Phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are verbs that are made up of a main verb together with an adverb or a preposition, or both. Typically, their meaning is not obvious from the meanings of the individual words themselves. For example:

She has always looked down on me.

Fighting broke out among a group of 40 men.

I’ll see to the animals.

Don’t put me off, I’m trying to concentrate.

The report spelled out the need for more staff.

For instance, in the first example, the phrasal verb ‘to look down on someone’ doesn’t mean that you are looking down from a higher place at someone who is below you; it means that you think that you are better than someone.


Phrasal verbs can be intransitive (i.e. they have no object):

We broke up two years ago.

They set off early to miss the traffic.

He pulled up outside the cottage.

or transitive (i.e. they can have an object):

The police were called to break up the fight.

When the door is opened, it sets off an alarm.

They pulled the house down and redeveloped the site.

Word order 

The verb and adverb elements which make up intransitive phrasal verbs are never separated:

✓  We broke up two years ago.

✗  We broke two years ago up.

The situation is different with transitive verbs, however. If the direct object  is a noun, you can say:

✓ Theypulled
the housedown.
[direct object]
✓ They pulled down the house.


If the object is a pronoun  (such as it, him, her, them) , then the object always comes between the verb and the adverb:

✓ Theypulled
[direct object]
✗ They pulled down it.

The meaning of phrasal verbs

Sometimes, it is difficult to understand the meaning of phrasal verbs. Before looking them up in a dictionary, it would be helpful to use the context to understand them.

Literal meaning

Some phrasal verbs have a literal meaning. They can be easily understood.

  • She opened the door and looked outside.
  • She was walking across the street when she heard the sound of an explosion.

Idiomatic meaning

Phrasal verbs can also have a figurative or idiomatic meaning which makes them difficult to understand.

  • Can you put me up for tonight?
    The phrasal verb 'put up' here does not mean to build (as in putting a fence up). It has, however, an idiomatic/figurative meaning. It means to let someone stay in your house.

Separable or inseparable?

1. Sometimes, the preposition/adverb is placed either after the verb or after the object.


  • Mary made up a really entertaining story.
  • Mary made the story up.

2. If the object is a pronoun, however, the preposition/adverb has to be placed after the pronoun (object).


  • She made it up.
  • Put it down.
  • Take it off.

3. Some phrasal verbs are always inseparable.


  • came across some old photos in a drawer.


  • came some old photos across in a drawer.
Separable Phrasal Verbs
The object may come after the following phrasal verbs or it may separate the two parts:

  • You have to do this paint job over.
  • You have to do over this paint job.When the object of the following phrasal verbs is a pronoun, the two parts of the phrasal verb must be separated:
  • You have to do it over.
blow upexplodeThe terrorists tried to blow up the railroad station.
bring upmention a topicMy mother brought up that little matter of my prison record again.
bring upraise childrenIt isn't easy to bring up children nowadays.
call offcancelThey called off this afternoon's meeting
do overrepeat a jobDo this homework over.
fill outcomplete a formFill out this application form and mail it in.
fill upfill to capacityShe filled up the grocery cart with free food.
find outdiscoverMy sister found out that her husband had been planning a surprise party for her.
give awaygive something to someone else for freeThe filling station was giving away free gas.
give backreturn an objectMy brother borrowed my car. I have a feeling he's not about to give it back.
hand insubmit something (assignment)The students handed in their papers and left the room.
hang upput something on hook or receiverShe hung up the phone before she hung up her clothes.
hold updelayI hate to hold up the meeting, but I have to go to the bathroom.
hold up (2)robThree masked gunmen held up the Security Bank this afternoon.
leave outomitYou left out the part about the police chase down Asylum Avenue.
look overexamine, checkThe lawyers looked over the papers carefully before questioning the witness. (They looked them overcarefully.)
look upsearch in a listYou've misspelled this word again. You'd better lookit up.
make upinvent a story or lieShe knew she was in trouble, so she made up a story about going to the movies with her friends.
make outhear, understandHe was so far away, we really couldn't make outwhat he was saying.
pick outchooseThere were three men in the line-up. She picked outthe guy she thought had stolen her purse.
pick uplift something off something elseThe crane picked up the entire house. (Watch them pick it up.)
point outcall attention toAs we drove through Paris, Francoise pointed outthe major historical sites.
put awaysave or storeWe put away money for our retirement. She put away the cereal boxes.
put offpostponeWe asked the boss to put off the meeting until tomorrow. (Please put it off for another day.)
put onput clothing on the bodyput on a sweater and a jacket. (I put them onquickly.)
put outextinguishThe firefighters put out the house fire before it could spread. (They put it out quickly.)
read overperuseread over the homework, but couldn't make any sense of it.
set upto arrange, beginMy wife set up the living room exactly the way she wanted it. She set it up.
take downmake a written noteThese are your instructions. Write them downbefore you forget.
take offremove clothingIt was so hot that I had to take off my shirt.
talk overdiscussWe have serious problems here. Let's talk them over like adults.
throw awaydiscardThat's a lot of money! Don't just throw it away.
try onput clothing on to see if it fitsShe tried on fifteen dresses before she found one she liked.
try outtesttried out four cars before I could find one that pleased me.
turn downlower volumeYour radio is driving me crazy! Please turn it down.
turn down (2)rejectHe applied for a promotion twice this year, but he was turned down both times.
turn upraise the volumeGrandpa couldn't hear, so he turned up his hearing aid.
turn offswitch off electricityWe turned off the lights before anyone could see us.
turn off (2)repulseIt was a disgusting movie. It really turned me off.
turn onswitch on the electricityTurn on the CD player so we can dance.
use upexhaust, use completelyThe gang members used up all the money and went out to rob some more banks.


