A phrasal verb is a verb that has two or three words instead of one, and there is a whole dictionary of these types of verbs in the English language. Not only are there many different phrasal verbs but some of them also have multiple meanings. In this article, you will learn phrasal verbs in English.
For example, ‘give away’ can mean to give something for free, for example donating books or clothes to a charity shop, or it can mean to reveal secret information. This could be something important like government secrets, or you might give away the ending to a film that your friend who was in the middle of watching.
The Many Literal and Figurative Meanings of English Phrasal Verbs
Phrasal verbs can also be divided into those whose meaning you can get from the individual words and those which are more ‘idiomatic’, which means that their meaning is different from the individual words (like idioms).
Let’s look at a simple example of this, using the same phrasal verb:
If I ‘look up’ to the sky when I hear a plane going over my head, you can get the meaning just from the fact that someone is looking in an upwards direction. However, if I want to know the meaning of a foreign word, I might ‘look (it) up’ in a dictionary.
In this example, you might be able to guess the meaning but it’s not literal because you are not actually looking upwards when you look in a dictionary.
If you ‘look up to’ a person, it means that you admire them, and if you ‘look down on’ them, you think you are superior to them. In this case, it might be possible to guess that if you look up to someone, they probably have a higher status or may indeed be taller than you (e.g. a child looking up to an adult they admire), and the opposite is true when you look down on them, but it is not necessarily the case.
The part of a phrasal verb that follows the verb is generally an adverb or a preposition, but it might be easier to call it a ‘particle’. So ‘turn on’ (a TV/radio) has one particle, while ‘get on with’ has two, and is commonly called a ‘three-word verb’ (more on this later).
Separable and Inseparable Phrasal Verbs
As far as rules go, there are some in terms of the construction of phrasal verbs:
Phrasal verbs tend to take an object (these are called transitive verbs), but some common ones don’t (intransitive), such as ‘break down’ (stop functioning), ‘carry on’ (continue), ‘run away’ and ‘wake up’.
Those that are transitive can often have the particle in the middle of the verb or at the end. So you can either ‘bring up’ your kids, which means to raise them, or you can ‘bring your kids up’. These kinds of phrasal verbs are called ‘separable phrasal verbs’. However, if you use a pronoun instead of a noun, it must go in the middle.
Compare the following:
I ‘turned my music down’ or ‘turned down my music’ when my neighbour asked me, but with a pronoun the sentence might go:
My neighbour said my music was too loud, so I ‘turned it down’. If you said ‘turned down it’, it would be wrong.
Examples of common phrasal verbs which can’t be separated by the object are ‘deal with’/’cope with’ (a difficult situation or problem), which means to manage it and find a solution, ‘rely on’/’depend on’, which means to count on someone for support or help, ‘get over’ (an illness/divorce), which means to recover from a negative experience, ‘listen to’ (music/a friend’s problems), and ‘look after’ (a person, especially a child).
Three-Word Phrasal Verbs
In terms of three-word phrasal verbs, ones you need to know include ‘get away with’, which means to escape punishment (for example, I cheated in the exam but the teacher didn’t see so I got away with it) and ‘put up with’, which means to tolerate. If you’ve ever worked in an office with someone who whistles or complains all day, you will understand how hard this can be.
‘Take care of’ is a common one that has the same meaning as ‘look after’, and ‘come up with’ (a solution, an idea) is a good one for creative people, meaning that you created or invented something. In this age of procrastination, we often don’t ‘get round/around to’ doing something,
which just means that we can’t find the time or energy to do it. If you’ve volunteered to do a task like cleaning your grandma’s house, this might be a very useful phrasal verb.
If you ‘look forward to’ something, it means that you anticipate something with pleasure, the simplest example being a child looking forward to Christmas, their birthday, or the end of school! Incidentally, for those using English in a business context, this phrasal verb can be used in the fixed business phrase ‘I look forward to hearing from you’, which is a good way to ‘sign off’ (finish) emails, meaning that you are anticipating a reply to something in your email.
If you ‘get on/get along with’ a person, it means that you have a good relationship with them, and if that good relationship starts from the time you meet them, you could use a rare example of a 4-word phrasal verb and say that you ‘hit it off with’ them, the extra word being a pronoun that is actually part of the phrasal verb.
In three-word verbs, the object always goes after the phrasal verb, even if it’s a pronoun, for example- ‘I can’t put up with it any longer’.
Tips and Rules to help guess the Meaning of a Phrasal Verb
As far as rules to help with meanings, there are not too many, which is actually a good thing because it means that practising phrasal verbs is far better than trying to learn the theory of them – good motivation for practical speaking rather than just book/internet study.
Some particles give clues about the meanings of phrasal verbs. For example, if you have a phrasal verb with the particle ‘back’ it means to return. Simple examples would be to ‘go back’ or ‘come back’ to a place you were at before, and if someone calls you and you miss the call, you can ‘call (them) back’, the same applying to emails and messages, now that ‘email’ and ‘message’ seem to be verbs as well as nouns (never forget that language is not fixed, it is always changing).
If you lend someone money, you will expect them to ‘pay you/it back’ eventually. In this case, don’t let them use the excuse that they haven’t ‘got round to it’, and don’t let them ‘get away with’ not paying you. If you ‘get someone back’ for something, you take revenge on them, which I guess means that you are returning some negative behaviour to them.
The particle ‘with’ often means that something involves another person, so you might ‘argue with’ a person or ‘agree with’ them, that is to ‘get on/along with’ them. You might even ‘sleep with’ that person, which can mean literally just sleeping in the same bed with them or having sex with them, and if you ‘side with’ someone, it means that you support them and agree with them against another person in a dispute.
Exceptions to this ‘with’ rule that we’ve already seen are ‘come up with’, put up with’ and ‘get away with’, but note that these are all 3-word verbs. With 2-word verbs, the rule is more reliable.
It’s hard to say exactly how many phrasal verbs there are in English, but a lot of online resources identify at least 50 that most English students will learn and which are in common everyday use. My advice is to focus on learning and using the most popular ones first, and then learning the other main phrasal verbs gradually. Good luck!