The Grammar of Phrasal Verbs
Phrasal verbs are extremely common – especially in spoken English – and can be very difficult for students to use correctly. There are thousands of them, and they don’t all follow the same rules. Understanding the grammar of phrasal verbs will help you to start feeling confident about using them. And using them will really raise the level of your speaking skills. So here goes!
Phrasal verbs consist of a verb and a particle. They can be intransitive or transitive, separable or inseparable …
“What?! HELP! This all sounds very confusing!”
Don’t worry – before we begin, we’re going to clarify these grammatical terms. They’re not as scary as they sound!
A particle can be a preposition (such as on, off, in, for) or an adverb (such as up, down, in, out). Many words can act either as prepositions or adverbs, so it’s easier just to refer to them as particles.
Intransitive phrasal verbs don’t need an object. For example:
My car broke down on the way, so I had to call a mechanic and take a taxi instead.
We arrived at the airport, checked in, then boarded the plane.
Transitive phrasal verbs need an object. I remember this by imagining the verb transporting the object. For example:
I was late leaving home because I was looking for my passport. (You can’t just say ‘I was looking for.’)
I had to fill in a form with all my details at the police station. (You have to fill something in.)
Some transitive phrasal verbs are separable. This means you can separate the verb from the particle, and the object can come before or after. For example:
Please turn the TV down.
Please turn down the TV.
Others are inseparable – the verb and the particle must stay together. For example:
I can’t go out tonight, as I have to look after the children. (NOT ‘look the children after’)
My son takes after me in looks and character. (NOT ‘takes me after)
The three main types of phrasal verbs
Type 1: Intransitive
The verb doesn’t take an object, and the verb and particle always stay together.
Rob decided to stay on after his holiday in France and get a job there.
He’s asked me to come over and visit him this winter.
Type 2: Transitive and inseparable
The verb needs an object, and this must come after the particle.
He gets off the bus near work. (NOT ‘He gets the bus off’)
I looked through the book, but I didn’t buy it. (NOT ‘I looked the book through’)
Some phrasal verbs have two particles. Three-part phrasal verbs are always Type 2 (transitive and inseparable), so that’s easy to remember!
I’m trying to get rid of all my old clothes – I’ve got far too many.
We’re really looking forward to the summer holidays!
Type 3: Transitive and separable
The verb needs an object, and this can come before or after the particle.
He put his coat on.
He put on his coat.
BUT if we use a pronoun instead of a noun, it must come before the particle:
He put it on. (NOT ‘He put on it’)
Please call me back. (NOT ‘Please call back me’)
Sometimes you can guess the meaning of a phrasal verb if you know the meaning of the verb and the particle. For example, grow up. Grow means to become bigger, so growing up seems logical.
In fact there are several examples where adding the particle up to a verb doesn’t change its basic meaning. It just expresses the idea of intensifying, completing or finishing something:
Eat up – you haven’t eaten since breakfast! = eat every bit
Tidy up before your parents get home! = tidy very thoroughly
You’ve used up all the milk! = there’s none left
But there are also many phrasal verbs that you can’t understand just by looking at the verb and particle. For example, if you look up a word you don’t know in the dictionary, it doesn’t mean you look up to the sky! If you bump into a friend in the street, it hardly ever means you crashed into each other physically. It nearly always means you met by chance. You just have to learn those ones! (We’ll soon be publishing some posts on phrasal verbs by theme.)
More than one meaning
Another problem with learning phrasal verbs is that many of them have more than one meaning. Not only that, but sometimes the same phrasal verb can have different meanings and follow different grammar rules:
take off = leave the ground
The plane took off at ten. (Type 1: intransitive)
take off = remove
He took his jacket off. (Type 3: transitive and separable)
Whenever you learn a new phrasal verb, always make a note of which type it is. You should also write down a couple of examples. Then you’ll remember how to use it properly:
take up (Type 3: transitive/separable) = start an activity for the first time
This summer I took up swimming. I took it up to get fit and lose weight.
Now it’s over to you. Get a pen and paper and try this exercise.
Some of these sentences contain mistakes. Decide which sentences are correct, and correct the mistakes in the others. We’ve included which type of phrasal verb they are in order to help you decide.
(Answers at the bottom of the page.)
- I forgot to collect your letter yesterday, but I’ll pick up it today. (Type 3)
- Can you help me look my bag for? (Type 2)
- Who do your children take after? (Type 2)
- What time does take the plane off? (Type 1)
- You must be hot – take that sweater off. (Type 3)
- I usually get the bus on in Oxford Street. (Type 2)
- I used to smoke, but I gave up it last year. (Type 3)
- Please fill your name and address in here. (Type 3)
- Have you taken up any new hobbies this year? (Type 3)
- Children grow up so fast, don’t they? (Type 1)
- Where did break down your car? (Type 1)
- My birthday’s nearly here – I’m really looking forward to. (Type 2)
- I forgot to collect your letter yesterday, but I’ll pick it up today. (Type 3)
- Can you help me look for my bag? (Type 2)
- Who do your children take after? (Type 2) CORRECT (‘Who’ is an object pronoun)
- What time does the plane take off? (Type 1)
- You must be hot – take that sweater off. (Type 3) CORRECT
- I usually get on the bus in Oxford Street. (Type 2)
- I used to smoke, but I gave it up last year. (Type 3)
- Please fill your name and address in here. (Type 3) CORRECT
- Have you taken up any new hobbies this year? (Type 3) CORRECT
- Children grow up so fast, don’t they? (Type 1) CORRECT
- Where did your car break down? (Type 1)
- My birthday’s nearly here – I’m really looking forward to it. (Type 2)