Phrasal Verb

Understanding Separable & Inseparable Phrasal Verbs

A PHRASAL VERB may be defined simply as a phraseOpens in new window (such as get up, put on, take out, get away with, give in to, etc.) that combines a verbOpens in new window with a prepositionOpens in new window or an adverbOpens in new window—and sometimes both elements—to form a verb whose meaning is different from the separate meanings of the individual elements.

PHRASAL VERBS are therefore made up of a verb and a following particle.

The particle in this sense, refers to words that function as prepositions or adverbs in other contexts (e.g., up, on, down, out, around) but do not function as prepositions or adverbs when part of a phrasal verb.

In the following sentences, examples of phrasal verbs are presented in bold, and accompanied on the right is their meanings.
  • My vehicle broke down on the highway. → broke + down (spoilt/developed fault.)
  • I think he's making up stories. → making + up (telling lies)
  • He takes after his father. → take + after (He looks/behaves like his father.)
  • I'm counting on you. → count + on (I'm trusting/hoping on you.)

Difficulty with Phrasal Verbs

Ambiguity is one reason that phrasal verbs present a challenge to learners of English language because they come with ambiguous meanings.

The meaning of a phrasal verb cannot always be predicted from the meanings of its individual elements.

For instance, the meaning of rule out (“eliminate”) cannot be determined by simply understanding what rule means and combining that meaning with the meaning of out.

As a result, non-native speakers of English language often have difficulty understanding the differences between phrasal verbs such as put off, put out, put on, and put down.

In some cases, it's even more troublesome to sort out the difference between expressions such as, Let’s put it off until tomorrow and his manner puts me off.

Phrasal verbs also present difficulties because the words in some are separable; in others, they are not.

When the Words are Separable

If the words are separable, the parts of the phrasal verb may be separated, and they are always separated when the direct object of a sentence is a pronoun.

For Example:
  • I put on my coat.
  • I put my coat on.
  • I put it on. And not I put on it.

When the Words are Inseparable

If the two words are inseparable, they are never separated.

For Example:
  • I got over my disappointment
  • I got over it. And not I got it over.

Forms of phrasal verb

Phrasal verbs fall into two major forms: transitive phrasal verbs and intransitive phrasal verbs. These can be either:

Intransitive Phrasal Verb

As with intransitive verbs Opens in new window, an intransitive phrasal verb does not transfer action to objects.

Observe the sentence below:
  • The boy is always acting up.

The subject here is boy, there is no object in this sentence.

The following phrasal verbs are not followed by an object, for example:

The following is an overview of Intransitive Phrasal Verbs.

PHRASAL VERB OCCURRENCE IN SENTENCE MEANING
break down Our car could not take us a mile before it broke down. to develop fault or stop normal function.
catch on Hit single songs seem to catch on in the west before spread eastward. to become boom/fashionable or popular
come in They came in through the back yard. to go into a place.
come to The patient was able to come to after the brain surgery. to recover/regain consciousness
come over Andy called home and promised to come over during the holidays. to pay a visit
drop by I was on my way to the office and decided to drop by at Jesse's. to make a short visit
eat out When we visited Paris, we loved eating out in the sidewalk cafes. to dine in a restaurant.
get by Though he earns little but he always get by with his financial needs. to have just enough money to survive.
give away I bought a Tv at the Simpson's and I was given away a standing fan. to give something for free.
get up Grandmother can't get up on her own without a prop. to rise from bed/sitting position.
go back I may never go back there again. to return to a place.
go on The ideal practice is to finish one before we go on to the next.
I wonder what's going on in the next apartment.
to continue or an occurence/something happening
grow up The baby has a rapid growing up. to arrive at physical/mental maturity.
keep away Andy seems to be keeping away from his girl friend. to keep distance or avoid someone/something.
keep on The band keep on singing despite poor reception from the audience. to keep persisting
pass out The patient had passed out before the surgery commenced. to faint/lose consciousness
show off The star boys usually show off with their dancing skills. to ostentatiously display one's affluence/achievement.
show up The couple were among the people who showed up at the movie premier. to arrive.
wake up I usually woke up late on Saturdays. to arise from sleep.

Transitive Phrasal Verb

Transitive phrasal verbs almost always transfer action to objects.

Observe this sentence:
  • The CEO called off the meeting.

In this sentence, the ceo is the subject, while the meeting is an object of the phrasal verb called off.

Inseparable Transitive Phrasal Verb

Some transitive phrasal verbs are inseparable in which the phrasal verb that carries the “verb-meaning” cannot be separated from the prepositions (or other parts) that accompany it.

Examples include:
  • I ran into my high school teacher today.
  • They are looking into the problem.

The following is an overview of Inseparable Transitive Verbs.

Phrasal Verbs Sentences Meaning
bear with Thank you for bearing with us as we apologize for the break in transmission. being patient
broke into The robbers broke into the shopping mall carting away various items. unlawful access/entrance
care for I’m fixing us lunch, hope you will care for a plate of hotdog and doughnut. to be interested in something.
get over He is yet to get over the trauma of capital market. to recover from something.
go over The doctors had to go over the patient’s report all over again before reaching a conclusive decision. to study/review something.
jack up The car must be jacked up before we attempt to fix the propeller. to raise up (esp a vehicle)
lay into His wife cuss and lay into him when he came home drunk last night. to severely scold.
look after my dad always look after his pet. to take care of.
look into The authority came in asking questions, taking notes in attempt to look into the fire incident. to investigate.
run across I can’t believe you ran across an old friend you haven’t seen in 8 years. to meet up someone by sheer chance.
run for I think john has interest in running for the senatorial seat. to campaign for a political position.
see to As soon as I get the documents, I’ll see to it that the proceedings be done. to ensure something happens.
stand for I’m standing for the GM at the moment. to represent.
take after The young child take after her mum. resembling another.
wind up She simply needs to rediscover herself unless she wants to wind up in frustration. to end or finish(informal).

