn about their meanings and about how they are used. There are more than 5,000 phrasal verbs and related noun and adjective forms in use in English.

What are phrasal verbs?

Phrasal verbs are verbs that consist of a verb and a particle

lookUPYou can look up any new words in your dictionaryYou can find the meaning of any new words in your dictionary
getthroughtried to phone her but 1 couldn’t get throughtried to phone her but 1 couldn’t get a connection
makeoutjust can’t make Jim out at alljust can’t understand Jim’s behaviour

Particles are small words which you already know as prepositions or adverbs. Here are some of the most common phrasal verb particles: about (a)round at away back down for in into off on out over through to up

What do I need to know about phrasal verbs?

First you need to know the meaning of the whole phrasal verb as a unit. For example, look means to use your eyes and up means the opposite of down, but the phrasal verb look up can have several different meanings:

  • Look the word up in the dictionary  [look up = search for information in a book/computer]
  • I’ll look you up next time I’m in London [look up = visit someone you have not seen for a long time]
  • Things are looking up. [look up = improve]

Next you need to know the grammar patterns of phrasal verbs, e.g. whether the verb takes an object. Note that sth means something; sb means someone.

grammar patterncommentexample
eat outthe verb is used without an objectWe were too tired to cook at home so we decided to eat out. [eat in a restaurant] Not: We decided to eat out a meal.
bring back sth or bring sth backthe verb must have a non-human objectThis photograph brings back happy memories, [makes me remember or think about something from the past] Not:This photograph brings back my sister.
ask out sb or ask sb outthe verb must have a human objectI’d love to ask Sally out. [invite Sally to go to a place like a cinema or a restaurant] Not: I’d love to ask my dog out.
look after sb/sththe object can be either human or non-humanI’ll look after the baby while you’re cooking. Will you look after my bike while I’m away?
ring sb backthe object must come before the particleI’ll ring you back later, [phone you again] Not: I’ll  ring back  you:
look after sb/sththe object must come after the particleCan you look after the dog while I’m away?

Not: Can you look the dog after while I’m away?

drop off sb/sth or drop sb/sth offthe object can be before or after the particle1 dropped off the package at her house, [delivered/left] 1 dropped the package off at her house.

Classification of phrasal verbs

The first classificationThe second classification
multi-word verbsphrasal verbs
intransitive phrasal verbsintransitive phrasal verbs with adverbs
transitive phrasal verbsintransitive phrasal verbs with prepositions
transitive prepositional phrasal verbstransitive phrasal verbs
other structures with multi-word verbsintransitive 3-word phrasal verbs
other multi-word verb constructionstransitive 3-word phrasal verbs

Examples of the use of phrasal verbs in English

  • We need to sort the problem out
  • I sent off the order last week but the goods haven’t turned up yet
  • Dan called up his friend
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