Phrasal verbs are two or more words that together act as a completely new word, with a meaning separate from the original words. For example, pick up means to “grab” or “lift,” very different from the definitions of pick and up alone. Popular in spoken English, phrasal verbs can be quite confusing because their definitions aren’t always easy to guess—and there are thousands of them. In fact, many phrasal verbs are distinct variations on the same base verb, which can add to the confusion.
For multilingual speakers, in particular, phrasal verbs are one of the most difficult topics in learning English. To help simplify this complicated issue, what follows is our guide to understanding English phrasal verbs, including a list of the most common ones.
What is a phrasal verb?
A phrasal verb combines a normal verb with an adverb or a preposition to create an entirely new verbal phrase—the phrasal verb. The meaning of a phrasal verb is usually unrelated to the meanings of the words that comprise it, so think of a phrasal verb as an entirely new and independent word.
When used in a sentence, phrasal verbs act the same as other verbs for conjugation and placement, although they do have special rules about word order, which we talk about below. Phrasal verbs can be conjugated into every type of verb form, so you can use them anywhere you could use a normal verb.
Let’s look at the phrasal verb get over as an example. The verb get alone means to “acquire,” and the preposition over alone usually refers to being higher or going above something. However, put them together and the phrasal verb get over means to “recover” or “overcome,” a completely new definition that’s separate from the definitions of get and over.
You can use get over just like a normal verb, in any form or tense. Here are some quick examples:
Simple past tense:
I had the flu last week but got over it.
He wrote a song to get over his grandmother’s death.
Getting over prejudice at work is never easy.
Having finally gotten over the breakup, they were ready to return their partner’s things.
How to conjugate phrasal verbs
When a phrasal verb is used as the main verb of a sentence, you conjugate the verb part and leave the other words as they are. Simply use whatever form of the verb you would use if it were alone.
I get up at noon during the summer.
However, this morning I got up at sunrise.
I have gotten up early too many times this month.
Notice how only the word get changes, but the word up remains the same. Also notice how get, an irregular verb, uses its irregular forms to fit whichever tense it needs.
In this way, you can use phrasal verbs in all the verb tenses, so you’re able to communicate anything you want. Conjugation is also important for maintaining verb tense consistency if you’re using phrasal verbs in a list with other verbs.
Types of phrasal verbs
To better understand phrasal verbs, it helps to organize them into two pairs: transitive and intransitive; separable and inseparable. A phrasal verb can belong to only one of each pair (although all separable phrasal verbs are transitive).
Transitive phrasal verbs
Transitive phrasal verbs use a direct object, just like normal transitive verbs.
Charlie couldn’t put up with the meowing cats any longer.
Intransitive phrasal verbs
Likewise, intransitive phrasal verbs do not use an object.
The regional director was late, so the sales team went ahead without her.
Separable phrasal verbs
With transitive phrasal verbs, you can sometimes put the direct object in between the words, for example, “pick you up.” There are, however, a few rules to follow with separable phrasal verbs, so pay attention to our next section about word order.
He forgot to shut the lights off before he left.
Inseparable phrasal verbs
Inseparable phrasal verbs cannot be split up and must be used together.
The wayward son carried on without his father.
Word order with phrasal verbs
Most of the time, the words in a phrasal verb stay together. For intransitive and inseparable phrasal verbs, the verb and the participle must go next to each other and should never be split up.
Separable phrasal verbs follow different rules, however. For starters, separable phrasal verbs are always transitive, so they always have a direct object. You can put the direct object in the middle of separable phrasal verbs, in between the verb and the participle:
Augustus would never let Hazel down.
This is also true for noun phrases; place all words in a noun phrase in between the verb and the participle of a phrasal verb:
You would never let any of your friends down.
Some separable verbs require you to put the direct object in the middle every time. For example, let’s look at the phrasal verb get down.
[INCORRECT] The beginning of the movie Up gets down everyone.
[CORRECT] The beginning of the movie Up gets everyone down.
On the other hand, sometimes it doesn’t matter whether the direct object comes in the middle or at the end of a phrasal verb. Both options are acceptable. Unfortunately, there’s no method for knowing whether or not you have to separate a phrasal verb; you just have to study and practice until it comes naturally.
[CORRECT] Pick the box up and carry it to the kitchen.
[CORRECT] Pick up the box and carry it to the kitchen.
However, pronouns follow a special rule when it comes to separable phrasal verbs: If the object is a pronoun, it must be placed in the middle of a phrasal verb. Pronoun direct objects cannot go at the end.
[INCORRECT] Pick up it and carry it to the kitchen.
