Phrasal verbs

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A phrasal verb is a two-word verb, essentially a compound verb. It consists of the main verb and a particle. The particle often looks like a preposition or an adverb, but it is actually a type of particle known as a verbal particle - a minor word class borrowed from the preposition category, but used as a compounding element to modify the verb. The most common verb particles in English are:

about, across, along, apart, around, aside, at, away, back, by, down, forth, from, in, into, of, off, on, out, over, through, to, together, under, up, with

When is it a phrasal verb? We can usually tell that it is a phrasal verb, not a verb plus preposition or adverb when enough of the following apply.


1. Position. An apparent preposition is stranded at the end of a sentence; the stranded item is often a phrasal verb particle.

I need to look something up.
I'll try to check it out.


2. Movement. The particle can move. It can come before or after a noun direct object, depending on what is emphasized (the noun, or the verb), or what is old and new information (if the noun is new information, it tends to come after the particle).

Turn the light on.
Turn on the light.


a) Note: If the direct object is any kind of pronoun (personal pronoun, indefinite pronoun, demonstrative, etc.), the pronoun object must precede the particle, and the particle come last.

Call him up.
Turn it up.
Don't check any out.


b) Note: Some particles are immovable, so they must come before the noun. In this case, it is like a regular verb plus a preposition, with a non-literal meaning.

I ran into my old friend. (ran into = happen to meet, not literally hit)


3. Questions. The particle cannot begin a wh-question.

Whom did you call up?
not: *Up whom did you call?


4. Relative clauses. The particle cannot begin a relative clause.

That's the ex-roommate whom I couldn't put up with.
not: *up with whom


5. Adverbs. An adverb cannot be inserted between the main verb and the particle.

I especially called up my friends from college.
not: *I called especially up my friends.


6. Sequences. In a sequence of two apparent prepositions or adverb (among those listed above) plus preposition, the first one is a particle.

Why can't you two get along with each other?


7. Stress. Many separable particles can receive a main stress; stress rarely falls on a preposition, and not on inseparable particles. However, some particles can be separable in some verbs, and inseparable in others, with different kinds of meanings.

Don't pùt it óff anymore.
I'm góing over the new bridge. (go over in literal sense of motion / direction)
They think they can wìn us óver. (win over in non-literal sense of ‘persuade someone to one's side or position')

([´] = main stress on particle, [`]= secondary stress)


a) stressable separable particles:

along, away, aside, down, off, on, out, through, up

We didn't get along very well.
They've gone far away.
Move aside, please.
Get down right now!
Let's not put if off any longer.
Put the blue dress on.
Let's go out together tonight.
We'll get through it all.
I'll call her up tonight.

b) stressless particles:

about, at, for, from, of, on, to, with; and any inseparable particles

He went about his business.
What are you looking at?
Go for the gusto!
Where will you be coming from?
They were waiting on me for a long time.
I'll get to my homework after dinner.
We were faced with many problems.


8. Semantics. The phrasal verb particle was originally a preposition, and it can modify the original verb, or significantly change it. It may be a minor modification of spatial or directional meaning, a temporal extension based on the original meaning, or very often, a very metaphorical extension or change of the original verb’s meaning. These metaphorical changes are very common, extensive, and complex in English, and pose much difficulty for learners of English as a second language.

(1) Spatial / directional: e.g., get → get up; stand → stand up; go → go up, go out
(2) Temporal: meanings and references related to time and events; e.g.: It’s over now.
(3) Metaphorical extensions, e.g., of #1 and/or #2. E.g.:
The sky is clouding over.
I am fed up with your nonsense – shut up!