Phrasal verbs

Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are a group of multi-word verbs made from a verb plus another word or words. Many people refer to all multi-word verbs as phrasal verbs. On these pages we make a distinction between three types of multi-word verbs: prepositional verbs, phrasal verbs and phrasal-prepositional verbs. On this page we look at phrasal verbs proper.

Phrasal verbs are made of:

verb + adverb

Phrasal verbs can be:

  • intransitive (no direct object)
  • transitive (direct object)

Here are some examples of phrasal verbs:

phrasal verbs meaning examples
direct object
intransitive phrasal verbs get up rise from bed I don’t like to get up.
break down cease to function He was late because his car broke down.
transitive phrasal verbs put off postpone We will have to put off the meeting.
turn down refuse They turned down my offer.
  • Separable Phrasal Verbs

When phrasal verbs are transitive (that is, they have a direct object), we can usually separate the two parts. For example, “turn down” is a separable phrasal verb. We can say: “turn down my offer” or “turn my offer down“. Look at this table:

transitive phrasal verbs are
They turned down my offer.
They turned my offer down.

However, if the direct object is a pronoun, we have no choice. We must separate the phrasal verb and insert the pronoun between the two parts. Look at this example with the separable phrasal verb “switch on”:

direct object pronounsmust go between the two parts of transitive phrasal verbs John switched on the radio. These are all possible.
John switched the radio on.
John switched it on.
John switched on it. This is not possible.

Separable or inseparable phrasal verbs? Some dictionaries tell you when phrasal verbs are separable. If a dictionary writes “look (something) up”, you know that the phrasal verb “look up” is separable, and you can say “look something up” and “look up something”. It’s a good idea to write “something/somebody” as appropriate in your vocabulary book when you learn a new phrasal verb, like this:

  • get up
  • break down
  • put something/somebody off
  • turn sthg/sby down

This tells you whether the verb needs a direct object (and where to put it).


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