Phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are easier to learn than you might think. They can be divided into two categories: literal and non-literal phrasal verbs. Learn how to dominate them by following our step-by-step process.

3 important steps you need to follow:

  • The Golden Rule: never divide if you want to be correct 100% of the time.  
  • How to use phrasal verbs: separate or not to separate.
  • Literal and non-literal phrasal verbs: know how to recognise them and the meaning.

This article will teach you how to do all of these things, and in turn, dominate phrasal verbs.

The golden rule

Never divide if you want to be correct 100% of the time

  • The key to always being correct: just don’t divide them.

Regardless of whether a phrasal verb can be divided or not, if you don’t divide them, then you’ll always be grammatically correct. Let’s take a closer look at both transitive (it takes a direct object – an object that takes the direct action of a verb) and intransitive (no object) phrasal verbs:

“Pick up” – transitive (takes a direct object):

  • I picked up James. = correct.
  • I picked James up. = correct.

“Get along” – intransitive (no direct object):

  • I get along with James. = correct.
  • I get James along. = incorrect. (when a verb is intransitive the phrasal verb cannot be divided).

So, do you want to be correct 100% of the time? Then, say the following:

  • I picked up James. = correct.
  • I get along with James. = correct.

But, what happens if you would like to replace “James” with an object pronoun such as “him”? Then, you must divide it, however, this does not contradict the Golden Rule because you don’t have to use a pronoun. That’s your choice. So, if you’re not sure, at first, whether a phrasal verb can be divided then just don’t use pronouns and don’t divide them. Example with a pronoun:

  • I picked him up. = correct.
  • I picked up him. = incorrect. 

If you’re new to phrasal verbs and don’t want to make any mistakes in the beginning then you should stick to not separating them, however, once you familiarise yourself with them and you feel more confident then try to divide, it’ll make you sound more native and fluent.

How to use phrasal verbs (divide and non-divide)

No divide

  • Intransitive (no direct object) phrasal verbs that cannot be divided. 

Intransitive phrasal verbs cannot take a direct object, which means they are inseparable or non-dividable. A few examples:

 Get along, show up (with the sense of “arrive”), crack down on, pass away

  • I get along with my friend. = correct.
  • I get my friend along = incorrect, because “friend” is not a direct object. “Friend” does not take the direct action of the verb “get along”.
  • Juan showed up to work at eight o’clock. = correct
  • Juan showed to work up at eight o’clock = incorrect (“work” is not the direct object and does not take the verb’s action).
  • The government is cracking down on criminals. = correct.
  • The government is cracking on criminals down. = incorrect. (“criminals” is not the direct object and does not receive the direct action of the verb).

Remember, intransitive phrasal verbs cannot be divided.

Divide

  • Transitive (a direct object) means you can divide the verb.

Transitive phrasal verbs (they take a direct object, which receives the direct action of the verb) can be divided if you want to divide them. Most phrasal verbs are transitive. A few examples:

Help out, look up, fill out

  • I helped out my colleague. = correct.
  • I helped my colleague out. = correct.

“Colleague” is the direct object, and it receives the direct action of the verb “help out”.

  • Look up the issue on the internet. = correct.
  • Look the issue up on the internet. = correct.

“The issue” is the direct object, and it receives the direct action of the verb “look up”.

  • We have to fill out these forms. = correct.
  • We have to fill these forms out. = correct.

“These forms” is the direct object, and it receives the direct action of the verb “fill out”.

With transitive phrasal verbs, you can choose to divide them or not. If you’re not sure, don’t worry! Just stick to the Golden Rule – if in doubt, don’t divide!

Divide with a pronoun

  • You must divide if you use a pronoun.

Transitive phrasal verbs can be divided, which means the direct object can be put between the verb and the preposition or adverb, i., the teacher told Jack off. However, if you decide to use a pronoun, in this case, “him” (an object pronoun), then you must insert the pronoun between the verb and the preposition or adverb, that is, you must divide it. I.e.

  • The teacher told him off = correct.
  • The teacher told off him = incorrect.

