What Is a Phrasal Verb?
Phrasal verb is one of those obscure grammar terms that few non-linguists even remember learning. But phrasal verbs are common in everyday English. They can confuse English learners and English speakers just learning formal grammar, but once you learn to spot them, they are simple and interesting.
Not a Verb Phrase
You might recall what a verb phrase is: a verb consisting of a main verb and one or more auxiliary (or helping) verbs. Examples would include:
- Bob is balancing on a llama.
- A third eye has emerged on Stan’s forehead.
- I have been kidnapped twelve times by aliens.
But despite the similarity of the terms, a phrasal verb is different from a verb phrase. Don’t blame me. I didn’t come up with the names.
A phrasal verb is a verb that consists of a verb and a particle. Okay, so what’s a particle? Basically, a particle is a word that doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any of the normal parts of speech categories. In the case of a phrasal verb, it almost always looks like a preposition, but functions more like an adverb…but not exactly. Clear as mud, right?
Maybe some examples will help. Here are some common phrasal verbs in action:
- Will you please look up the word miasma in that Webster’s?
- The CIA might be tapping in to this conversation.
- I’ll be fine; just go on without me.
Observe how these verbs are all constructed: a regular verb (look, tap, get) with a preposition (up, in, on) attached. That’s a phrasal verb.
Only the “prepositions” don’t really function like prepositions. Remember that a preposition always shows relationship between two nouns or pronouns. These words don’t do that. If anything, they function like adverbs, modifying the main verb. That’s why they are sometimes called prepositional adverbs, or adverbial particles.
But they don’t work like regular adverbs either — at least not in any literal way. For example, when we use the phrasal verb look up, the word up does not indicate direction like it normally does. It doesn’t mean “to look in an upward direction.” It’s an idiomatic use of up — one that isn’t literal, but is intuitively understood by English speakers.
Think about these sentences:
- Look up at the beautiful blue sky.
- Who is tapping in the basement?
- Does this gnome figurine go on the shelf?
We find the same words together here: look up, tapping in, and go on. But none of these are phrasal verbs. In the first sentence up is used as an adverb, modifying the verb look. We actually are being told to look in the up direction. In the second two sentences, in, and on are serving as regular prepositions, showing relationship and introducing prepositional phrases.
A Whole New Word
Here’s the key to understanding a phrasal verb: the addition of the particle turns the verb into an entirely different verb. Phrasal verbs are words working as a unit with a distinct meaning. A phrasal verb is not a verb plus an adverb or a verb plus a preposition. It’s a verb all by itself.
The verb shut, for example, means “to close.” But shut up does not mean “to shut in an upward direction.” When you add up to shut, you create a whole new verb that means “be quiet.” Voila! A phrasal verb.
Phrasal Verb Phrases
Now, a phrasal verb can be a part of a verb phrase too:
I will be backing out of my obligation.
I’ve underlined the whole verb phrase: will be backing out. Will and be are auxiliary verbs and the main verb is the phrasal verb backing out.
Don’t Bother Memorizing Lists
All this reminds me again why I don’t like the idea of memorizing the prepositions when learning grammar. I wrote before about how sometimes words in the list of prepositions are used as adverbs. Now we see that sometimes they are used as adverbial particles in the formation of phrasal verbs. Grammar is all about figuring out how words and word groups function to create meaning, and because words that look like prepositions aren’t always functioning as prepositions, it only causes confusion with those who’ve memorized the list.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands (I haven’t counted) of phrasal verbs in English. Here’s a short list of some of the more common ones:
add up to
come down with
cut back on
do away with
get along with
get away with
get back at
get around to
go out with
look down on
look forward to
look up to
You know that thought you have in your head right now? You should leave it as a comment below. For real.