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Grammar Books

What is a Phrasal Verb?

A phrasal verb is a combination of a verb and preposition, a verb and an adverb, or a verb with both an adverb and a preposition.

A phrasal verb has a meaning which is different from the original verb. That's what makes them fun, but confusing. You may need to try to guess the meaning from the context, or, failing that, look it up in a dictionary.

The adverb or preposition that follows the verb are sometimes called a particle. The particle changes the meaning of the phrasal verb in idiomatic ways.

They are also known as ‘compound verbs’, ‘verb-adverb combinations’, ‘verb-particle constructions", “two-part words/verbs’ and ‘three-part words/verbs’ (depending on the number of words).

Phrasal verbs are usually used informally in everyday speech as opposed to the more formal Latinate verbs, such as “to get together” rather than “to congregate”, “to put off” rather than “to postpone”, or “to get out” rather than “to exit”. They should be avoided in academic writing.

!Note - Some linguists differentiate between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs, while others assume them to be part of one and the same construction, as both types are phrasal in nature. So, unless you want to become a linguist, don't worry about it.

Literal usage

Many verbs in English can be combined with an adverb or a preposition, a phrasal verb used in a literal sense with a preposition is easy to understand.

  • "He walked across the square.

Verb and adverb constructions are also easy to understand when used literally.

  • "She opened the shutters and looked outside."
  • "When he heard the crash, he looked up."

An adverb in a literal phrasal verb modifies the verb it is attached to, and a preposition links the subject to the verb.

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Idiomatic usage

It is, however, the figurative or idiomatic application in everyday speech which makes phrasal verbs so important:

  • "I hope you will get over your operation quickly."

The literal meaning of “to get over”, in the sense of “to climb over something to get to the other side”, is not relevant here. Here "get over" means "recover from" or "feel better".

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Transitive and intransitive phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs also differ in their transitivity or intransitivity in the same way as normal verbs do. A transitive verb always has an object.

For example:-

  • “Many people walked across the bridge.”

"Across" in this sentence is the preposition to "the bridge".

An intransitive verb does not have an object.

For example:-

  • “When I entered the room he looked up.”

"Up" here is an adverb, and does not have an object.

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Separable or inseparable phrasal verbs

A further way of considering phrasal verbs is whether they are separable or inseparable. In inseparable verbs, the object comes after the particle.

For example:-

  • "She got on the bus ."
  • "On weekdays, we look after our grandchildren."

Separable verbs have several ways of separating verb, particle and object. Usually, the object comes between verb and particle.

For example:-

  • "She looked up the word in her dictionary."
  • "She looked it up in her dictionary."

However, with some separable verbs, the object can come before or after the particle.

For example:-

  • "Switch the light off."
  • "Switch off the light."
  • "Switch it off."

!Note - There is usually no way of telling whether they are separable, inseparable, transitive or intransitive. In most cases you have to get a feel for them.

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