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Concourse 2

Phrasal verbs and separability


Before we begin, let's be clear what a phrasal verb really is.
You may have learned, or been told, that the following are examples of phrasal verbs:

  1. He got off the bus at the corner
  2. She complained about the food
  3. They ran after the bus
  4. They relied on the figures
  5. The man broke into the house
  6. I'll call him back
  7. I looked at the newspaper
  8. I looked ahead

and so on.  These are not phrasal verbs at all.  Here's why:

  1. He got off the bus at the corner
    This is just one meaning of the verb get (in this case, it means move position) and we can have, for example:
        She got off her bicycle outside the house
        The horse got over the wall
        They got into the water
    and thousands more sentences.  What we have here is a verb followed by a prepositional phrase.
    You do not need to learn get off, get on, get over, get into etc. as verbs.  All you need to know is
    1. get can mean move position (and it can have lots of other meanings)
    2. the meaning of the prepositions:
      means away from
      means from one side to the other
      means from the outside to the inside
  2. She complained about the food
    This is a prepositional verb, not a phrasal verb.  The verb complain is almost always followed by about plus the object.  There's no problem with the grammar of verbs like this because they can never be separated so we cannot have:
        She complained the food about
        She complained it about
    In fact, these verbs work in the same way as many other verbs.  They just come in two parts.
  3. They ran after the bus
    This is the same issue as the first example.  The verb run can be followed by many prepositional phrases telling us where and when something happened.  So we can have, for example:
        They ran in front of the bus
        They ran by the bus
        They ran to the bus
        They ran on Thursday
    and lots more.  The preposition does not change the meaning of the verb so it is not a phrasal verb.
  4. They relied on the figures
    This is another example of a prepositional verb (like example 2.).  The verb rely is always followed by on and the object of the verb and the verb and the preposition can never be separated by the object.
  5. The man broke into the house
    This is another verb followed by a prepositional phrase so we can equally have:
        The man broke into the conversation
        The man broke through the window

        The glass broke on the floor
    and so on.  Again, to understand and make sentences like this, you only need to know the meaning of the verb and the meaning of the prepositions.
  6. I'll call him back
    This is often called a phrasal verb and it does look like one but here the word back is an adverb telling us the direction of the call.  We can also use adverbs to tell us other things about the verb, for example:
        I'll call him soon
        I'll call him later
        I'll call him again

    and so on.  You do not need to learn call back, call soon, call again etc. as separate verbs.  You only need to know the meaning of the verb and the meaning of the adverb to understand and make hundreds of sentences like this.  It is not a phrasal verb.
  7. I looked at the newspaper
    The verb is look and the prepositional phrase (at the newspaper) tells how to understand the verb.  We can also have:
        I looked over the wall
        I looked through the telescope
        I looked in the fridge

    and thousands of other sentences.  Again, the verb is often followed by at but it doesn't need to be so you do not need to learn this as a phrasal verb.
  8. I looked ahead
    This is similar to example 6. and is a verb modified by an adverb telling us the direction of looking.  We can also have, e.g.:
        I looked back
        I looked round
        I looked again
        I looked up

    and so on.  Adverbs like back, round, again, up and many more just tell us how to understand the verb (where or when usually) so you do not need to learn these separately.


So, what really is a phrasal verb?

A phrasal verb in English is one in which we have a verb, such as give, take, get, turn etc. (they are usually quite simple verbs) combining with an adverb (like on, up, down, over etc.) to make a new meaning.  For example:

He walked across the park and turned into the path to my house.

does not contain a phrasal verb at all.  Both the prepositional phrases just tell us where he walked, where he turned and where the path goes.  The meaning of the verbs walk and turn is not changed by the words across and into.  But:

I came across an old suitcase and turned out its contents on my desk.

does contain two real phrasal verbs and one prepositional phrase.

think Can you see what they are?  Click here when you have it.
Click here when you have thought about that.

You need now to be clear about the difference between

test To check you have understood the differences, click here to try a short test.


Separable and inseparable phrasal verbs

OK.  Now you know how to identify a phrasal verb, we can look at a main issue: separability.

thinkwrite To start, decide which of these sentences are right and which are wrong.
Write down the numbers.
Click here when you have done that.

  1. I put the party off
  2. I put off the party
  3. I put it off
  4. I put off it
  1. I came across the old book
  2. I came the old book across
  3. I came across it
  4. I came it across

bad news

The bad news

It is impossible to know by looking at a verb whether it is separable or inseparable so you have to learn each one.

good news

The good news

  1. Most phrasal verbs are separable so they work like put off.
  2. With separable phrasal verbs, you only need to remember one thing: if the object is a pronoun, it comes between the verb and the adverb.
  3. Inseparable phrasal verbs work exactly like prepositional verbs so the grammar is simple.
  4. With inseparable phrasal verbs, you can never separate the verb and the adverb.
  5. Both separable and inseparable verbs can take this structure:
        Verb + Adverb + Object noun (not pronoun)
    So, if you follow that structure, you will always be right!

who me

Don't believe everything people tell you!

Some books and some teachers will tell you all sorts of things that are not true about phrasal verbs.  Here's a list:

There are thousands of phrasal verbs and you need to learn each one separately.
That's not true.  There are lots of phrasal verbs but many of them are simple to learn.
Phrasal verb dictionaries usually include structures which are not phrasal verbs at all such as:
    He got off the bus
    They broke into my house
    She joined in the party

and so on.
None of these are phrasal verbs because you only need to know the meaning of the verbs and the prepositions to get them right.
In fact, there are only around 15 inseparable phrasal verbs that you need to know and many of them are easy to learn.
There are about 40 prepositional verbs but only 30 or so are common.
It's impossible to understand the meaning of a phrasal verb by understand the verb and the adverb.
Not always.  Not usually in fact.  We will see later that we often do not make new meanings with phrasal verbs; we extend the meaning to make a slightly different meaning so it is easy to work out what the verbs mean.
We'll show you how to do this later.
There are hundreds of separable phrasal verbs and you need to learn each one individually.
That's not true but phrasal verb dictionaries will often give you long lists.  In fact, if you learn one verb, you have often learned many more which mean the same kind of thing and have the same grammar.
We'll show you how, later in this lesson.
All verbs plus prepositions must be learned separately.
Not true.  Often, a verb is followed by a prepositional phrase and you should understand the verb and the phrase separately.  For example:
    He drove the car into the garage
is not
    drive into + the garage
it is:
    drive + into + the garage
and we can have:
    She rode her bicycle into the park
    He walked into the museum
    I hammered a nail into the wall

and hundreds of other correct sentences.
Second example:
    I ran over the road
is not
    ran over + the road
it is:
    ran + over + the road
so we can also have:
    I ran across the road
    I ran after the bus
    I ran along the path
    I ran to my house

and thousands of other sentences in which the meaning of run does not change.


Prepositional verbs

laughing at the joke  

The verb laugh, when it has an object, is often (not always) followed by the preposition at so it makes sense to learn laugh at as a single word.
The same is true for many other prepositional verbs but there is one small problem: some prepositional verbs always take an object and some sometimes take an object.  Here's a list of the 40 or so most common ones, divided into verbs which always take an object (on the left) and those which take an object sometimes (on the right).
Transitive means taking an object and intransitive means used without an object.

Transitive verbs Intransitive or transitive verbs
account for
admit to
amount to
bear on
consist of
count on
long for
rely on
stick to
suspect of
thank for
vouch for
abstain from
approve of
argue about
ask for
care about
comment on
complain about
concentrate on
conform to
connive at
depend on
decide on
hang around
insist on
laugh at
look at
object to
participate in
plan on
quarrel about
row about
succeed in
suffer from
react to
refrain from
talk of
vote for
wish for

read Look up any words you don't know in your dictionary.
How does your dictionary tell you if a verb takes and object or not?

The key thing to remember is that the verbs on the right only have a preposition when they take an object.  So for example:
We can say:
    I complained
    I complained about the food
    They laughed
    They laughed at my idea
But, we cannot say
    She relied
because the verb always takes an object so we need to say:
    She relied on her sister
    She relied on her


The grammar of prepositional verbs

The grammar of these verbs is simple but remember two things:

  1. Only use a preposition when there is an object so you can say:
        I complained
        I complained about her
        I complained about the service
        I complained that it was broken
    but not
        I complained about
        I complained about that it was late.
  2. Never split the verb and the preposition with the object so you can say:
        I longed for some rain
        I longed for it
    but not:
        I longed the rain for
        I longed it for

There is a lesson only about these verbs on this site and you can do it now (new window or tab) or come back here and do it later.
This lesson is about phrasal verbs.


Inseparable phrasal verbs

never apart  

These verbs work in exactly the same way as prepositional verbs so there's no new grammar to learn.  There aren't very many verbs like this but some are quite common.  Here is a list of the 15 of them with the meanings and examples.

Verb and adverb Meaning Example
come across find by accident I came across an old diary when I was cleaning out the cellar.
come by acquire Where did you come by that coat?  It's lovely.
get over recover from I can't get over this cold, doctor.
get round persuade I'm going to try to get round the boss for an extra day's holiday.
go for like (a lot) I really go for this kind of music.
hit on discover It was a serious problem but she hit on the perfect solution.
keep at persist If you keep at this lesson you'll learn a lot.
lay off stop If I were you, I'd lay off work for a day or two.
live on exist The poor old woman lived on less than £5 a day.
pick on bully She was picked on at school by the bigger girls.
see about investigate I'll see about getting you a new office chair.
stand for tolerate I will not stand for your rudeness to my husband.
take after resemble My son takes after my wife but my daughter takes after me.
tell on report The teacher asked who did it but the child wouldn't tell on his friends.
wait on serve The man who waited on us in the restaurant was very helpful.

In some books and from some teachers you may find a lot more verbs which are called inseparable phrasal verbs but are not really.  These include expressions like get on, get off (a bus, train etc.), go with (match), join in (participate), touch on (mention) etc.
None of these is a phrasal verb because we can have, for example:
    Get off the train
    Get on the train
    Get into the train
    Get out of the bus
    Go well with the shirt
    Look good with the shirt
    Join in the game
    Take part in the game
    Join the game
    Touch on the subject
    Touch on her sensitivity
    Refer to the subject

and so on.  It's easier to understand clauses like these as verbs with prepositional phrases.


Separable phrasal verbs

Separable phrasal verbs are much more common than inseparable ones so, if you see a phrasal verb, it is usually safe to make it separable.
All separable verbs take an object so they are transitive.  If you look in your dictionary and it tells you that a phrasal verb is transitive (takes an object), then it is probably separable, too.
Remember that if you use a pronoun, it must come between the verb and the adverb so there are three possible patterns:

Pattern 1:
Verb + Adverb + Object noun
    I cleaned off the dirt
Pattern 2:
Verb + Object noun + Adverb
    I cleaned the dirt off
Pattern 3:
Verb + Object pronoun + Adverb
    I cleaned it off
We cannot have:
Verb + Adverb + Object pronoun
    I cleaned off it

If you are not sure if a verb is separable or not, use Pattern 1.  It's always right!


Learning separable phrasal verbs

There are around 150 important separable phrasal verbs in English and, you are right, that's a lot to learn.  However, you probably already know lots of them and, if you learn 5 every day, it will only take you 30 days to learn all the important ones.
That's still quite difficult but there are ways to make things easier.

  1. Separable phrasal verbs are usually short, common verbs combining with a limited number of adverbs.  These adverbs are:
    back, down, in, off, on, out, over, up
  2. The adverbs mean the same for a number of verbs so you can understand and use verbs which mean the same kind of thing with the same adverbs.  For example, if you have learned to say:
        I cleaned off the mud
        I cleaned the mud off

        I cleaned it off
    You can make exactly the same sort of correct sentences with:
    brush off
    chip off
    chop off
    cut off
    dust off
    hack off
    knock off
    polish off
    rub off
    scour off
    scrape off
    scratch off
    scrub off
    slice off
    sponge off
    sweep off
    wash off
    wipe off

    You do NOT need to learn each one separately!
  3. Often the meaning is very clear and the verb is not being used in a special way.
    For example:
        I brought back the book
        I brought down the cat from the tree
        I brought the book in out of the rain

        She took the car out
        She put the fire out
        We picked it up

    so you do not need to learn these separately.

