What are phrasal verbs?

It's the combination of a verb + a preposition resulting in a new verb with a different meaning.

She looked back and said good-bye. This is not considered a phrasal verb.
That's the only part that I regret, looking back on it. This is a phrasal verb. It means remember.
She looked up and saw the plane. This is not considered a phrasal verb.
She looked up the word in the dictionary. This is a phrasal verb. It means search.

The preposition changes the verb so you're not literally looking at anything. You're doing something else, remembering, searching, and so on.

Student

Up often means that something is finished so give up smoking means the same as stop smoking.

  • I've decided to give up smoking.
  • If you want to lose weight you'll have to give up eating sweets.
  • Don't give up without a fight.

 

On is often used when we are wearing something.

  • Put on your coat. It's cold.
  • Can I try on these jeans, please?
  • She had a beautiful dress on that evening.

Phrasal verbs are very common in spoken and written English so you need to learn them in order to understand and speak natural English and be fluent.

Many of these verbs have a single word alternative, often Latin-based, which is sometimes more common in formal or academic English. Discover is an alternative to find out.

If you're in a hurry to learn just a few verbs, take a look at our quick takeaway list.

Grammar and word order

 1  Separable: most verbs can be separated

Turn on the light.  verb + preposition + object (better with a long object)
Turn the light on. verb + object + preposition
Turn it on. verb + object + preposition (when the object is a pronoun)
  Turn on it

 

 2  Inseparable: some verbs always stay together

Look after the children. verb + preposition + object
Look after them. verb + preposition + object
Look them after.
Look the children after.

 

 3  Inseparable, no object (intransitive): some verbs can't be separated and don't take an object

He went away. verb + preposition
Why don't we eat out tonight? verb + preposition
Hurry up! We're going to be late. verb + preposition
Carry on working! verb + preposition

 

So remember that when we have an object (it, him her, the bus, etc) we need to know the word order. This information is shown in most dictionaries. But even if it isn't you should study the example to try to learn how the verb is used.

If you are not sure whether a verb is separable, don't separate it. You will always be right.

Verbs with two prepositions

Phrasal verbs like put up with sb/sth have two prepositions and are never separated. There are few verbs with two prepositions.

Phrasal verb noun & adjective

Just like many other verbs in the language, phrasal verbs can also be used as nouns and adjectives.

These are some examples: backup, pick-up, or slowdown, and adjectives like spaced-oud, burned-out, broken-down, and many others.

Different labels

Phrasal verbs, multi-word verbs, prepositional verbs, and so on. There are many different names for phrasal verbs but you shouldn't worry about this. The name is not important althought the most accepted term is phrasal verbs.

The preposition can be a preposition or and adverb. Again this is not important at all. You can call it a preposition, a preposition or an adverb. On this site we use the word preposition because it covers both prepositions and adverbs.

The important thing is being able to understand and use phrasal verbs.

Learn phrasal verbs properly

These two examples show you things that help you remember phrasal verbs:

 

Example 1.- To learn keep down try to remember...

Example 2.- To learn come across try to remember...

Meaning

The meaning of phrasal verbs may not be obvious but it's usually logical.

 

When you become familiar with the different meanings of prepositions it's easy to understand most phrasal verbs. Try to figure out the meaning of the preposition every time you learn a new phrasal verb.

The meanings are explained in the Understand pages. Compare the new phrasal verb you are learning with similar phrasal verbs that share the same preposition meaning.

Sometimes, though, it's just not possible to understand the logic behind the preposition. But there is surely a reason for speakers to use that preposition. It may just be that the choice of preposition was logical centuries ago to describe a common situation, but social change means we no longer find it logical because things are different now.