Phrasal verb

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A phrasal verb (/freɪzəl vɜ:b/) is a phrase with a verb as its head, comprising a verb and a particle. They are a type of multi-word verb[1] and sometimes referred to simply as such.

Mainly of Anglo-Saxon origin, they are often considered a colloquial synonym to more formal verbs of Latin or French origins, even though some of them actually contain Latinate words, such as contract out; level off, etc.

Phrasal verbs often present problems for foreign language learners because the meaning may not be transparent from an examination of the individual words involved and they can be grammatically complex. This complexity is not helped by the grammarians arguing with themselves about them.

Transitivity and separation[edit]

By convention, phrasal verbs are classified into 4 types according to their transitivity, separability and no. of particles:[2]

Traditional name Modern name Typical form Transitivity Separation in statements Particles typically used Example(s)
Type 1 phrasal verb Separable phrasal verb verb + adverb Transitive Possible and required for pronouns
  • "I took off my coat."
  • "I took my coat off."
Type 2 phrasal verb --- verb + preposition Transitive Impossible on, off, in, out, to, for, with "I got over it"
Type 3 phrasal verb intransitive phrasal verb verb + adverb / verb + preposition Intransitive N/A (any) "I got up."
Type 4 phrasal verb Phrasal-prepositional verb verb + adverb + preposition Transitive No "I look forward to the outcome."

This analysis is often but not always found in pedagogic grammar books for students. One of the problems with it is that phrasal verbs can belong to different types. For example (1) "I woke my wife up"/"I woke up my wife" or (3) "I woke up". Or type 3 and type 4, e.g. "We get along well" (3) v "We get along with each other well" (4). [Possibly 1, 3, and 4?] A few separable phrasal verbs must be separated. An additional confusion is that the boundary between preposition and adverb is really rather overlappy.

More modern analysis however therefore highlights three main categories - separable, inseparable and double-particle. The intransitive phrasal verb is a pseudocategory - all phrasal verbs used intransitively belong to the category of being either separable or inseparable, though can never be separated because there's nothing to separate them.


Many phrasal verbs have both literal and idiomatic meanings. For example, "put down", in "she put the book down" is literal and clear. But if we say "she's always putting me down", it is a phrasal verb used idiomatically.


There are basically six types of verbs that are used as phrasal verbs:[3]

Phrasal nouns[edit]

See; phrasal noun.

L1 difficulties[edit]

Learners with romance languages as L1 may, in their diction, eschew using phrasal verbs and instead use more formal, French- and Latin-derived verbs because they can remember the cognates and more comfortable with their use. This may make their spoken English sound overly formal, but if there is a focus on formal written English, that's perhaps not a problem.


  1. Teaching English: Multi-word verbs - MWVs British Council/BBC.
  3. Collins Dictionary of English Phrasal Verbs and their Idioms ISBN 0-00-370200-6