Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are very common in spoken English and informal writing. A phrasal verb is formed by a verb plus one (and occasionally two) particles or prepositions. For example:

“Look up” = find something in a dictionary, w reference book, or on the internet
“Look up to” = admire someone

You probably already know many phrasal verbs. For example:

get on / get off (a bus / train)
turn on / turn off (a light / piece of electrical equipment)
stand up / sit down (stand / sit)
come on / go away (asking people to approach or leave)
go up / go down (rise or increase / descend or decrease)

But there are many, many more! Some of the more common ones are tested in exams like Cambridge First Certificate and IELTS, which means that you’ll need to know at least a few.

Tips for learning phrasal verbs

1. Learn how to use the particle

It can be difficult to understand and use phrasal verbs, because they aren’t always “logical”. But they can be easier to understand if you pay attention to the particle meaning. For example, here are some of the main meanings for “up”:

– to increase (“add up” figures, “blow up” a photo, “free up” time, etc)
– to improve (“do up” a house, “tidy up” a room, etc)
– for movement (“get up” in the morning, “hang up” your clothes, etc)
– to get closer (“catch up with” someone, “pull up” a chair, etc)
– to make a mistake (“flag up” a mistake, “mess up” an exam, etc)
– to talk about relationships and communication (“break up” with someone, “meet up” with someone, etc)
– to finish something (“block up” a hole, “give up” a bad habit, etc)
– to prepare something (“rustle up” a meal, “set up” a business, etc)

2. Check with a dictionary

Find out how you an use the phrasal verb in context, and whether you can separate the particle. For example, you “look up a word” or “look a word up” (separable), but you can only “look into” something. (Not “look something into”.)

Also check out Learning and using phrasal verbs. This page explains the grammar in more detail and shows you how you can understand and use phrasal verbs.

3. Limit what you learns

There are at least 5000 phrasal verbs in English and it would be almost impossible to learn them all. It makes sense to learn only the most usual ones. To do this, choose only the most common verbs at first (get, go, live, look, catch, etc). Then check in a dictionary. If more than one meaning is listed, the first one is usually the most common.

Get into the habit of reading informal English (try tabloid newspapers, for example) to see which phrasal verbs are used. Again, check their meaning in a dictionary so that you are sure about how and when they are used.

4. Don’t forget the nouns

We can often make nouns from phrasal verbs. For example, your car can “break down” (stop working) or you can experience a “break down” (when your car stops working). People can also suffer from a nervous breakdown (when they feel sad and unable to cope).

You can “work out” (go to the gym to get exercise) or “do a work-out” (do the exercise). You can also buy food to “take away”, or get a “takeaway”.

List of common phrasal verbs

Check out these pages of the most common phrasal verbs, organised by particle:

With “up”

With “down”

With “in”

With “out”

With “on”

With “off”

Three-part phrasal verbs (These have two particles, instead of one. Examples are “come up with”, “live up to”, etc.)

Speaking Exercise: Phrasal verbs for shopping

Telephoning phrasal verbs


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