Phrasal Verbs

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Phrasal verbs can present daunting obstacles to many English learners. Very often, they might have unpredictable meanings, which leads to misinterpretations and communication gaps. So, it’s vital to understand the basics of phrasal verbs. In this article, you will learn what is a phrasal verb, discover some examples, and get tips to avoid common mistakes when using phrasal verbs.

What is a phrasal verb

A phrasal verb is a verb that consists of several words, together forming a new meaning. Usually, verbs are combined with prepositions or adverbs to create new expressions. Their functions are to enrich the language and everyday conversations. Here are some examples:

  • “to look”+”up” forms “to look up” means “searching for information”;
  • “to take”+”of” forms “take off,” which literally means “begin to fly” and metaphorically - “rapid start or success of something (project, career, etc.);
  • “to break”+”down” forms “break down,” which means “to stop functioning.” It’s used in literal meaning regarding machines (My computer broke down) or metaphorical ones regarding some processes (The negotiation broke down after trying to find common ground for 2 hours.)

The special thing about phrasal verbs is that they are used both in spoken and written forms. You may find the phrasal verbs in informal and formal communication. Understanding the phrasal verbs, you will be confident in different contexts. 

Types of phrasal verbs

Generally, phrasal verbs are divided into two big categories: separable and non-separable. The former offers flexibility, meaning you can put something between the parts of a phrase without losing the meaning. Non-separable phrasal verbs don’t offer such an opportunity. Understanding the difference is crucial for grammatical accuracy and communication.

Separable phrasal verbs

Usually, the separable phrasal verbs are separated by the object of the verb. In other words, by the thing that the phrasal verb refers to. For example, “to turn off” means to deactivate. Both “turn off the light” and “turn the light off” are correct sayings, although they have different structures.

Here are the golden rules for using separable phrasal verbs in English:

  • Identification. You should understand whether the phrasal verb is separable. Just try to put the object between the parts of the phrasal verb and check whether it makes sense.
  • Pronoun Placement. If the verb is separable, and the object is a pronoun (e.g., it, them), it must come between the verb and the particle. You can say "pick it up" but not "pick it up."
  • Contextual Flexibility. The choice to separate a phrasal verb or keep it intact often depends on the context, emphasis, or stylistic preference. For example, "turn off the light" might be preferred in formal writing, while "turn the light off" could be more common in casual speech.

Here are some common mistakes in using separable phrasal verbs. 

  • Forcing separation. Beginner language learners often tend to separate an inseparable phrasal verb. For example, they try to say “to come it across” when it should be “come across it.” Remember to identify in advance whether the verb is separable.
  • Skipping the context. In formal writing, it’s safer to keep the verb and particle together after the object (unless the object is a pronoun). This ensures clarity and avoids possible misinterpretations.

Practice using different phrasal verb examples to remember these rules. These constructions might be challenging, but by completing several exercises, you will start using the separable phrasal verbs intuitively.


Non-separable phrasal verbs

The non-phrasal verb meaning is straightforward: it combines a verb and preposition or adverb that function as a single unit. So, you can’t put an object between the parts of such a verb.  For example, "to run into" means to meet someone unexpectedly. You can’t “run someone into” because such a structure will significantly change the meaning, creating nonsense. So, the rules for using non-separable phrasal verbs are as follows:

  • Fixed Structure. The verb and its particle(s) (preposition or adverb) remain together, regardless of the verb's object. 
  • Object Placement. Since the verb and particle cannot be separated, the object (if there is one) always follows the phrasal verb. This rule applies even when the object is a pronoun, as in "look after it."
  • Interpreting Meaning. The meanings of non-separable phrasal verbs must be learned as a whole. Because these meanings can be idiomatic or figurative, context clues and common usage patterns are invaluable for understanding and application.

There are several strategies to master these rules:

  1. Learn through a context. Don’t rely just on remembering the verb itself. Practice it through reading, listening, and speaking. Try integrating it into different contexts, or ask your tutor to create relevant exercises.
  2. Repeat. Of course, you shouldn’t overuse the verbs. However, try to practice them in your communication when it’s appropriate. This will help you to remember the correct usage.
  3. Engage with proficient learners. Connect with tutors or learners who have reached higher fluency levels and ask for their feedback. This approach will help you understand the non-separable phrasal verbs faster.

By understanding the structure of non-separable phrasal verbs, embracing their idiomatic meanings, and avoiding common errors, you can confidently integrate such expressions into your language. 

List of Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are a versatile language tool, so there are many combinations of them. Below, you can find some common phrasal verbs examples with their meanings.

Separable Phrasal verbsMeaningExample sentenceNon-separable Phrasal verbsMeaningExample sentence
turn offTo deactivatePlease turn off the lights before leaving.come acrossTo find by chanceI came across an old friend in the city.
pick upTo lift and hold somethingCan you pick up the book from the floor?get alongTo have a harmonious relationshipThey get along very well.
fill outTo complete (a form, survey)Remember to fill out your intoTo meet unexpectedlyI ran into your brother at the mall.
break downTo fail to functionMy car broke down on the way to work.look afterTo care forShe looks after her younger siblings.
take offTo depart or ascendThe plane takes off at noon.count onTo rely onYou can count on me.
put awayTo tidy up by storingPut away your toys after withTo handle or confrontHe deals with stress very effectively.
throw outTo discardIt's time to throw out the old magazines.fall apartTo disintegrate or failThe plan fell apart at the last minute.
bring upTo mentionShe brought up an interesting point during the meeting.get overTo recover fromIt took him a while to get over the illness.
call offTo cancelThe game was called off due to rain.go throughTo endure or undergoShe went through a lot last year.
set upTo establish or arrangeThey set up a new company.keep onTo continue doingKeep on trying until you succeed.
make upTo reconcile or inventWe need to make up after the argument.look forward toTo anticipate with pleasureI'm looking forward to the vacation.
look upTo search for informationI'll look up the word in the dictionary.pass outTo faintSeveral students passed out from the heat.
give backTo return somethingPlease give back the book tomorrow.put up withTo tolerateI can't put up with the noise anymore.
take backTo retract or take backI take back what I said out ofTo deplete one's supply ofWe're running out of milk.
put onTo dress oneself withPut on your coat; it's cold outside.stand forTo represent or meanWhat does this acronym stand for?
hold onTo wait or pauseHold on, I'm on the phone.turn intoTo change intoThe caterpillar turned into a butterfly.
throw awayTo dispose ofThrow away the expired out forTo be cautious ofWatch out for icy roads.
try onTo try clothes for fittingTry on the dress to see if it fits.back downTo retreat or yieldHe backed down from the challenge.
work outTo exercise or solveI work out at the gym every day.break outTo erupt or flare upA fight broke out at the concert.
run throughTo explain or go over quicklyLet's run through the presentation again.come up withTo devise or think ofWe need to come up with a solution.

Keep in mind that this list is non-exhaustive. Enriching your language vocabulary, you will face more expressions that can be useful for everyday communication.


Remember, mastering phrasal verbs is not just about learning the language. It’s about understanding people better and even embracing the cultural contexts. Learn these expressions, practice through phrasal verb exercises, and communicate with confidence in English.

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