[CORRECT] Pick it up and carry it to the kitchen.
Remember that not all transitive phrasal verbs are separable. Transitive phrasal verbs can be either separable or inseparable, so be careful of where you put your object. For example, the transitive phrasal verbs get through, come between, and go against are all inseparable, so the direct object comes after them every time.
[INCORRECT] Nothing comes us between.
[CORRECT] Nothing comes between us.
Common phrasal verbs (with meanings and examples)
back [x] up
support or defend someone
When the class was making fun of me, only the teacher backed me up.
stop working, especially when referring to machines
The ice cream machine at McDonalds is always breaking down.
contact multiple people
Roy called around to find a nearby mechanic.
relax after an energetic or irritated state
I need a few minutes to calm down after that match.
call [x] off
We called the party off. / We called off the party.
check [x] out
verify a person or thing (can sometimes be flirtatious when used in reference to a person)
I’ll check the contract out. / I’ll check out the contract.
be extremely successful in an endeavor, such as business, sports, or gambling
Our hockey team cleaned up at the tournament and went home undefeated.
stop questionable behavior, such as consuming drugs or alcohol
Her boss said she had to either clean up or find a new job.
clean [x] up
clean a general area
John cleaned the living room up. / John cleaned up the living room.
cheer [x] up
make someone happy, especially if they were previously sad
Reading always cheers me up on a rainy day.
change an opinion or see a new point of view
I never liked seafood, but came around after trying fried calamari.
disturb a relationship
After more than fifty years of marriage, nothing could come between them.
come down on
attack or punish harshly
Ever since last month’s accident, police have been coming down on drunk driving.
come down with
After sitting in the rain for hours, Chandra came down with a nasty cold.
come out of
happen as a consequence of another event
We missed a day of school, so at least some good came out of our boring class trip.
become the topic of discussion or receive attention
Everyone talked about how much they enjoyed the movie, but the run time never came up in the conversation.
approach or come near
While walking outside the fence, a cow came up right next to me and licked my face.
happen or occur, as with an event or situation
Don’t worry about a problem until after it comes up.
come up with
think of an idea, especially as the first person to do so, or to produce a solution
Sahar comes up with her best story ideas at night, so she writes them down before she forgets them.
rely or depend on
If I’m ever making a mistake, I can count on my friends to warn me.
occupy oneself with something; to pore over quickly or reach into quickly
I’ll dive into that new TV show later tonight.
wear nice clothes or put forth in the best light
Abed dressed up for the award ceremony.
eventually reach some conclusion or destination
After thinking for a day, he ended up taking the job.
break into pieces
My new dress completely fell apart after just two washes.
suffer from mental or emotional distress
He endured all kinds of harassment at work without flinching, but completely fell apart when his cat got sick.
fill [x] up
fill something completely
Bruce filled his wine glass up to the brim. / Bruce filled up his wine glass to the brim.
discover or learn
We’ll have to wait until the next TV episode to find out who the killer is.
get [x] across
communicate or explain something clearly
The professor spoke for hours, but didn’t get anything across to the students.
succeed or progress
You’ll never get ahead at this company unless you follow the rules.
travel from place to place
It’s impossible to get around this city without a car.
get around to [x]
do something eventually
I’ll get around to fixing the table after the playoffs.
get away with
escape punishment or some other unpleasantness
Shirley thought she got away with cheating until the teacher asked her to stay after class.
get along with
be friendly with
My dog gets along with everyone as long as they’re not a cat.
There’s an itch on my back that I can’t get at.
attempt to prove or explain
What these graphs are getting at is that we’ll be bankrupt by next week.
escape or depart from
Lucio liked to go to the lake every weekend, just to get away from the city.
get away with
escape punishment for a crime or misdeed
The boss’s nephew gets away with much more than any of the other employees.
get [x] back
have something returned
Rodger got his pencil back from Greta. / Rodger got back his pencil from Greta.
get back at
have revenge on someone
Laila promised herself that she would get back at whomever started the rumor.
survive or manage at the bare minimum
When Sheila lost her job, the family had to get by with only their savings.
enjoy oneself without inhibitions, especially with music or dancing
Vicente may be overly formal at work, but he sure knows how to get down to hip-hop.
get [x] down
depress or discourage someone
Kima always gets everyone down with her stories from the hospital.
record or write something down
The President spoke quickly at the press conference, and reporters were struggling to get all of his comments down.
get down to
begin or start
Once everyone arrives, we’ll get down to picking teams.
get in on
join an activity
After Bitcoin started going up, everyone wanted to get in on cryptocurrency.
