Phrasal verbs

What is a phrasal verb? Phrasal verbs consist of a combination of a verb and another word, which we’ll call a preposition. Some examples are come over, look (something) up. The first word in a verb-preposition combination can be just about any verb. The verbs that most commonly appear in such combinations are listed below:

  • go
  • come
  • take
  • get
  • set
  • carry
  • turn
  • bring
  • look
  • put
  • pick
  • make
  • point
  • sit
  • find
  • give
  • work
  • break
  • hold
  • move

The second words in such combinations are a bit trickier to label. Many textbooks call the second words ‘particles’. A few traditional books call them adverbs. Many contemporary linguists identify them as prepositions. We follow contemporary linguistic practice and call them prepositions. Regardless of what you call these words, the most common examples are listed below:

  • out
  • up
  • on
  • back
  • down
  • in
  • off
  • over

With the above 20 verbs and 8 prepositions, you can construct most of the English language’s common phrasal verbs. In addition to the above combinations, there are over 10,000 additional phrasal verbs in English. Studies show that the 100 most common phrasal verbs account for over half of phrasal verb usage in real life. That means that if you’re familiar with the 100 most common phrasal verbs, you’re more than halfway to the goal of understanding all of the cases of phrasal verbs that you encounter on any given day.

A phrasal verb may or may not be followed by a noun phrase.

  • This usually took place when the factory machine broke down. [S2A-067 #14]
  • Composting is a process that breaks down fresh organic matter into a brown, crumbly stuff that looks rather like nice soil. [W2D-001 #48]

In the first example above, the verb-preposition combination broke down isn't followed by a noun phrase. In the second example, the verb-preposition combination break down is followed by the noun phrase fresh organic matter.

Sometimes, the noun phrase that follows the phrasal verb can’t be moved.

  • And he walked out the door and down Oxford Street. [S1B-045 #105]
  • *And he walked the door out and down Oxford Street.

According to the strictest definition, if the noun phrase cannot be moved, then the verb-preposition combination is not actually a phrasal verb at all. In that case, the verb-preposition combination is instead called a prepositional verb. (Note that if the verb-preposition is not followed by a noun phrase at all, then it is always a phrasal verb.) The distinction between moveable and immoveable noun phrases is therefore a crucial one, as it distinguishes phrasal verbs from prepositional verbs.

When a phrasal verb is followed by a pronoun, additional rules apply. Consider the following examples:

  • She put down the coffee cup and picked it up. [W2F-020 #28]
  • *She put down the coffee cup and picked up it. 

The second example here is ungrammatical. As you can see, a pronoun like it is not acceptable after the preposition in a phrasal verb, but a pronoun can be placed between the verb and preposition of a phrasal verb.


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