A phrasal verb is a phrase that’s made up of a verb and another word or two, usually a preposition but sometimes an adverb.
So before we can talk about phrasal verbs, it’s important to understand what verbs, prepositions and adverbs are.
- A verb is an action word. It describes something happening (i.e. hearing, seeing), a state of being (i.e. to live, to sleep), or an action being done (i.e. to read, to sing).
- A preposition is a word that describes the relationship between two words. For example, the bees are above the table or under the table, but not inside the table (hopefully). Prepositions mainly deal with location or direction (i.e. on, through, around) and time (i.e. “by” or “around” a certain time).
- An adverb is a word that describes a verb. For example, you can run quickly or slowly and arrive to class early or late.
Now that you know what verbs and prepositions are, you’re ready to start putting them together into phrasal verbs.
Phrasal verbs work by changing the verb’s meaning based on the preposition that follows them.
It’s easier than you think—you probably already know a number of phrasal verbs. For example, read the last sentence before this section: “So come on, let’s learn some phrasal verbs.” The words “come on” in that sentence are a phrasal verb!
The word “come,” on its own, means to move towards something. Together with the preposition “on,” though, the phrase “come on” becomes a phrase of encouragement.
There are many other phrasal verbs out there!
How to Learn Phrasal Verbs
English phrasal verbs are everywhere, so one of the best ways to learn them is to try to listen for them. These phrases are commonly used, and would not be unusual to hear in a conversation. Do you hear a verb used together with another word very often? It might be a phrasal verb.
If you’re not sure whether a phrase is a phrasal verb or just a verb that happened to be spoken with a preposition, try looking it up. Most dictionaries have entries for phrasal verbs, so look the phrase up to be sure. You can also look up the phrase in the English Page phrasal dictionary which is an excellent resource, so save that link!
Some phrasal verb meanings are obvious—like “fall down”—but some are almost like idioms since they can’t be literally translated—like “come on.” To make them easier to learn, you can try grouping phrasal verbs into categories like time of day (i.e. wake up, lie down) or positive (i.e. cheer up) and negative (i.e. give up).
There are so many phrasal verbs that it might seem difficult to learn them all. But many of these phrases become natural after a while—all it takes is some repetition and practice.
How to Use Phrasal Verbs in English
Phrasal verbs are used just like verbs—anywhere they make sense!
Usually, the verb and preposition in a phrasal verb need to be said together, like in the phrase “fall down.” In some cases, though, you can separate the verb and the preposition by putting other words in between them.
For example: the phrase “turn off” can be used just like that, or it can be interrupted by stating what you’re turning off. In other words, you can say “turn off the TV,” but you can also say “turn the TV off.” Both are correct!
Another thing to keep in mind about phrasal verbs is that they are still verbs. That means the verb part of the phrase can be changed depending on the tense of the sentence. So “turn off” can also be “turned off” and “turning off,” for example.
It will take you a while to get used to which phrasal verbs can be separated and which can’t, so hang in there!
Some Most Useful Phrasal Verbs in English
Below are some of the most common phrasal verbs in the English language. We organized them alphabetically so they’re easy to find, but you can group them however you want when you’re learning them!
Bring up — To mention something. (Note: The two parts of this phrasal verb can be separated.)
“Mark was sick and had to miss the party, so please don’t bring it up, I don’t want him to feel bad for missing it.”
Bring on — To cause something to happen, usually something negative. (The two parts of this phrasal verb can be separated by what’s happening.)
“His lung cancer was brought on by years of smoking.”
Bring it on! — To accept a challenge with confidence.
“You want to have a race? Bring it on! I can beat you!”
Call on — This can mean either to visit someone, or to use someone’s or something’s knowledge.
To visit someone: “I’ll call on you this evening to see how you’re feeling.”
To use someone’s knowledge: “I may need to call on the university’s excellent professors in order to answer your question.”
Call off — To cancel something.
“The picnic was called off because of the rain.”
Cheer on — To support someone by giving them words of encouragement. (Can be separated by the name or pronoun of the person/people being cheered on).
