Phrasal Verbs

: ✔ 05.03.2018

.. Phrasal Verbs //

Phrasal verbs go back beyond history into prehistory in the Germanic languages, of which English is one. English, like German, is loaded with them.

What is the Phrasal Verb?

Phrasal Verbs

Many phrasal verbs stem from German heritage, where they are quite common. The non-phrasal alternatives to these expressions will often come from Latin.

A phrasal verb is a type of verb in English that operates more like a phrase than a word.

Tom McArthur in the Oxford Companion to the English Language notes that the phrasal verbs are also referred to by many other names such as verb phrases, discontinuous verb, compound verbs, verb-adverb combination, verb-particle construction (VPC), and in American English two-part word/verb and three-part word/verb [1].

Phrasal verbs are part of a large group of verbs called "multi-word verbs". Phrasal verbs and other multi-word verbs are an important part of the English language. Multi-word verb, including phrasal verbs, are very common, especially in spoken English.

Nowadays, there are a lot of various definitions to phrasal verb.

Different Definitions in Different Dictionaries


Definitions of phrasal verb


Mac Millan English Dictionary [3]

A phrasal verb is a verb formed from two (sometimes three) parts; a verb and an adverb or preposition. Most are formed from a small number of common verbs (such as get, go, come, put and set) and a small number of adverbs and prepositions (such as away, out, off, up and in). In one sense, we can say that phrasal verbs are just more words and should be treated as such.


Oxford Advanced Learners

Phrasal verbs (sometimes called multi-word verbs) are verbs which consist of two, or sometimes three words. The first word is a verb and it is followed by an adverb (turn down) or a prepositions (eat into) or both (put up with). These adverbs or prepositions are sometimes called particles


David Crystal The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language

Phrasal verbs are the "multi-word verb" that is best described as a lexeme, a unit of meaning that may be greater than a single word [2].

According to Richard Aclam "A phrasal verb is, basically, a main verb + a preposition or adverb, for example, pick up, put down. Unfortunately, there are a number of phrasal verbs where the meaning is not so clear [1]

Another grammarian, Graham Workman, the author of the book "Phrasal Verbs and Idioms" explains that: "Multi-word verbs are verbs that combine with one or two particles (a preposition and/or and adverb). If the addition of the particle(s) changes the meaning of the verb, it is usually called a phrasal verb because it has the meaning of a phrase. However, there are so many different types of phrasal verbs that it is easier to call all combinations of verb + particle(s) multi-word verbs" [4].

Historically, although the phrasal verb has been present in English for many centuries, the term was first used in print in 1925. Phrasal verbs were found in Middle English, common in Shakespeare, and often used to define verbs of Latin origin. McArthur states that the famous lexicographer of the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson, was one of the first to consider these formations carefully [2].

Dwight Bolinger, in the Phrasal Verb in English, answers the question of why there are so many of these formations of English. He states, "They are words. The everyday inventor is not required to reach for elements such as roots and affixes that have no reality for him. It takes only a rough familiarity with other uses of head and off to make them available for head off, virtually self-suggesting when the occasion for them comes up, which is not true of learned formations like intercept" [5].

Some grammarians, such as Martha Kolln in Understanding English Grammar, take the view that phrasal verbs define only those combinations that form an idiom, a phrase whose meaning cannot be predicted from the meaning of its parts [6]. This is holistic or semantic view, which focuses mainly on the meaning of the verb combination [2].

For example: Kollin would say that go up. In this sentence is not an example of a phrasal verb.

The balloon went up into the sky because the sentence can be rephrased as Up the balloon went into the sky. Kollin would designate up as an adverb modifying went. Kollin also applies the test of meaning to phrasal verbs as in these examples: give in can be replaced by surrender; pull through recover, come by acquire, and break up end. Each phrasal verb could be replaced by a single verb with the same general meaning.

However, McArthur in his treatment of the phrasal verb states that phrasal verbs cover both the literal and figurative/idiomatic uses [2]. Grammarians who take this position classify phrasal verbs based on their use in sentence patterns (syntactical properties), and as new word formations (morphological properties), as well as by the overall meaning of these verb combinations (semantic properties). The examples below illustrate one and the same phrasal verb having both a literal and figurative meaning.

She put down the book. (literal)

The army put down the rebellion. (figurative/idiomatic).

