What Is a Phrasal Verb?

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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?

Examples

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:

ask out

add up to

back up

blow up

break down

break in

break up

bring up

call off

call on

calm down

catch up

check in

check out

cheer up

chip in

come across

come down with

count on

cross out

cut back on

cut in

cut off

do over

do away with

dress up

drop back

drop in

drop off

drop out

eat out

end up

fall apart

fall down

fall over

figure out

fill in

fill up

find out

get along with

get around

get away with

get back at

get around to

get together

give away

give in

give up

go after

go out with

grow apart

grow back

hand down

hand over

hang on

hang out

hang up

hold back

hold on

keep out

keep up

let down

let in

let up

look after

look down on

look over

look forward to

look into

look up

look up to

make up

pass away

pass out

pass up

*****

You know that thought you have in your head right now? You should leave it as a comment below. For real. 

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Connie Patterson
    Connie Patterson02-07-2014

    I love learning something new! Thanks.

  2. Corey
    Corey12-10-2013

    I have a question. Can a person end a sentence with a phrasal verb and still be grammatically correct? (e.g.: “That is not the correct cabinet to look in.”) It just sounds like a grammatically incorrect practice to me. Sometimes things sound incorrect when they are correct though.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko12-10-2013

      Hi Corey, thanks for the question.

      Yes, it’s perfectly fine to end a sentence with a phrasal verb. In fact, no matter what anyone tells you, it’s perfectly fine to end a sentence with any kind of word you like. There is an enduring myth that one ought not to end a sentence with a preposition, but there has never been a good reason to insist on this, and excellent speakers and writers have been breaking the “rule” for centuries. I write about it here: http://blog.writeathome.com/index.php/2012/05/never-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition/

      By the way, your example doesn’t actually contain a phrasal verb. “In” in this case is a preposition (the object is “cabinet”). It’s fine grammatically, but it probably sounds funny to you because you’ve been taught not the end a sentence with a preposition.

      It would be fine with a phrasal verb at the end too:

      I wish you would grow up.
      Stan is somebody I just cant get along with.
      Let meet up. Come over. We can hang out.

      All normal, common, acceptable ways to speak English.

  3. Mary Brueggemann
    Mary Brueggemann09-11-2013

    I had never heard of this before. :) So if you were diagramming a phrasal, would you put the whole thing in the predicate spot?

    Thanks for enlightening me!

  4. Gail
    Gail09-11-2013

    The first clear explanation I’ve heard. Thank you.

  5. Heidi Scovel
    Heidi Scovel09-10-2013

    Very helpful. Thank you!

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