Phrasal Verbs

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A phrasal verb is one that’s followed by an adverb or a preposition, and together they behave as a semantic unit. (The adverb or preposition following the verb is called a particle.) A phrasal verb functions the same way as a simple verb, but its meaning is idiomatic:

The numbers don’t add up.
That’s an offer he can’t turn down.
Call off the wedding.

Phrasal verbs are among the most difficult concepts for ESL students to grasp; the particle changes the verb in a way that’s entirely colloquial.

Some phrasal verbs are separable: their particles can be separated from the verb and a noun inserted. Others cannot be separated.


She added up the numbers.
She added the numbers up.


We have enough to fall back on.
He broke into the conversation.

Some are both separable and inseparable, depending on their meaning.


She threw the ball up.


She was so nauseated, she felt like throwing up.

One of the biggest difficulties with phrasal verbs is that there’s no guideline for which ones are separable and which are not. Native English speakers grow up incorporating phrasal verbs into their daily conversation and know how to form them intuitively. Unfortunately, non-native speakers must rely solely on memorization.

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4 thoughts on “Phrasal Verbs”

  1. The last line is the most frustrating thing in my English learning journey. I really love writing in English. But, these difficulties are everyday killing me and throwing me away from learning English writing.

    Still, I try not to stop. At the end of the day, I come up with a wish if I was a native English speaker.

  2. I’m a ESL student and teacher and I strongly object to memorization ’cause what you learn by memory is only useful for exams, then you tend to forget what you stop using; So the best way to learn vocabulary, not only phrasal verbs, is to relate them with synonyms, cognates,brands, origins of words and any other reference that helps you overcome language differences.
    For example “breakfast”, If you separate the words you know that break is to stop and fasting is not to eat so that’s why that’s the word for the first meal in the morning, same as in Spanish des prefix like un or de and ayuno to fast Desayuno.
    And the best technique like you mentioned is intuition If you say We just ran out of gas I infer from the context that it’s over not that someone just ran out of a place.

  3. This brings to mind an interesting discussion I had with students regarding ending sentences with prepositions. They noted that I ended a sentence with a preposition when I said, “I’ll look your paper over.” (Shame, shame, shame on me!) Nope-“over” is part of the phrasal verb “look over.”

    The Purdue Online Writing Lab has a brief overview of phrasal verbs (so-so) and a great list of samples for various types of phrasal verbs: Separable, Inseparable, and Intransitive.

  4. Precise Edit,

    Your entry above reminds me of Winston Churchill’s famous repartee after he was criticized for ending a sentence with a preposition. I don’t remember the exact wording, but, referring to the criticism, he said this is the kind of nonsense “up with which I shall not put,” making fun of the newspaper editor who criticized him. You can show your students how awkward the quoted part is when a writer tries to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, whereas “This is the kind of nonsense I shall not put up with” is a much more natural way of speech.

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