In addition to a single literal and/or figurative meaning, some phrasal verbs can have a multitude of different meanings depending on the context. For example, here are some of the many ways in which the phrasal verb pick up is currently used:

  • Pick up that book. (to take up by hand)
  • Please, pick up your room. (to tidy up)
  • The airport van picked up its passengers. (to take on)
  • I picked up this ring on sale. (to acquire casually)
  • He picks up foreign languages fairly easily. (to acquire knowledge or learning)
  • He picked up his package at the post office. (to claim)
  • She picked up some milk on her way home. (to buy)
  • Her boss picked up the tab for lunch. (to pay a bill)
  • He picked up a virus on his trip. (to come down with a disease)
  • The home team picked up eight yards on the play. (to gain)
  • He picked up a date at the singles bar. (to make casual acquaintance)
  • The police picked up the bank robber. (to take into custody).
  • The dog picked up the scent of the kidnapper. (to come upon and follow)
  • The lawyer picked up his argument after the noon recess. (to continue after a break)
  • Retail sales always pick up around the holidays. (to improve)
  • She just picked up and left (pack ones belongings)
  • The red pickup was parked in the drive. (noun derived from the verb a type of truck)

What features do phrasal verbs possess?

Firstly, replacebility by a one-word verb. It is often given as an indicator of semantic unity. For each phrasal verb you can substitute a one-word verb that means the same thing.

Ex. Judys story is hard to believe. Im sure she made it up.

Judys story is had to believe. Im sure she invented it

Billys grandmother especially liked her birthday card because Billy had picked it out himself.

Billys grandmother especially liked her birthday card because Billy had selected it himself.

The babysitter had a difficult time. The children acted up all evening. The babysitter had a difficult time. The children misbehaved all evening.

It is certainly true that many combinations generally regarded as phrasal verbs can be so replaced (ex. Give up=surrender; come up with = devise; wait on = serve), this is not an essential criterion, because there are many other obvious phrasal verbs for which there is no one-word equivalent. Examples are work on=give effort and thought to developing; crack down on = deal firmly with; look after = to take care of.

The second criterion is idiomacity the same combination may be used in a figurative/idiomatic sense.

Some grammarians claim that only the figurative, idiomatic or metaphorical usage of the combination should be called a phrasal verb, and that the literal use, where both the verb and the preposition are analyzed, and both are found to have a literal meaning in a phrasal context, should be called verb and particle or verb-particle constructions.

Other linguistic experts are of the opinion that all verb-particle constructions in both literal as well as figurative/idiomatic use should be called phrasal verb, irrespectively whether they have an individual meaning or not.

Emphasis in idiomatic phrasal verbs is put on the analysis to ascertain whether either verb or particle have a meaning. If neither component has a meaning of its own within the context of the sentence, it confirms the idiomaticalness of the whole and all that needs to be noted is whether the idiom is valid and recognized as such.

Many phrasal verbs may be used either in the idiomatic or the literal sense, such as:

  • He came across the garden to speak to me. (literal)
  • I came across an old photograph. (idiomatic)
  • We came across him while he was working out. (idiomatic)
  • The old lady came across as being very frightened. (idiomatic)

Or even: I am trying to keep my head above water, in the sense of keeping out of debt, which has idiomatic meaning; or

I am trying to keep my head above water, in the literal sense of not downing.

However, in everyday life an idiomatic phrasal verb like any other grammatical constructs, becomes fixed and authentic enough in time by its being used frequently.

The next characteristic feature of phrasal verbs is pacification. Separable phrasal verbs can generally be used in the passive, whereas inseparable phrasal verbs cannot.

Ex.: Youll need to write down the details active voice.

The details will need to be written down passive voice.

But speaking friendly there are many exceptions from the rule. For example inseparable phrasal verb send for sb/smth can be used in the passive:

Has the doctor been sent for?

More equipment has been sent for.

The inseparable phrasal verb look forward to sth also can be used in the passive:

The Presidents visit is eagerly looked forward to.

But separable phrasal verb get sb/sth over is not used in passive and the separable crack smb up and choke smth back are also not used in the passive.

Another feature of phrasal verb is that the phrasal verb have the pronominal form who (m) or what, but not an adverbial form such as where and when.

Some phrasal verbs, particularly those with an adverbial particle have a corresponding nominalized form.

Ex.: To change over change-over

Next is the criterion, which concerns stress.

One more feature is that the particle can usually stand before a noun object, in other words the phrasal verbs can be separable.

Ex.: Call up the office and ask for Mr. Morgan.

Call the office up and ask for Mr. Morgan.

In order to decide if a verb + preposition or verb + adverb combination is a phrasal verb or not, the student can try another single-word verb in place of the original. If the sentence makes no sense, then the original was a phrasal verb. And vice-versa, if the sentence makes sense, the original was a single-word verb. Another way to verify whether the combination is a phrasal verb is to transform the active verb into passive.


  1. Courtney Rosemary (1983), Longman Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs, London, Longman
  2. Cowie A.P. Mackin R., (1985), Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English, Oxford University Press.
  3. McArthur Tom, ed. The Oxford Companion to the English Language
  4. Workman Graham. Phrasal Verbs and Idioms. Upper-Intermediate 2/2 Oxford University Press, 1993.
  5. Dictionary of the English Literature, 1755 (Preface)
  6. Crystal David. Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language. Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.