The object pronoun “him” must be inserted in between the verb “told,” and the preposition “off”. Pronouns must always go between the verb and preposition or adverb, and never outside.

Inserting more context

  • Add more context between the verb and preposition/adverb (optional). 

Transitive phrasal verbs can be divided, which means the direct object can go between the verb and the preposition or adverb. I.e., my mother woke my brother up. But what if you wanted to add more context, or further describe the direct object “brother”? Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • My mother woke my older brother up. = correct.
  • My mother woke my older brother who is eighteen years old up. = correct.
  • My mother woke my older brother who is eighteen years old and really tall up. = correct.

All three sentences are correct. However, for the sake of reducing ambiguity, it is preferable to put the preposition or adverb (in this case “up”) closer to the verb and put the rest of the context after the preposition or adverb. I.e.,

  • My mother woke my older brother up who is eighteen years old and really tall. = correct and the preferred option.

Phrasal verbs or prepositional/adverbial verbs are verbs composed of a verb and a particle, generally, either a prepositional or adverbial particle to form another verb that usually has a completely different meaning to the verb used when it’s just on its own.

Are phrasal verbs formal or informal?

Phrasal verbs are usually used in an informal and everyday context. In more formal contexts or situations, for example in jurisdiction or medicine, the Latin equivalent of the phrasal verb will always be preferred. Phrasal verbs are most language learners’ worst nightmare and the learning process can often be seen as both tedious and time-consuming, but, in reality, they are not hard to learn and there are many tricks and short-cuts to learning a large portion of them. A lot of phrasal verbs can be learned without memorisation, whereas another portion that is idiomatic will need to be memorised or learned in context. Down below, we will do our best to explain the best way to approach phrasal verbs and learn how to utilise them with ease.

Phrasal verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive

  • Transitive phrasal verbs can be separable or inseparable. 

Some intransitive phrasal verbs (the verb doesn’t take a direct object) can also be transitive (the verb does take a direct object) if the meaning changes (yes, phrasal verbs can have several meanings). “Show up” for example, with the meaning of “arrive” is intransitive, that is, it does not take a direct object. One could say I showed up to work late, but not I showed to work up late, because the object “work” does not take the direct action of the verb. It is not a direct object.

However, “show up” can also mean “surpass”, in which case it takes a direct object:

  • I showed up the band by playing my instrument the best. = correct.

or

  • I showed the band up by playing my instrument the best. = correct.

Here, “show up” means “arrive”:

  • Sarah showed up at the concert at midnight. = correct.

But not:

  • Sarah showed the concert up at midnight. = incorrect.

“Show up” with the meaning of “arrive” does not take a direct object, so you cannot divide it in this sense. The “concert” is not the direct object in this sentence.

Remember, you don’t necessarily need to remember all of these rules. As stated, dividing phrasal verbs is optional, and you don’t have to divide them. Let’s take a look at another example of a phrasal verb, that, depending on the meaning, can be divided or not:

“Break down” can mean “to stop working”, in which case, there is no direct object, and therefore it cannot be divided:

  • My car broke down yesterday. = correct.

The car stopped working or it broke down. No direct object is possible. Here it cannot be divided because no object can be inserted.

“Break down” can also mean “to make something easier for it to be understood”. In which case, it is transitive:

  • Should I break down the maths problem for you? = correct.

Or

  • Should I break the maths problem down for you? = correct.

Both are correct. So, phrasal verbs can be both transitive and intransitive, but if you’re not sure, then just don’t divide/separate them, that way, you’ll always be correct.

Phrasal verbs in the passive voice

  • When you use the passive, you can’t divide the phrasal verb because the object becomes the subject of the sentence.

The main reason why the passive voice is used is that the focus is on the action or the experience rather than who or what is performing the action, in which case, the subject and object of the sentence or question are inverted (the object become the subject and the subject becomes the object or it is omitted).

So, when the object now becomes the subject of the sentence or question (or is omitted), obviously the phrasal verb cannot be divided or separated.

Here are a few separable phrasal verbs in the active and passive voice. Note, when they are used in the passive voice they cannot be separated.

