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 house down.
[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
it down.
[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.
Verb Meaning Example
blow up explode The terrorists tried to blow up the railroad station.
bring up mention a topic My mother brought up that little matter of my prison record again.
bring up raise children It isn't easy to bring up children nowadays.
call off cancel They called off this afternoon's meeting
do over repeat a job Do this homework over.
fill out complete a form Fill out this application form and mail it in.
fill up fill to capacity She filled up the grocery cart with free food.
find out discover My sister found out that her husband had been planning a surprise party for her.
give away give something to someone else for free The filling station was giving away free gas.
give back return an object My brother borrowed my car. I have a feeling he's not about to give it back.
hand in submit something (assignment) The students handed in their papers and left the room.
hang up put something on hook or receiver She hung up the phone before she hung up her clothes.
hold up delay I hate to hold up the meeting, but I have to go to the bathroom.
hold up (2) rob Three masked gunmen held up the Security Bank this afternoon.
leave out omit You left out the part about the police chase down Asylum Avenue.
look over examine, check The lawyers looked over the papers carefully before questioning the witness. (They looked them overcarefully.)
look up search in a list You've misspelled this word again. You'd better lookit up.
make up invent a story or lie She knew she was in trouble, so she made up a story about going to the movies with her friends.
make out hear, understand He was so far away, we really couldn't make outwhat he was saying.
pick out choose There were three men in the line-up. She picked outthe guy she thought had stolen her purse.
pick up lift something off something else The crane picked up the entire house. (Watch them pick it up.)
point out call attention to As we drove through Paris, Francoise pointed outthe major historical sites.
put away save or store We put away money for our retirement. She put away the cereal boxes.
put off postpone We asked the boss to put off the meeting until tomorrow. (Please put it off for another day.)
put on put clothing on the body put on a sweater and a jacket. (I put them onquickly.)
put out extinguish The firefighters put out the house fire before it could spread. (They put it out quickly.)
read over peruse read over the homework, but couldn't make any sense of it.
set up to arrange, begin My wife set up the living room exactly the way she wanted it. She set it up.
take down make a written note These are your instructions. Write them downbefore you forget.
take off remove clothing It was so hot that I had to take off my shirt.
talk over discuss We have serious problems here. Let's talk them over like adults.
throw away discard That's a lot of money! Don't just throw it away.
try on put clothing on to see if it fits She tried on fifteen dresses before she found one she liked.
try out test tried out four cars before I could find one that pleased me.
turn down lower volume Your radio is driving me crazy! Please turn it down.
turn down (2) reject He applied for a promotion twice this year, but he was turned down both times.
turn up raise the volume Grandpa couldn't hear, so he turned up his hearing aid.
turn off switch off electricity We turned off the lights before anyone could see us.
turn off (2) repulse It was a disgusting movie. It really turned me off.
turn on switch on the electricity Turn on the CD player so we can dance.
use up exhaust, use completely The 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?"
Verb Meaning Example
call on ask to recite in class The teacher called on students in the back row.
call on (2) visit The old minister continued to call on his sick parishioners.
get over recover from sickness or disappointment got over the flu, but I don't know if I'll ever get over my broken heart.
go over review The students went over the material before the exam. They should have gone over it twice.
go through use up; consume They country went through most of its coal reserves in one year. Did he go through all his money already?
look after take care of My mother promised to look after my dog while I was gone.
look into investigate The police will look into the possibilities of embezzlement.
run across find by chance ran across my old roommate at the college reunion.
run into meet Carlos ran into his English professor in the hallway.
take after resemble My second son seems to take after his mother.
wait on serve It 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."
Verb Meaning Example
break in on interrupt (a conversation) I was talking to Mom on the phone when the operator broke in on our call.
catch up with keep abreast After our month-long trip, it was time to catch up with the neighbors and the news around town.
check up on examine, investigate The boys promised to check up on the condition of the summer house from time to time.
come up with to contribute (suggestion, money) After years of giving nothing, the old parishioner was able to come up with a thousand-dollar donation.
cut down on curtail (expenses) We tried to cut down on the money we were spending on entertainment.
drop out of leave school I hope none of my students drop out of school this semester.
get along with have a good relationship with I found it very hard to get along with my brother when we were young.
get away with escape blame Janik cheated on the exam and then tried to get away with it.
get rid of eliminate The citizens tried to get rid of their corrupt mayor in the recent election.
get through with finish When will you ever get through with that program?
keep up with maintain pace with It's hard to keep up with the Joneses when you lose your job!
look forward to anticipate with pleasure I always look forward to the beginning of a new semester.
look down on despise It's typical of a jingoistic country that the citizens look down on their geographical neighbors.
look in on visit (somebody) We were going to look in on my brother-in-law, but he wasn't home.
look out for be careful, anticipate Good instructors will look out for early signs of failure in their students
look up to respect First-graders really look up to their teachers.
make sure of verify Make sure of the student's identity before you let him into the classroom.
put up with tolerate The teacher had to put up with a great deal of nonsense from the new students.
run out of exhaust supply The runners ran out of energy before the end of the race.
take care of be responsible for My oldest sister took care of us younger children after Mom died.
talk back to answer impolitely The star player talked back to the coach and was thrown off the team.
think back on recall I often think back on my childhood with great pleasure.
walk out on abandon Her 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."
Verb Meaning Example
break down stop functioning That old Jeep had a tendency to break down just when I needed it the most.
catch on become popular Popular songs seem to catch on in California first and then spread eastward.
come back return to a place Father promised that we would never come backto this horrible place.
come in enter They tried to come in through the back door, but it was locked.
come to regain consciousness He was hit on the head very hard, but after several minutes, he started to come to again.
come over to visit The children promised to come over, but they never do.
drop by visit without appointment We used to just drop by, but they were never home, so we stopped doing that.
eat out dine in a restaurant When we visited Paris, we loved eating out in the sidewalk cafes.
get by survive Uncle Heine didn't have much money, but he always seemed to get by without borrowing money from relatives.
get up arise Grandmother tried to get up, but the couch was too low, and she couldn't make it on her own.
go back return to a place It's hard to imagine that we will ever go back to Lithuania.
go on continue He would finish one Dickens novel and then just go on to the next.
go on (2) happen The cops heard all the noise and stopped to see what was going on.
grow up get older Charles grew up to be a lot like his father.
keep away remain at a distance The judge warned the stalker to keep away from his victim's home.
keep on (with gerund) continue with the same He tried to keep on singing long after his voice was ruined.
pass out lose consciousness, faint He had drunk too much; he passed out on the sidewalk outside the bar.
show off demonstrate haughtily Whenever he sat down at the piano, we knew he was going to show off.
show up arrive Day after day, Efrain showed up for class twenty minutes late.
wake up arouse from sleep woke up when the rooster crowed.
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