English grammar

Module 3, Verbs: Types, Tenses, and Moods, Lesson 12:

Phrasal Verbs

English grammar

Before You Start: Prepositions

In this lesson you'll be learning about phrasal verbs, but before we get started, it's important to learn a little bit about prepositions.

Definition: A preposition shows a relationship of some kind. You use prepositions all the time even though you may not realize it. They typically answer questions such as which one, what kind, how much, how many, where, when, how, and to what extent.

The cow jumped over the moon.
Where did the cow jump? Over the moon.

We went to the movies after school.
When did we go to the movies? After school.

Don't worry if you don't quite have a handle on prepositions yet. You'll learn more about them in Module 6. For this lesson, you just need to be able to recognize them. Here are a few prepositions that are commonly used in phrasal verbs.

at by for away from after around across
on to out over with along behind through
in up off down into about

Phrasal Verbs

Definition: Phrasal verbs are made up of a verb and one or more prepositions. They are called phrasal verbs because it takes two words or more (a phrase) to complete their meaning. The verb and preposition work together to form a new verb whose meaning is different from those of the individual words.

Please fill out these forms so I can find out more about you.
If you fall behind in your homework, your parents will hear from your teacher.
If you blow up at your friends, it makes it harder to get along with them.

Many phrasal verbs are idiomatic, which means that you can't interpret them literally. The original meanings of the verb and preposition are often altered. For example, if you tell someone to shut up (which we know is rude), what up are they supposed to shut? Native speakers of any language understand phrasal verbs because they use them all the time, but it can be challenging for non-native speakers to understand and learn these verbs.

Separable and Inseparable Phrasal Verbs

With some phrasal verbs, it's possible to separate the verb and the preposition without affecting the meaning of the sentence, but with others, separation is not possible.

Separable Phrasal Verbs: Transitive

Separable phrasal verbs are always transitive, which means they always have a direct object. If the direct object is a noun or a noun phrase,1 you can choose to put it after the preposition or between the verb and the preposition. However, if the object is a pronoun, it must go between the verb and the preposition.

Correct: You will need to work out the problem on your own.
Correct: You have worked the problem out.
Correct: You have worked it out.
Incorrect: You have worked out it.

Because it is a pronoun, you have to put it between the verb and the preposition, not after the preposition.

Just because all separable phrasal verbs are transitive does not mean that all transitive phrasal verbs are separable.

Correct: Make sure you look after your little brother.
Incorrect: Make sure you look your little brother after.

Look after is transitive, but it is not separable. You can't put the direct object, your little brother, between the verb and the preposition.
Inseparable Phrasal Verbs: Transitive or Intransitive

Inseparable phrasal verbs can be either transitive or intransitive. With transitive inseparable phrasal verbs, the direct object must always follow the preposition.

Correct: We went over the answers.
Incorrect: We went the answers over.

With intransitive phrasal verbs, it's common to try to separate the verb and the preposition, but this is not correct. Because intransitive verbs don't have direct objects, there's nothing you can put between the verb and the preposition.

Correct: You will have to catch up on your homework.
Incorrect: You will have to catch your homework up.

Your homework is not the direct object of the verb catch up, so it can't go between the verb and the preposition.

The preposition on in the example above isn't part of the phrasal verb catch up. When you're unsure of whether or not a preposition is part of a phrasal verb, you can always look up the phrasal verb in the dictionary.
  1. A noun phrase includes the noun plus other elements such as articles (the, a, an), possessive pronouns (my, your, his, etc.), or demonstrative adjectives (this, that, these, those). Noun phrases can also include adjectives (describing words).
    Noun Noun Phrases
    dog my dog, a dog, the dog, this dog, those dogs, the little spotted dog

Practice What You've Learned

English grammar
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Click on all the words in each phrasal verb. Some sentences have more than one. Be sure to watch out for separable phrasal verbs. Do not include helping verbs as part of your answer.
You might have gotten away with plagiarizing essays with your last teacher, but you can't fool me.
I hope I can count on your vote.
Please give the cell phone back before you break it.
The military coup took down the president.
You were just showing off when you did all those skateboard tricks yesterday.
If you stand up to bullies, they often back down.
Make sure you wind your watch up since it doesn't have batteries.
Now that I am thirteen, I look after my younger siblings and figure out their favorite games.
The Q in his name stands for Quentin.
Before you put the dishes in the dishwasher, please rinse them off.