What are they?

The term phrasal verb refers to all multi-word verbs, consisting of a verb + particle(s) – e.g. off, up, away, in, out etc.

It is quite common in English to find 2 verbs of a similar meaning, one of which is a phrasal verb, while the other one is a one-word verb. The latter one is usually of Latin origin and used in a more formal context (e.g. To accommodate somebody), whereas the multi-word counterpart (here – to put somebody up) would be used in an informal situation. For example if you speak to an English friend of a similar age you are unlikely to ask him to accommodate you (unless you want to sound like a E.T.!) – you would rather ask him to put you up. Therefore to be a proficient speaker of English you should know both types of verbs and use them naturally depending on the context.


The meaning of phrasal verbs

Sometimes it is possible to infer the meaning of a phrasal verb from the meaning of the verb and the particle (stand up, come in).

On other occasions just the particle may be of help to work out the meaning of a phrasal verb (use up, drink up, sum up – up standing forcompleting/finishing).

However, in most situations you simply have to approach phrasal verbs like any other new words: learn the exact meaning, notice how the word is used in context and frequently revise your examples.


The grammar of phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs can be divided into four basic grammatical types.



The object may come after the following phrasal verbs or it may separate the two parts:

– He picks up foreign languages very quickly.

– He picks foreign languages up very quickly.

When the object of the following phrasal verbs is a pronoun, the two parts of the phrasal verb must be separated.

-He picks themup very quickly.


blow up explode The terrorists tried to blow up the railroad station.
bring up mention a topic My mother brought up that little matter of my prison record again.
bring up raise children It isn’t easy to bring up children nowadays.
call off cancel They called off this afternoon’s meeting
do over repeat a job Do this homework over.
fill out complete a form Fill out this application form and mail it in.
fill up fill to capacity She filled up the grocery cart with free food.
find out discover My sister found out that her husband had been planning a surprise party for her.
give away give something to someone else for free The filling station was giving away free gas.
give back return an object My brother borrowed my car. I have a feeling he’s not about to give it back.
hand in submit something (assignment) The students handed in their papers and left the room.
hang up put something on hook or receiver She hung up the phone before she hung up her clothes.
hold up delay I hate to hold up the meeting, but I have to go to the bathroom.
hold up (2) rob Three masked gunmen held up the Security Bank this afternoon.
leave out omit You left out the part about the police chase down Asylum Avenue.
look over examine, check The lawyers looked over the papers carefully before questioning the witness. (They looked them over carefully.)
look up search in a list You’ve misspelled this word again. You’d better look it up.
make up invent a story or lie She knew she was in trouble, so shemade up a story about going to the movies with her friends.
make out hear, understand He was so far away, we really couldn’tmake out what he was saying.
pick out choose There were three men in the line-up. Shepicked out the guy she thought had stolen her purse.
pick up lift something off something else The crane picked up the entire house. (Watch them pick it up.)
point out call attention to As we drove through Paris, Francoisepointed out the major historical sites.
put away save or store We put away money for our retirement. She put away the cereal boxes.
put off postpone We asked the boss to put off the meeting until tomorrow. (Please put it off for another day.)
put on put clothing on the body I put on a sweater and a jacket. (I putthem on quickly.)
put out extinguish The firefighters put out the house fire before it could spread. (They put it outquickly.)
read over peruse I read over the homework, but couldn’t make any sense of it.
set up to arrange, begin My wife set up the living room exactly the way she wanted it. She set it up.
take down make a written note These are your instructions. Write themdown before you forget.
take off remove clothing It was so hot that I had to take off my shirt.
talk over discuss We have serious problems here. Let’stalk them over like adults.
throw away discard That’s a lot of money! Don’t just throw itaway.
try on put clothing on to see if it fits She tried on fifteen dresses before she found one she liked.
try out test I tried out four cars before I could find one that pleased me.
turn down lower volume Your radio is driving me crazy! Pleaseturn it down.
turn down (2) reject He applied for a promotion twice this year, but he was turned down both times.
turn up raise the volume Grandpa couldn’t hear, so he turned uphis hearing aid.
turn off switch off electricity We turned off the lights before anyone could see us.


turn off (2) repulse It was a disgusting movie. It reallyturned me off.
turn on switch on the electricity Turn on the CD player so we can dance.
use up exhaust, use completely The gang members used up all the money and went out to rob some more banks.