Example phrasal verbs that can be separated (phrasal verbs can’t be separated in the passive voice): turn down, put off, pick up, wake up.

Phrasal verbActive voice (can be separated or not)Passive voice (cannot be separated)
Turn downI turned down the offer. I turned the offer down.The offer was turned down (by me). (Past simple – passive voice).
Put offLuke is putting off the meeting. Luke is putting the meeting off.The meeting is being put off (by Luke). (Present continuous – passive voice).
Pick upI will pick up my sister from the airport. I will pick my sister up from the airport.My sister will be picked up from the airport (by me). (Future simple – passive voice).
Wake upI wake up my brother every morning. I wake my brother up every morning.My brother is woken up every morning (by me). (Present simple – passive voice).

Notice that when a phrasal verb that can be separated is used in the passive it can not be separated because its object has become the subject. The subjects are underlined. Moreover, the subjects have been put in parenthesis () in the passive voice because it’s not necessary to use the subject in the passive.

An overview

  • A summary of the lesson with a friendly table. 

The table below contains a summary with a small sample of some phrasal verbs, some of which are transitive and others intransitive so that you can get a good idea as to the process by which they are constructed:

Phrasal verbNot separatedSeparatedSeparated with more contextSeparated with a pronoun (obligatory)Passive voice
Show upI show up to work every day. –(due to the nature of the verb, the passive voice can’t be used).
Pick upJane picked up her sister from home.Jane picked her sister up from home.Jane picked her sister who is a professional ballet dancer from home up.Jane picked her up.Her sister was picked up from home (by Jane).
Put offGeorge put off our meeting.George put out meeting off.George put our meeting that we had scheduled for five o’clock off.George put it off.Our meeting was put off (by George).
Drop offWe have dropped off your present.We have dropped your present off.We have dropped your present which had been designed just for you off.We have dropped it off.Your present has been dropped off (by us).
Break down (Something becomes unusable)Our car broke down.
Break down (make a “problem” easier)She’s always breaking down issues for me so that I can understand them.She’s always breaking issues down for me so that I can understand them.She’s always breaking issues for me down so that I can understand them.She’s always breaking them down for me so that I can understand them.Issues are always being broken down for me so that I can understand them.

Again, don’t forget that you don’t need to divide or separate phrasal verbs. If you don’t separate them, you will always be correct. As you get more and more familiarised and confident with them, you can start to separate them as your confidence picks up.

Literal and non-literal phrasal verbs

  • Know how to recognise them and the meaning.

There are many, many phrasal verbs, both idiomatic and non-idiomatic. The non-idiomatic ones can be learnt without memorisation or context. Just by knowing the verb and the preposition/adverb particle you can easily deter the meaning.

There may be thousands upon thousands of phrasal verbs, but there are only about 20-25 prepositions that form the majority of these phrasal verbs, thus, that is to say, you only need to know the meaning of the preposition and verb, and you’ll easily deter the meaning of the phrasal verb, with or without context! This rule applies ONLY to the non-idiomatic ones! 

Let’s take a look now at some of the most common phrasal verbs in English, take note of the preposition at the end, and do the tally yourself. You’ll see that, despite the grand number of these funny verbs, the total number of prepositions that form all phrasal verbs is limited to about 20 odd, thus, it’s really not that difficult when you see it like this.

List of very common phrasal verbs

  • turn up
  • put off
  • put down
  • add up
  • get along
  • get away
  • come across
  • blow up
  • give up
  • look up
  • pick up
  • talk over
  • run into
  • drop off
  • grow up
  • wake up
  • show up
  • catch up
  • fill out
  • give away
  • turn down

Here’s a small list composed of arguably the 21 most common phrasal verbs, have you taken note of the total number of preposition or adverb particles? Just from this list alone, it’s 11! 