“Even though Samantha was in the last place, her brother cheered her on through the entire race.”
Cheer up — This phrase can either be used as a phrase of encouragement said to someone who seems sad (just saying “cheer up!” to them), or it can mean to try to make someone happier.
“Andrew was having a bad day, so his girlfriend cheered him up by taking him out for ice cream.”
Come up (with something) — To think of an idea.
“I came up with this idea for a TV show about a woman living with her best friend and daughter. I call it ‘Two and a Half Women.’”
Come up — To bring up a topic, or when something happens unexpectedly.
To bring up a topic: “I wanted to tell her that I got a new job but the chance never came up.”
Unexpected occurrence: “I was going to meet my friends for dinner, but something came up so I had to cancel.”
Come in — To enter.
“‘Come in, the door is open!’ said the grandmother to the wolf.”
Come across — To meet or find by chance.
“I was cleaning the attic and I came across my high school uniform. Can you believe it still fits?”
Come forward — To volunteer information about something, like a crime.
“The police are encouraging people to come forward with any information about the kidnapped girl.”
Cut off — This phrase can be used in several ways, but its general meaning is “to interrupt or stop something.” (Can be separated.)
While driving, to get in front of another car suddenly: “That red car just cut me off and I almost crashed into it.”
To stop supplying things to or communicating with someone: “His father is rich but he cut him off without any money of his own.”
Cut (it) out — This phrase has the same meaning as saying “Stop it.”
“Hey, cut it out! I was watching that movie, so stop changing the channel!”
Cut in — To interrupt someone when they are speaking.
“I was about to ask that girl on a date, but her friend cut in and I lost the chance.”
Drop by/in — To stop by for a visit, for a short time.
“Andrew is such a great boyfriend, when he heard that his girlfriend had a cold he dropped by to bring her some soup.”
Drop off — To leave something or someone in their destination. (Can be separated by the object being dropped off.)
“I can give you a ride and drop you off at work.”
Fall apart — This phrase means “to break into pieces,” but it can be used to talk about things that are not physical, like a marriage or a person.
“They tried to save their marriage by going to therapy but in the end if fell apart anyway.”
Fall down — To drop to the ground, usually by accident.
“My friend slipped on a banana peel and fell down. I thought that only happened in cartoons!”
Fill (someone) in — To give someone the details about something. (Is usually separated by the person getting filled in).
“Quickly, let’s go! There’s no time to explain, I’ll fill you in on the way.”
Fill up — To become completely full.
“The little girl filled up on candy before dinner, and didn’t want to eat any of the chicken.”
Get away — To escape. You may have heard the phrase “getaway car.” That’s the car used by criminals to run away from a crime scene, like a bank robbery.
“Carmen’s neighbor tried to show her pictures of all her cats, but Carmen managed to get away.”
Get around — To solve a problem by avoiding the main issue. This phrase can also be used very informally to refer to someone who has many sexual partners. As you can imagine, it’s not very nice to say that someone “gets around”!
“Some people know all the different ways to get around tax laws.”
Get along (with) — To have a friendly relationship with someone.
“Some people are surprised that I get along with my mother-in-law really well!”
Get up — To stand up, or to wake up.
“I have so much trouble getting up in the morning that I have to set three alarms.”
Get back to — To return to someone or something. This phrase is often used to say that you will return with an answer to a question or a request at a later time.
“Derek’s coworker wasn’t sure what time the meeting was, so he said he’d get back to him with the time.”
Get back at — To get revenge on someone.
“Her ex-husband took her house so she got back at him by taking his dogs.”
Give out — This phrase can mean to break down or stop working, or to hand out or distribute something.
To stop working: “The city had to rebuild the bridge completely, because it was about to give out and fall down.”
To distribute: “He has a lot of contacts because he gives out his business card to everyone he meets.”
Give in — To surrender, especially in a fight or argument.
“Ben’s mother gave in and let him stay out late with his friends.”
Give away — To hand things out for free. (Can be separated by the item being given away.)
“When Linda’s cat had kittens, she gave them all away to good homes.”
