1.6. Phrasal verbs.


These are sometimes referred to as ‘multi –part verbs’. They are defined as ‘verbs which change meaning when a preposition or adverb is added.’ Examples: ‘To look up at an aeroplane’, is not a phrasal verb because the meaning is ‘to look’ and the direction that you look is ‘up’. Neither is ‘to look into the bag’.  Compare these to the phrasal verbs in the following sentences: ‘He looked up the word in a thesaurus’, which means ‘to consult’; ‘The detective looked into the case of the missing diamond’, which means ‘to investigate’.


What students don’t realise is that many phrasal verbs have very strict limitations. Many are only usually used in imperative form. ‘Keep out!’ for example, is found on many signs and means ‘don’t enter’. It is seldom used like a normal verb. ‘He kept out of the building’, sounds unusual. ‘He didn’t enter the building’, sounds much more natural.


There are other important facts that should be considered. Does the preposition really change the meaning of the verb? Does it only change it a little? Does it completely change it?

Remember also that this is perhaps the most creative area of English. Native speakers sometimes make up (create) their own phrasal verbs by adding a preposition to an existing verb. This makes these verbs complicated for us too. English speakers often make mistakes by putting the wrong preposition on the end, so you shouldn’t worry too much.


The two most important things to consider when learning a new phrasal verb, are if it is transitive or intransitive (needs an object or not), and if it is separable or inseparable.

Obviously this is an area that needs a lot of work... and a teacher. The important thing is not only to learn them, but after to practice them with your teacher or friends, to see if you are using them correctly. Let’s get going. We’ll start with some easy ones!


‘Go over to the little counter against the wall.’ (intransitive/ inseparable.) to go in that direction. /Cross over to, etc.

‘Pick up one of the little pens, and one of the little betting slips.’ (transitive / separable) to take in hand. Some of the other meanings of ‘to pick up’ are ‘to learn without formal study’, ‘You’ll pick up Dutch in no time, if you marry Anja.’ ‘To have success in forming a romantic partnership’, ‘You only go to that club to try and pick up.’ ‘To improve’. ‘Business picked up after we fired that horrible receptionist.’

‘Now check out the newspapers.’ (transitive / separable) a colloquial phrasal verb meaning ‘to have a look at’, ‘to consult’ or ‘to investigate’

‘Find out which is the next race.’ (intransitive/ inseparable.) to obtain / to get knowledge about.

‘Pick out a horse.’ (transitive / separable) to choose / to select

‘Put down its name.’ (transitive / separable) to write / to make a note of. ‘To write down’ and ‘to note down’ are two more phrasal verbs whose particles change the meaning of the verb very little.

‘...we pick out the horse that has the most stupid name.’ (transitive / separable) to choose / to select

‘... head for the counter at the end of the room.’ (transitive / separable) to go in that direction /to cross over to / to go over to. ‘To make for’ is a synonym.

‘They’re off.’ to go / to begin / to leave / to start. You should note that ‘I’m off,’ simply means that ‘I’m going,’ or ‘I’m leaving.’

‘I think he’s going to pass by the others....’ (intransitive, separable) Often the preposition in phrasal verbs causes very little or no change in meaning. ‘To pass by’ means ‘to pass’ or ‘to overtake’. 

‘Yeah, he’s moving up through the field.’ (intransitive, inseparable) to make progress

‘He’s falling back.’ (intransitive, inseparable) to lose momentum/ground in a race.

‘He’s tripped up.’ (intransitive, separable) to fall over (no object needed.) ‘To trip over’ can be used with or without an object. ‘Don’t leave that shoe there someone will trip over (it).

‘The jockey has fallen off.’ (intransitive, inseparable) to fall. Not really a phrasal verb because it doesn’t change in meaning when the preposition is added. Always make a mental note of the opposite of prepositions of this type. With many phrasal verbs there is no logic to the prepositions, but  if it is simply a verb with an adverb or preposition, then it is much more logical. If you are in a tree, you would fall out of. If you are driving on the road, you would drive off. If you are on the bus you get off. Etc.

‘He’s going to end up last.’ (intransitive, inseparable) to finish / to have a final result as.

‘Oh, well....Let’s clear off.’ (intransitive, inseparable) Many phrasal verbs ending in ‘off’ are insults, or instructions for a person to leave. This is a particularly useful one as it is relatively inoffensive and means no more than ‘go away’. ‘This nightclub is terrible. Let’s clear off!’

‘I can’t afford to throw away any more money. (transitive, separable) ‘to waste’ ‘to use carelessly’. Note that this is the verb is most commonly used with ‘time’ (rather than ‘to lose’).


‘Let’s get over to the dole office.’ (transitive, inseparable) to go (colloq.)