discuss something thoroughly
I don’t want to get into our finances now; we’ll talk after our guests leave.
get [x] out of
receive a benefit from something
Babysitting the Cohles was a nightmare, but at least Janelle got some money out of it.
recover or overcome
Drinking a lot of water helps in getting over an illness.
complete or endure an unpleasant task
Alessandra can’t get through a morning without coffee.
annoy or bother someone
People who don’t clean up after their dogs really get to me.
have a social event
The volleyball team is getting together for dinner after practice.
give [x] away
donate something or give something for free
Mindy gave her prized doll collection away. / Mindy gave away her prized doll collection.
accept defeat, quit, or surrender
Carin felt like giving up every time she saw the scoreboard.
give [x] up
stop consuming or doing something, often a habit
Minh gave chocolate up for his diet. / Minh gave up chocolate for his diet.
contradict, oppose, or fight against
A group of students went against the school dress code yesterday and wore ripped jeans.
proceed or move forward
Because of the snow, we can’t go ahead with the festival.
go along with
agree with or pretend to agree with
Even though Cedric hated weight lifting, he went along with it because his coach suggested it.
try or attempt to achieve something
Carlos trains so hard because he is going for an Olympic gold medal.
continue doing something (see keep [x] up)
The boys will go on digging until they hit a water pipe.
review or look at again
Marie went over the study guide one last time before the test.
submit (especially an assignment)
The teacher wants us to hand in our essays through email.
hold [x] back
prevent someone from doing something
I wanted to become an architect, but my bad grades held me back.
keep [x] up
continue doing something (see go on)
Keep this pace up and you’ll set a new record!
leave [x] out
omit or disregard
Orna left the graph out of the presentation. / Orna left out the graph from the presentation.
let [x] down
Kamal let Marco down when he arrived late. / Kamal let down Marco when he arrived late.
let go of
release or free
Don’t let go of the rope until I’m safe.
let [x] in
allow to enter
Close the door or you’ll let the flies in!
let [x] know
tell someone something
Let me know as soon as Leslie texts back.
take care of someone or something
Thank you for looking after me when I was sick.
look up to [x]
admire or idolize someone
I looked up to this YouTuber until I read about their scandal.
confuse something with something else
It’s easy to mix up Chris Pine and Chris Pratt.
pull [x] up
retrieve or bring something nearer
Eugene pulled the document up on his computer. / Eugene pulled up the document on his computer.
put [x] on
wear or add something to your person or an object
I always put my backpack on before leaving the house. / I always put on my backpack before leaving the house.
put up with
tolerate or condone
Somehow Paz could put up with Janice’s cynical attitude.
run out of
use all of or drain the supply of something
Isabella ran out of toilet paper at the worst possible time.
make sure something is done
I’ll see to watering the plants while you’re gone.
set [x] up
arrange or organize
Since no one invited me to join their study group, I set one up myself.
deliberately display abilities or accomplishments in order to impress people
Panya didn’t need to shoot so many three-pointers; she was just showing off.
shut [x] off
turn off, especially a machine
Don’t forget to shut the water off after your shower. / Don’t forget to shut off the water after your shower.
resemble, especially with parents and their children
Li takes after his father when it comes to politics.
take [x] out
move something outside
Please take the garbage out before dinner. / Please take out the garbage before dinner.
think [x] over
When his parents suggested selling his Pokemon cards, Yosef thought it over.
throw [x] away
dispose of something
Could you throw that old burrito away? / Could you throw away that old burrito?
turn [x] down
reject or say “no”
My crush turned me down after I asked them out.
fill something to the top; to complete something in a special or spectacular way
May I top off your beverage?
serve, especially at a restaurant
Billie eagerly waited on the new table of customers, hoping for a big tip.
Phrasal verb FAQs
English speakers of all backgrounds often have questions about phrasal verbs—after all, they’re quite confusing! Here are some frequently asked questions about phrasal verbs to help clear up some things.
What are phrasal verbs?
Phrasal verbs are a group of words that combine a verb with an adverb or a preposition. Together, these words act as a single verb and take on a whole new meaning that’s independent from the meanings of the individual words.
What are phrasal verb examples?
Phrasal verbs are very common, and you hear them in spoken English all the time. Some popular examples include get out, calm down, give away, and put up with.
What are the four types of phrasal verbs?
There are four types of phrasal verbs, divided into two pairs: transitive and intransitive; separable and inseparable. A phrasal verb can belong to only one of each pair, but keep in mind that all separable phrasal verbs are transitive.
This article was originally written in 2020 by Nikki Piontek. It’s been updated to include new information.