This is a very small number and the number doesn’t get much bigger for all the remaining phrasal verbs within the entirety of the English language. That is to say, in order to learn all the non-idiomatic phrasal verbs of English, you only need to know the phrasal verb and a very limited number of prepositions or adverbs particles. Bear in mind, this is not taking into account that some phrasal verbs could be both idiomatic and non-idiomatic, that means you would learn, by following this rule, the literal meaning, but not its other meanings that would indeed be idiomatic. Let’s now look at the list again and try to denote or figure out the meanings of this selection of very popular phrasal verbs just by knowing the verb and the prepositional and or adverbial particle:

Explanation

  • turn up (verb ‘turn’, means to alter something. ‘up’ means to literally head upwards.
  • put off (verb ‘put’, means to order or impose. ‘off’ means opposite of ‘on’ in most cases.
  • put down (verb ‘put’, means to order or impose. ‘down’ means in a downward direction).
  • add up (verb ‘add’, means to calculate. ‘up’ means to literally head upwards).
  • get along (verb ‘get’ see link  ‘Get’ A complete set of rules  )
  • get away (verb ‘get’, see link ‘Get’ A complete set of rules
  • come across (verb ‘come’, means to approach. ‘across’ means ‘beyond’ or ‘further’)
  • blow up (verb ‘blow’, means to explode. ‘up’ means to literally head upwards).
  • give up (verb ‘give’, means to deliver or transmit someone or something. ‘up’ means to literally head upwards.
  • look up (verb ‘look’, means to observe or find. ‘up’ means to head upwards or increase.
  • pick up (verb ‘pick’, means to choose or prefer. ‘up’ means to head upwards or increase.
  • talk over (verb ‘talk’, means to discuss, chat. ‘over’ means completed, concluded.
  • run into (verb ‘run’, means to pace steadily. ‘in’ means ‘within’ or ‘inside’ and ‘to’ is a preposition of movement to indicate movement.
  • drop off (verb ‘drop’, means to lower.  ‘off’ means opposite of ‘on’ in most cases and ‘out’ or ‘away’).
  • grow up (verb ‘grow’, means to cultivate. ‘up’ means to head upwards or increase.
  • wake up (verb ‘wake’ means to rise from sleep.  ‘up’ means to head upwards or increase.
  • show up (verb ‘show’ means to appear or display.  ‘up’ means to head upwards or increase.
  • catch up (verb ‘catch’ means to capture or net.  ‘up’ means to head upwards or increase.
  • fill out (verb ‘fill’, means to cram or heap. ‘out’ means bound or resolved).
  • give away (verb ‘give’, means to deliver or transmit someone or something. ‘away’ means distant or afar, not in the position of the speaker.
  • turn down (verb ‘turn’, means to alter something. ‘down’ means in a downward direction).

Above we have a full list of very common phrasal verbs, all of which we denote the meanings of the verb and the prepositional/adverbial particle. Now, without translating the meaning, all the above phrasal verbs will be listed and in context so you can see that, with knowledge of the verb and the particle (both prepositional and adverbial) you can easily understand phrasal verbs and get the meaning instantly, that is, the non-idiomatic ones that make up a huge majority of phrasal verbs in English.  Verbs are in blue and the adverb/preposition particle in red.

  • turn up: I turned the volume up. I turned up the volume.
  • put off: I put off going to work today because I’m sick.
  • put down: She put down her opinions and spoke well.
  • add up: I added up the numbers.
  • get along: I get along well with my brother.
  • get away: The prisoner got away.
  • come across: He came across as being a nice guy.
  • blow up: They blew up the building with explosives.
  • give up: He gave up his football career.
  • look up: I need to look up the word in the dictionary.
  • pick up: Can you pick up my kids from school?
  • talk over: We talked over our new plans.
  • run into: I ran into my best friend in the center.
  • drop off: Sam dropped off to the supermarket to get some beer.
  • grow up: I grew up in the United States.
  • wake up: People who work normally wake up early.
  • show up: I showed up for work late.
  • catch up: My friends and I really need to catch up because we haven’t seen each other for ages.
  • fill out: Please, fill out the documents.
  • give away: The governor gave his car away for charity.
  • turn down: I need to turn down the music. The guy is complaining.

I’ll leave it to you to work out the meanings now that you understand that it’s only a question of knowing the verb itself and the particle. Once you’ve nailed these two, you shouldn’t have any problem denoting the meanings of most non-idiomatic phrasal verbs!

See also: