Phrasal verbs are two or more words that together act as a completely new verb with a meaning separate from those of 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 of the base verbs used to form phrasal verbs are used in multiple different phrasal verbs with distinct meanings, 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 subject, 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, referred to as the particle of the phrasal verb, 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 compose 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 purposes, although they do have special grammatical rules regarding 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 than or going above something. However, put them together and the phrasal verb get over means to recover from or overcome something, 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:
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 word or words as they are. Simply use whatever form of the verb you would use if it were alone.
Notice how only the word get changes, while 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 that 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 kinds of pairs: transitive and intransitive; separable and inseparable. A phrasal verb can belong to only one type within each pair (and all separable phrasal verbs are transitive).
Transitive phrasal verbs
Transitive phrasal verbs use a direct object, just like normal transitive verbs.
Intransitive phrasal verbs
Intransitive phrasal verbs do not use an object.
Separable phrasal verbs
With transitive phrasal verbs, you can sometimes put the direct object between the verb and the particle, as in “pick you up,” for example. There are, however, a few rules to follow with separable phrasal verbs, so pay attention to our next section, about word order.
Inseparable phrasal verbs
Inseparable phrasal verbs cannot be split up; the verb and the particle must staytogether. All intransitive phrasal verbs are inseparable.
Some transitive phrasal verbs are also inseparable.
Word order with phrasal verbs
Most of the time, the words in a phrasal verb stay together. For intransitive and inseparable transitive phrasal verbs, the verb and the particle 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, between the verb and the particle:
This remains true when the direct object is a noun phrase; you can put all the words of the noun phrase between the verb and the particle of a separable phrasal verb:
With some separable phrasal verbs, putting the direct object between the verb and the particle is not just an option, it’s required. For example, let’s look at the phrasal verb get down.
With other separable phrasal verbs, it doesn’t matter whether the direct object comes in the middle or at the end. Both options are acceptable. Unfortunately, there’s no method for determining which phrasal verbs are separable and which are not; you just have to memorize them and practice until they come naturally. Both of the following examples using the separable phrasal verb pick up are correct:
However, pronouns do follow a special rule when it comes to separable phrasal verbs: If the object is a pronoun, it must always be placed in the middle of a separable phrasal verb. Pronoun direct objects cannot after the phrasal verb.
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.
80 common phrasal verbs (with meanings and examples)
1 back [x] up
to support or defend someone
2 break down
to stop working, especially in reference to machines
3 call around
to contact multiple people
4 call [x] off
to cancel a planned event
5 calm down
to relax after an energetic or irritated state
6 check [x] out
to examine a person or thing; when used in reference to a person, can connote looking at them with romantic or sexual interest
7 cheer [x] up
to make someone happy, especially if they were previously sad
8 clean up
to be extremely successful in an endeavor such as business, sports, or gambling
to stop engaging in questionable behavior, such as consuming drugs or alcohol
9 clean [x] up
to tidy an area
10 come around
to change one’s opinion or see a new point of view
11 come between [x]
to interfere with a relationship between two people
12 come down with [x]
to catch an illness
13 come out of [x]
to happen as a consequence of another event
14 come up
to arise as a topic of discussion or receive attention
to present itself or occur, as of an event or situation
15 come up with [x]
to think of an idea, especially as the first person to do so, or to produce a solution
16 count on [x]
to rely or depend on someone or something)
17 crack down on [x]
to attack or punish someone harshly; to penalize a behavior
18 dive into [x]
to eagerly begin a pursuit or activity
19 dress up
to put on nice clothes
20 end up
to eventually reach some conclusion or destination
21 fall apart
to break into pieces
to experience acute mental or emotional distress
22 fill [x] up
to put into a container as much as it can contain
23 find out [x]
to discover or learn something
24 get [x] across
to successfully communicate or explain something
25 get ahead
to succeed or progress
26 get along with [x]
to be on harmonious terms with someone
27 get around
to travel from place to place
28 get around to [x]
to do something eventually
29 get at [x]
to reach or gain access to something
to indicate or suggest something
30 get away
to escape or depart
31 get away with [x]
to commit a crime or misdeed without incurring any negative consequences
32 get [x] back
to retrieve something
33 get back at [x]
to take revenge on someone
34 get by
to survive or manage at a minimum level
35 get down
to enjoy oneself without inhibitions, especially with music or dancing
36 get [x] down
to depress or discourage someone
to record something by taking notes
37 get down to [x]
to begin or start something, especially something basic or fundamental
38 get in on [x]
to join an activity
39 get into [x]
to discuss something thoroughly
40 get [x] out of [x]
to take some benefit from a situation
41 get over [x]
to recover from or overcome something
42 get through [x]
to complete or endure an unpleasant experience
43 get to [x]
to annoy or bother someone
44 get together
to gather socially
45 give [x] away
to donate something or give something for free
46 give up
to accept defeat, quit, or surrender
47 give [x] up
to stop consuming or doing something, often a habit
48 go against [x]
to disobey, contradict, oppose, or fight something
49 go ahead
to proceed or move forward
50 go along with [x]
to agree with or pretend to agree with
51 go for [x]
to try to achieve something
52 go on
53 go over [x]
to review or look at something
54 hand in [x]
to submit something, especially an assignment
55 hold [x] back
to prevent someone from doing something
56 keep [x] up
to continue doing something
57 leave [x] out
to omit something
58 let [x] down
to disappoint someone
59 let go of [x]
to release or free something
60 let [x] in
to allow something or someone to enter
61 let [x] know
to tell someone something
62 look after [x]
to take care of someone or something
63 look up to [x]
to admire or idolize someone
64 mix up [x]
to confuse two or more things with one another
65 pull [x] up
to retrieve or bring something nearer
66 put [x] on
to dress oneself in
67 put up with [x]
to tolerate or condone something
68 run out of [x]
to use all of or drain the supply of something
69 see to [x]
to make sure something is done
70 set [x] up
to arrange or organize something
71 show off
to display abilities or accomplishments in order to impress others
72 shut [x] off
to turn off, especially a machine
73 take after [x]
to resemble someone, especially of children about their parents
74 take [x] out
to move something outside
75 think [x] over
to consider something
76 throw [x] away
to dispose of something
77 top [x] off
to refill something to the top; to complete something in a special or spectacular way
78 turn [x] down
to reject or say no to someone
79 wait on [x]
to serve someone, especially at a restaurant
80 wait out
to wait until an even to or period is over
Phrasal verb FAQs
What are phrasal verbs?
Phrasal verbs are groups 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 some examples of phrasal verbs?
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, and keep in mind that all separable phrasal verbs are transitive.
This article was originally written in 2020 by Nikki Piontek. It has been updated to include new information.