A phrasal verb is a verb consisting of two or more words—a verb and (usually) a preposition or a particle—that, when combined, describe an action. When formed into a closed or hyphenated compound, however, a phrasal verb is transformed into a phrasal noun, which can, alternatively, be employed as an adjective. This post explains the distinction, with examples.
Forming Phrasal Verbs
Take just about any basic verb, and it can likely be paired with one or more words to form a phrasal verb. (A phrasal verb is also called a compound verb, or a prepositional verb or a particle verb, depending on the function of the word following the verb, along with other names.) Consider walk, for example. One can walk in a line, out a door, through a tunnel, up a flight of stairs, down a street, on a rug, near a park, by a shop, off a cliff, or away from a fight. In many cases, however, a writer can name the action by combining the verb and the preposition or particle into a compound.
Walk-in, for example, describes someone who arrives at a location without an appointment, or it serves as a truncation of “walk-in refrigerator” or functions as an adjective in “walk-in closet” or “walk-in apartment.” A walkout, by contrast, is a labor strike or an action in which a number of people leave a meeting or a location to express disapproval. (Notice the inconsistency of treatment; the former word is hyphenated, while the latter is closed.) A walk-through is an inspection or a rehearsal, and a walk-up is a building with no elevator to the upper floors. (As an adjective, the word might refer to a window where a customer can be served without entering a business location.)
“Walk down” can also refer to an act of walking to help oneself recover from illness or poisoning or to wear someone down to exhaustion (“wear down” is also a phrasal verb), but—so far, at least—English-language speakers and writers have not felt a need for a corresponding phrasal noun. (That is the case with a couple of other phrasal verbs in this list.) But a walk-on is a small theatrical role (from the fact that such parts often involve an actor simply walking onstage, perhaps to deliver a message to a main character, for example) or a person who attempts to join an athletic team without an invitation or a scholarship offer. Walk-off, meanwhile, describes a final winning play in a baseball game.
Note that with any of the phrasal verbs listed, at best, a sentence’s meaning will differ if the preposition or particle is omitted; at worst, it won’t make sense. One can, for example, walk a line, but that means something different than a reference to walking in a line, while “walk a door” is meaningless. However, some phrasal verbs are redundant, though they are often used colloquially. Such phrases, which often unnecessarily pair a verb with up or down, include “climb up,” “meet up,” “rest up,” “sit down,” “stand up,” and “write down.” (One may climb down, but descend is a better alternative for that phrase.)
Note, though, that some of these redundant phrases can be legitimately repurposed as phrasal nouns or adjectives when hyphenated. For example, meet-up is an informal synonym for gathering, and a sit-down is a work stoppage or protest or a meeting convened to resolve a conflict or problem. (As an adjective, the term also pertains to a meal or a restaurant at which one is seated.) Meanwhile, a stand-up comic is one who performs while standing, though the term may also informally denote the quality of integrity (“He’s a real stand-up guy”) or simply refer to something literally upright. The term alone can also refer to the entertainment form or a television broadcast with a similar setup—there’s another phrasal verb transformed into a compound verb—or to the performer.
“Write down” does not have a corresponding noun. However, the words write and up, though they do not form a phrasal verb (“write it up” comes close), are used, linked with a hyphen, to describe a report, review, or summary, as in “Did you see the write-up about the game in today’s paper?”
Numerous other examples exist. Note, however, that as in the case of walk-in and walkout, treatment of two words with a common verb may differ: One performs a turnaround but comes up with a work-around. A blow-up is not the same as a blowout, and the compounds are not styled the same. And though hand-down is not (yet) a word—it might someday be coined to describe an edict or pronouncement—a hand-me-down is something passed on (such as an article of clothing given to a child when an older sibling outgrows it).
When contemplating using a phrasal noun (or a phrasal adjective), first, use a dictionary to determine 1) whether the term exists and 2) whether the phrasal noun is hyphenated or closed. (And double-check that the adjectival form is the same as the phrasal noun. Exceptions exist, including the noun/adjective pairs castoff/cast-off and takeout/take-out.) For example, when one calls out, it is a callout, but when one logs in, it is (usually) a log-in. (Login is also employed; the correct form is the one that appears in the dictionary or style guide you consult.)