Here is a list of common separable phrasal verbs with meanings and examples:

Verb and adverb Meaning Example
add up total I added the figures up.
ask out invite I'll call Mary and ask her out, I think.
back up support If I ask the boss for more money, will you back me up?
1bring back recall The music brought back happy memories of my holiday in Greece.
bring out show Playing games brings the worst out in him.
bring up be a parent
They brought up children very strictly.
She brought up the subject of money.
call by visit I'm going to call by my father tomorrow.
carry out do He carried out the work very well.
catch up be at the same level He worked hard to catch the class up after his holiday.
clean up make clean I need to clean up the kitchen before my wife sees it.
close down shut They closed down the business
2cut off remove I cut off the bottom of the page.
3do up fasten It's cold.  Do up your coat.
4figure out understand I figured out the problem with the computer and fixed it.
fill in / out complete I filled the form in at reception.
hand over give The lady handed over the money.
5hold back control I held my laughter back
look up refer to reference I'll look the word up to see what it means
make up invent That's not true.  You are making it up!
pass on transmit My son passed the news on to me.
point out identify The teacher pointed it out.
rule out dismiss He wanted to go on holiday but his boss ruled it out.
sort out organise You do the packing and I'll sort out the flight tickets.
sum up summarise I can sum it up in one word: rubbish!
throw out eject He was thrown out of the club for being aggressive.
wake up rouse The alarm clock woke me up.

1 Also give back, send back, throw back etc. with the same sort of meaning.
2 Also break, tear, chop, snip, saw etc. with off in the same meaning of off.
3 Also button, seal, stitch, zip etc. with the same meaning of up.
4 Also work out with the same meaning.
5 Also keep, move, pull etc. with the same meaning of back.


Understanding the meanings of the adverbs

Some people will tell you that you can't understand a phrasal verb by understanding the meaning of the verb and the adverb.  That is sometimes true but, usually, the adverb means something similar to the same word used as a preposition so the meaning is often quite clear.
This is what is meant:

The preposition Example of preposition use The adverb meanings Examples of phrasal verbs
in I put the box in the corner enter
bring from outside
I joined in the game
I filled the form in
She brings the money in
out I went out the door move or go outside
make disappear
I showed the guests out
I crossed the mistake out
He put his hand out
over I walked over the road downwards
beginning to end
I knocked over the glass
I read the text over again
off I took the paper off the table separate or detach
move further away
I switched the light off
They put the meeting off
on I put the paper on the table attach or connect
I turned the gas on
We carried the work on
up I walked up the hill higher
I turned the volume up
The car drove up
I finished the work up
down I walked down the hill lower
less good
I broke the door down
She talked the idea down

thinkwrite So, can you work out the meanings of these sentences?
Think what they mean and make a note.
Click here when you have done that.
  1. I turned the offer down.
  2. We passed the job on to an expert.
  3. I filled the car up.
  4. He held the meeting off till Thursday.
  5. They talked it over.
  6. She brought her book out.
  7. At the meeting, he drove the message in.

So, it is possible to understand the meanings of many phrasal verbs if you understand the meaning of the preposition and extend it a little.


Phrasal verbs with no objects

These are called intransitive phrasal verbs and they are easy to use because there is no object to separate the verb and the adverb.
Here are some examples with the meaning and an example sentence:

Verb and adverb Meaning Example
look out be careful Look out!  The ladder is slipping.
get up rise after sleep What time does he get up?
take off leave the ground
leave quickly
The plane took off on time.
The took off down the road.
break down stop working My car's broken down.
grow up become more mature I really grew up when I lived alone for the first time.
get on progress He was very ill but is getting on well now.
let on reveal a secret Don't let on but we have bought her a surprise present.
wear off disappear The anaesthetic wore off quickly.
drop off fall asleep I dropped off in front of the television.
hold on wait Can you hold on, please?  I'll get the manager to talk to you.
give in surrender I give in.  What's the answer?
fall through fail to happen The travel firm went broke and my holiday fell through.
turn in go to bed We turned in early because the boat left at 5 the next morning.

test Try a final test on all of this.