Separable Transitive Verb

Some transitive phrasal verbs are separable, making room for the object to be placed between the verb and the preposition.

The object may come after the following phrasal verbs or it may separate the two parts.

For Example:
  • You have to do over this fumigation exercise.
  • You have to do this fumigation exercise over.

Notice the separation in the second sentence (this fumigation exercise coming between do and over.)

When the object of the following phrasal verbs is a pronoun, the two parts of the phrasal verb must be separated, i.e, You have to do it over.

The following is an Overview of Separable Phrasal Verbs.

Phrasal Verbs Sentences Meaning
blow up The impact of the accident blew up the vehicle. explode
bring up The lawyer brought up the defendant's money laundering issue before the jurors. mention an issue
bring up It's a difficult task bringing up children nowadays. to raise children
call off The morning assembly was called off. cancel
do over I have to do this client's work over. to repeat a job.
fill out you must follow the instruction and fill out the questionaire. to complete a form.
fill up The supplies filled up the store house. to fill to capacity.
find out The police found out the secret hideout of the hoodlums. to discover.
give away I bought a Tv at the Simpson's and I was given away a standing fan. to give something for free.
give back He has not given back the money I lent him. to return an item or make a refund.
hand in The student handed in their papers before the stoppage time. to submit something.
hang up She hung up the phone before she hung up her clothes. to put something on hook.
hold up The meeting was held up for 30 minutes. to delay.
hold up (II) A gang of six robbers held up the bank. to rub.
leave out The part with a prolonged kissing was left out during the movie reviews. to omit.
look over The lawyers looked over the papers carefully before questioning the witness. (They looked them over carefully.) to cross examine/cross check
look up There are mispelled spellings in the write up. You may need to look it up. to find out or investigate information.
make up He knew his father was bound to reprimand him, so he made up stories to exonerate himself. to tell a lie (esp. making up stories).
make out The connection was blurred. I could not make out what he was saying. to understand.
pick out She was able to pick out her boyfriend in the dark. to choose/find or recognise.
pick up The crane picked up the generator and its compartment. (Watch them pick it up.) to lift something off its location.
point out She pointed out at the house that the robbery took place. to direct attention to someone/something.
put away We put away money for our retirement. She put away the cereal boxes. to store/keep or save in its usual place.
put off The meeting has been put off untill next Tuesday. (They put it off for Tuesday) to postpone.
put on We need to put on something nice and look presentable. to have clothe worn on the body.
put out The firefighters had the fire put out before it could spread. (They put it out quickly.) to extinguish.
read over The document is typographical error free. I read it over time, and time again. to read a piece carefully
set up The interior decor set up the house to suit my preference. to arrange/start something
take down The student took down notes during the lecture. to separate into pieces or write down information.
take off The room was so hot that I had to take off my clothes. to have one's clothing removed.
throw away John threw away the gadget because it stopped working (He threw his gadget away.) to have something discarded.
try on She tried on fifteen dresses before she found one she liked. to put clothing on, to see if it fits.
try out She tried out different methods before maintaining one she uses. to test/sample something.
turn down She wasn't at all pleased with the offer, so she turned it down. to bring the volume lower or reject something.
turn up John turned up at Gretchen's birthday party. to increase volume up or arrive in attendance.
turn off I have finished my project. I can now turn off the computer. to switch off/stop an electronic working temporarily.
turn on John turned on the TV set. to switch on an electronic to a working condition.
use up Can you imagine she used up the data plan. to exhaust something.

Three-Word Phrasal Verbs

With the following phrasal verbs, you will find three parts. For example:

Overview of Three-Word Phrasal Verbs
Phrasal Verbs Sentences Meaning
break in on I was talking to Mom on the phone when the operator broke in on our call. to interrupt on something.
catch up with We usually listen to the evening news to catch up with recent information. to stay abreast
check up on The board decided to check up on the gas plants from time to time. to examine/investigate
come up with Every member of the team come up with one thing or the other to support the team. to contribute/provide money or form an idea to support a cause.
cut down on The company has laid out plans to cut down on production to level with demand. to reduce something (esp. expenses)
drop out of I hope none of my students drop out of school this semester. to leave school.
get along with Andy doesn't seem to get along with his sister. to have a good relationship with a person
get away with She has a way of getting away with her laziness. to escape/go unpunished
get rid of The bad programs were gotten rid of. to eliminate/destroy.
get through with He finally got through with the project last night. to finish/done with
keep up with It's difficult to keep up with the Tigers when you drop vital points. to maintain pace with.
look forward to It's an interesting fixture. I am looking forward to the outcome of the game. to anticipate with excitement.
look down on It's a natural for humans to look down on others. to despise
look in on We were going to look in on him. to visit
look out for Good instructors will look out for early signs of failure in their students. to be vigilant/watchful.
look up to First-graders really look up to their teachers. to admire or hold someone in high esteem.
make sure of You must make sure of their PIN before granting anyone of them access to the theatre. to verify.
put up with I can't put up with John's finicky attitude. to tolerate.
run out of We have ran out of printing materials. to exhaust something
take care of We were taken care of by our elder brother. to take responsibility of someone/something.
talk back to Andy suddenly became furious and talked back to his father. to reply impolitely
think back on I sometimes think back on my childhood experience. to recall.