2) Inseparable Phrasal Verbs (transitive)


With the following phrasal verbs, the lexical part of the verb (the part of the verb that carries the verb-meaning) cannot be separated from the prepositions that accompany it (e.g. Who will look after my wife when I die?).


call on ask to recite in class The teacher called on students in the back row.
call on (2) visit The old minister continued to call on his sick parishioners.
get over recover from sickness or disappointment I got over the flu, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get over my broken heart.
go over review The students went over the material before the exam. They should have gone over it twice.
go through use up; consume They country went through most of its coal reserves in one year. Did he go through all his money already?
look after take care of My mother promised to look after my dog while I was gone.
look into investigate The police will look into the possibilities of embezzlement.
run across find by chance I ran across my old roommate at the college reunion.
run into meet Carlos ran into his English professor in the hallway.
take after resemble My second son seems to take after his mother.
wait on serve It seemed strange to see my old boss wait on tables.


3) Three – word Phrasal Verbs (transitive)

With the following phrasal verbs, you will find three parts (I don’t know how you put up with her.)


break in on interrupt (a conversation) I was talking to Mom on the phone when the operator broke in on our call.
catch up with keep abreast After our month-long trip, it was time tocatch up with the neighbors and the news around town.
check up on examine, investigate The boys promised to check up on the condition of the summer house from time to time.
come up with to contribute (suggestion, money) After years of giving nothing, the old parishioner was able to come up with a thousand-dollar donation.
cut down on curtail (expenses) We tried to cut down on the money we were spending on entertainment.
drop out of leave school I hope none of my students drop out ofschool this semester.
get along with have a good relationship with I found it very hard to get along with my brother when we were young.
get away with escape blame Janik cheated on the exam and then tried to get away with it.
get rid of eliminate The citizens tried to get rid of their corrupt mayor in the recent election.
get through with finish When will you ever get through with that program?
keep up with maintain pace with It’s hard to keep up with the Joneses when you lose your job!
look forward to anticipate with pleasure I always look forward to the beginning of a new semester.
look down on despise It’s typical of a jingoistic country that the citizens look down on their geographical neighbors.
look in on visit (somebody) We were going to look in on my brother-in-law, but he wasn’t home.
look out for be careful, anticipate Good instructors will look out for early signs of failure in their students
look up to respect First-graders really look up to their teachers.
make sure of verify Make sure of the student’s identity before you let him into the classroom.
put up with tolerate The teacher had to put up with a great deal of nonsense from the new students.
run out of exhaust supply The runners ran out of energy before the end of the race.
take care of be responsible for My oldest sister took care of us younger children after Mom died.
talk back to answer impolitely The star player talked back to the coach and was thrown off the team.
think back on recall I often think back on my childhood with great pleasure.
walk out on abandon Her husband walked out on her and their three children.



4) Intransitive Phrasal Verbs

The following phrasal verbs are never followed by an object (The plane takes off at 3.55 this afternoon.)


break down stop functioning That old Jeep had a tendency to break down just when I needed it the most.
catch on become popular Popular songs seem to catch on in California first and then spread eastward.
come back return to a place Father promised that we would nevercome back to this horrible place.
come in enter They tried to come in through the back door, but it was locked.
come to regain consciousness He was hit on the head very hard, but after several minutes, he started to come to again.
come over to visit The children promised to come over, but they never do.
drop by visit without appointment We used to just drop by, but they were never home, so we stopped doing that.
eat out dine in a restaurant When we visited Paris, we loved eating out in the sidewalk cafes.
get by survive Uncle Heine didn’t have much money, but he always seemed to get by without borrowing money from relatives.
get up arise Grandmother tried to get up, but the couch was too low, and she couldn’t make it on her own.
go back return to a place It’s hard to imagine that we will ever go back to Lithuania.
go on continue He would finish one Dickens novel and then just go on to the next.
go on (2) happen The cops heard all the noise and stopped to see what was going on.
grow up get older Charles grew up to be a lot like his father.
keep away remain at a distance The judge warned the stalker to keep away from his victim’s home.
keep on (with gerund) continue with the same He tried to keep onsinging long after his voice was ruined.
pass out lose consciousness, faint He had drunk too much; he passed out on the sidewalk outside the bar.
show off demonstrate haughtily Whenever he sat down at the piano, we knew he was going to show off.
show up arrive Day after day, Efrain showed up for class twenty minutes late.
wake up arouse from sleep I woke up when the rooster crowed.


It must be sincerely admitted that it is next to impossible to learn all the phrasal verbs. However, it seems like a good idea to record a phrasal verb once you come across it together with the context in which it appeared.

A lot of interesting examples, uses and further information can be found in any good monolingual English Dictionary (e.g. Collins, Longman, Cambridge)

For those who would like to take particular interest in contemporary English phrasal verbs I can recommend Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English volume IPhrasal Verbs by A P Cowie and R Mackin.