What Are Phrasal Verbs? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Phrasal Verbs

A phrasal verb is a multi-word verb made up of a main verb and at least one preposition or a particle that changes the meaning of the verb from the original verb.

Easy Examples of Phrasal Verbs

  • to break in
  • (The main verb is "to break." The preposition is "in." The phrasal verb is to "break in," which has a different meaning to "to break.")
  • to catch up
  • to blow up
  • to break down
  • to cut back
Most phrasal verbs are two words, but three-word ones are also common:
  • to put up with
  • to go out with
  • to check up on
  • to cut down on
phrasal verb

Real-Life Examples of Phrasal Verbs

In these examples, the phrasal verbs are shaded.
  • Damn your principles! Stick to your party. (Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli)
  • When people find out you're an actress, they Google you. (Actress Laverne Cox)
  • Meditation helps me to calm down. (Singer Lady Gaga)
  • Do I exaggerate? Boy, do I, and I'd do it more if I could get away with it. (Comedian David Sedaris)
A phrasal verb is also known as multi-word verb or a compound verb.

There Are Transitive and Intransitive Phrasal Verbs

Some phrasal verbs are transitive (i.e., they can take a direct object), and some phrasal verbs are intransitive (i.e., do not take a direct object).

Here are some examples of transitive phrasal verbs. (The direct objects are in bold.)
  • Fill in the form as quickly as possible.
  • Did you go over those reports last night?
  • I will look into it immediately.
  • I felt compelled to hand the purse in .
  • (Note: Some phrasal verbs are separable. There is more on this below.)
Here are some examples of intransitive phrasal verbs. (The phrasal verbs are still, but there are no direct objects of course. That's the whole point.)
  • If you're unhappy, please stand up .
  • The lorry is starting to drop back.
  • The tree could fall down.
  • Do not give in.
Some phrasal verbs can be transitive or intransitive depending on their meaning. For example:
  • She will show up soon.
  • (This is intransitive. It means "She will appear soon.")
  • She will show up the opposition.
  • (This is transitive. It means "She will embarrass the opposition.")

There Are Separable and Inseparable Phrasal Verbs

Some transitive phrasal verbs are separable. This means the direct object appears between the verb and the preposition. For example:
  • I will make you up to look like a princess.
  • She talked her father into letting her attend the party.
Some transitive phrasal verbs are inseparable. This means the direct object appears after the preposition. For example:
  • She looks up to her sister.
  • You must stick to the plan at all costs.
Lots of transitive phrasal verbs can be used in a separable way or an inseparable way. For example:
  • He looked my address up on the National Voter Register.
  • (This is the separable way.)
  • He looked up my address on the National Voter Register.
  • (This is the inseparable way.)
Here's a quirk: When the direct object is a pronoun (like it), you cannot use the inseparable way. For example:
  • He looked up it on the National Voter Register.
  • He looked it up on the National Voter Register.
  • (That's crazy. Anyway, good luck explaining that if you're an English teacher!)

Is the Accompanying Word a Particle or a Preposition?

A phrasal verb is made up of a verb and an accompanying word (or words). The accompanying word (or words) is classified as either a preposition or a particle. ("Particle" just means "nothing in particular." The particles in phrasal verbs are often classified as adverbs, but this description is widely contested...and with good reason. The particle of a phrasal verb doesn't tell us how, when, where, or why the action of the verb is being carried out. It changes the verb's meaning. That doesn't sound very adverb-like.)

When the accompanying word introduces a prepositional phrase, it is classified as a preposition. If it does not, it is classified as a particle. For example:
  • She takes after her mother.
  • (In this example, the prepositional phrase is after her mother. The word after is a preposition.)
  • Please think it over.
  • (In this example, the word over does not introduce a prepositional phrase. Therefore, it is a particle as opposed to a preposition.)
  • I can stand in for you next week.
  • (In this example, the word in is a particle but the word for is a preposition as it introduces the prepositional phrase for you.)
Read more about prepositional phrases.

Why Should I Care about Phrasal Verbs?

There are three good reasons to avoid phrasal verbs and two good reasons to embrace them.

(Reason to Avoid 1) Phrasal verbs sound informal.

Phrasal verbs tend to derive from our Germanic heritage. As the Germanic elements in our language stem from the language of the common people, phrasal verbs are usually easy on the ear and easily understandable for native English speakers. That's all good. The downsides, however, are that phrasal verbs can seem informal and they eat up your wordcount. Therefore, in business and academic writing, there is a leaning towards the one-word Latinate verbs, i.e., those which derive from our French heritage. Latinate verbs sound more formal because they stem from the language of our aristocracy.
  • We'll all get together in the foyer. (okay, if a little informal)
  • We will congregate in the foyer. (preferable in a formal email)
  • We've put the meeting off until Tuesday. (okay, if a little informal)
  • The meeting is postponed until Tuesday. (preferable in a formal email)

(Reason to Avoid 2) Some phrasal verbs eat up your wordcount unnecessarily.

The merit of Germanic over Latinate words is up for debate, but some phrasal verbs include prepositions or particles that don't add anything. Delete them.
  • I cannot face up to this problem. (okay)
  • I cannot face this problem. (better, more succinct)
  • Try this new garlic dip out. (okay)
  • Try this new garlic dip. (better, more succinct)
  • She will not stand for shoddy work. (okay)
  • She will not stand shoddy work. (better, more succinct)
If the phrasal verb sounds better, go with it.
  • Even I don't wake up looking like Cindy Crawford. (Model Cindy Crawford)
  • (It is possible to use wake without up, but it doesn't sound as natural.)

(Reason to Avoid 3) A phrasal verb often sticks a preposition at the end of your sentence.

Yeah, it doesn't matter how many times we're told that it's okay to end a sentence in a preposition. There are still wads of people out there - as evidenced by our poll - who think it isn't okay. So, for now, if you can easily avoid ending a sentence in a preposition, you might as well. For one, it's safer, and, two, it's usually more succinct. Think of it as a game, not a rule.
  • It is a situation I will not put up with. (okay)
  • It is a situation I will not tolerate. (safer and more succinct)
  • Can you sort it out? (okay)
  • Can you resolve it? (safer and more succinct)

(Reason to Embrace 1) A phrasal verb might better fit your image.

When choosing words for business correspondence, you must consider the character of your business. For example, auditors like KPMG might write "Terms and Conditions of the Contract," while Virgin Media might write "The stuff you need to know." You must know your "writing voice." If you're a formal bunch, you should probably steer clear of phrasal verbs, but if you're a down-with-the-kids outfit, phrasal verbs and other simplistic vocabulary will be a better fit.
  • We would not expect you to tolerate a second-rate service. (corporate)
  • Don't put up with bad service. (engaging)

(Reason to Embrace 2) Phrasal verbs are easily understood.

Phrasal verbs are often much clearer than Latinate verbs.
  • The framework is required to concatenate the disparate elements.
  • (This might sound business-like, but there's a risk it won't be understood.)
  • The framework is required to join up each element.
  • (This is much clearer and safer.)
Often, the clarity and naturalness afforded by a phrasal verb is worth the informality.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What are transitive verbs? What is a direct object? What are intransitive verbs? What are prepositions? Glossary of grammatical terms