Give up — To stop trying, surrender.
“After two weeks of trying to build my own table, I gave up and just bought one.”
Go out (with) — To go on a date with someone.
“Sarah was so happy when Peter finally asked her to go out with him!”
Go ahead — To go in front of someone, or to give permission to do or say something.
“Go ahead, explain to me why there is a car on my roof.”
Grow up — To grow up, sometimes used to tell someone to stop acting childish.
“Some people tell Steve he needs to grow up, but he loves acting like a child.”
Grow apart — To get distant from someone, like a friend.
“When my friend moved to a different country I tried to stay close with her, but we slowly grew apart.”
Hang on — To keep something.
“When everyone else was getting fired, Paul managed to hang on to his job.”
Hang out — To spend time with someone, casually.
“My friends and I used to hang out in the park after school.”
Hang up — To end a call on the phone, especially if it’s before the other person is ready.
“I was in the middle of a sentence, and he hung up on me! How rude.”
Hold on — To hold something tightly. This phrase can also be a way of asking someone to wait for a moment.
“You’d better hold on to your hat, it’s windy out there!”
Hold back — To stop yourself from doing or saying something.
“Amy has a great voice but whenever she’s singing in public she feels shy and holds back.”
Log in (to) — Used with computers, this phrase means to sign into your account on a website or computer.
“Don’t forget to log in to your ExamsBD account to learn English better and faster.”
Log out/off — Also used with computers, this phrase means to sign out of your account.
“You should always log out of your accounts when you use a public computer.”
Look up — To check the meaning of something. (Can be separated by the item being looked up).
“If you don’t know the meaning of a word, you should look it up in the dictionary.”
Look out — To watch out for something.
“Look out, there’s a baseball coming your way!”
Pay back — To give someone back money that you owe them. (Can be separated by the person getting paid back.) When it’s written as one word, “payback” means revenge.
“Thanks for getting me lunch when I forgot my wallet at home! I’ll pay you back tomorrow.”
Pay for — This phrase can either mean to give someone money for a particular purpose (like paying for a new car), or to suffer because of something you did.
“He’ll pay for all the problems he caused me by being late today!”
Put out — This phrase can mean to extinguish a fire, or to irritate someone by asking them for a favor. (In the case of annoying someone, can be separated by the person getting annoyed.) Be aware that in very informal slang, this phrase has a more offensive meaning.
To extinguish a fire: “The firefighters managed to put out the fire before it spread to other houses.”
To irritate someone: “I’d ask you to make me dinner but I don’t want to put you out.”
Put on — To get your clothes or makeup on.
“Every morning she puts on her dress, lipstick, shoes and hat—in that order.”
Take off — This phrase can mean to remove clothing, or to leave for a journey (i.e. planes take off when they begin their flights).
“She was very happy when she finally got home and took off her shoes. They had been hurting her feet all day!”
Take out — To remove something, like from a pocket or a bag. This phrase can also mean to take someone on a date. (Can be separated by the item or person being taken out.) The phrase can also mean to remove someone, as in by killing them—but this is probably not something you would need to use in everyday conversation!
To remove something: “The children sat at their desks and took out their pens and paper.”
To take someone on a date: “He took her out to the most expensive restaurant in the city.”
Turn on/off — To switch a machine or light on or off.
“Turn off the light, I’m trying to sleep!”
Turn around — To move so that you’re facing the opposite direction.
“Sally was about to get on the plane, but she turned around when someone called her name.”
Turn up — When someone that was lost is found unexpectedly.
“Anything I lose usually turns up under the couch. It’s my cat’s favorite hiding place.”
Warm up (to) — To start liking someone or something more as you spend more time with them, especially if you didn’t really like them in the beginning.
“The new puppy was scared of my husband when we first got him, but he warmed up to him pretty quickly.”
Work out — To exercise.
“I try to work out every morning, by repeatedly lifting a heavy donut to my mouth.”
Work (something) out — To come up with a solution or a compromise with someone.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure we can work something out so that everyone is happy.”