Inseparable Phrasal Verbs (Transitive)
With the following phrasal verbs, the lexical part of the verb (the part of the phrasal verb that carries the "verb-meaning") cannot be separated from the prepositions (or other parts) that accompany it: "Who will look aftermy estate when I'm gone?"
call onask to recite in classThe teacher called on students in the back row.
call on (2)visitThe old minister continued to call on his sick parishioners.
get overrecover from sickness or disappointmentgot over the flu, but I don't know if I'll ever get over my broken heart.
go overreviewThe students went over the material before the exam. They should have gone over it twice.
go throughuse up; consumeThey country went through most of its coal reserves in one year. Did he go through all his money already?
look aftertake care ofMy mother promised to look after my dog while I was gone.
look intoinvestigateThe police will look into the possibilities of embezzlement.
run acrossfind by chanceran across my old roommate at the college reunion.
run intomeetCarlos ran into his English professor in the hallway.
take afterresembleMy second son seems to take after his mother.
wait onserveIt seemed strange to see my old boss wait ontables.


Three-Word Phrasal Verbs (Transitive)
With the following phrasal verbs, you will find three parts: "My brother dropped out of school before he could graduate."
break in oninterrupt (a conversation)I was talking to Mom on the phone when the operator broke in on our call.
catch up withkeep abreastAfter our month-long trip, it was time to catch up with the neighbors and the news around town.
check up onexamine, investigateThe boys promised to check up on the condition of the summer house from time to time.
come up withto contribute (suggestion, money)After years of giving nothing, the old parishioner was able to come up with a thousand-dollar donation.
cut down oncurtail (expenses)We tried to cut down on the money we were spending on entertainment.
drop out ofleave schoolI hope none of my students drop out of school this semester.
get along withhave a good relationship withI found it very hard to get along with my brother when we were young.
get away withescape blameJanik cheated on the exam and then tried to get away with it.
get rid ofeliminateThe citizens tried to get rid of their corrupt mayor in the recent election.
get through withfinishWhen will you ever get through with that program?
keep up withmaintain pace withIt's hard to keep up with the Joneses when you lose your job!
look forward toanticipate with pleasureI always look forward to the beginning of a new semester.
look down ondespiseIt's typical of a jingoistic country that the citizens look down on their geographical neighbors.
look in onvisit (somebody)We were going to look in on my brother-in-law, but he wasn't home.
look out forbe careful, anticipateGood instructors will look out for early signs of failure in their students
look up torespectFirst-graders really look up to their teachers.
make sure ofverifyMake sure of the student's identity before you let him into the classroom.
put up withtolerateThe teacher had to put up with a great deal of nonsense from the new students.
run out ofexhaust supplyThe runners ran out of energy before the end of the race.
take care ofbe responsible forMy oldest sister took care of us younger children after Mom died.
talk back toanswer impolitelyThe star player talked back to the coach and was thrown off the team.
think back onrecallI often think back on my childhood with great pleasure.
walk out onabandonHer husband walked out on her and their three children.


Intransitive Phrasal Verbs 
The following phrasal verbs are not followed by an object: "Once you leave home, you can never really go back again."
break downstop functioningThat old Jeep had a tendency to break down just when I needed it the most.
catch onbecome popularPopular songs seem to catch on in California first and then spread eastward.
come backreturn to a placeFather promised that we would never come backto this horrible place.
come inenterThey tried to come in through the back door, but it was locked.
come toregain consciousnessHe was hit on the head very hard, but after several minutes, he started to come to again.
come overto visitThe children promised to come over, but they never do.
drop byvisit without appointmentWe used to just drop by, but they were never home, so we stopped doing that.
eat outdine in a restaurantWhen we visited Paris, we loved eating out in the sidewalk cafes.
get bysurviveUncle Heine didn't have much money, but he always seemed to get by without borrowing money from relatives.
get upariseGrandmother tried to get up, but the couch was too low, and she couldn't make it on her own.
go backreturn to a placeIt's hard to imagine that we will ever go back to Lithuania.
go oncontinueHe would finish one Dickens novel and then just go on to the next.
go on (2)happenThe cops heard all the noise and stopped to see what was going on.
grow upget olderCharles grew up to be a lot like his father.
keep awayremain at a distanceThe judge warned the stalker to keep away from his victim's home.
keep on (with gerund)continue with the sameHe tried to keep on singing long after his voice was ruined.
pass outlose consciousness, faintHe had drunk too much; he passed out on the sidewalk outside the bar.
show offdemonstrate haughtilyWhenever he sat down at the piano, we knew he was going to show off.
show uparriveDay after day, Efrain showed up for class twenty minutes late.
wake uparouse from sleepwoke up when the rooster crowed.
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