Advanced English Grammar



Phrasal Verbs

English phrasal verbs come in many shapes and sizes.

Typically, they're a verb and preposition combination which, when combined, changes the meaning of the main verb into something else.

Most students of English find them difficult because sometimes the idiomatic uses either make no sense at all, or the meaning change is so drastic that even a good guesser has no idea what they mean.

Sometimes we call them two part verbs, three part verbs, or multi-word verbs.

(Depending on how many words are used in the combination and which country you are learning English in…)

Whatever you call them, you should know some basic truths regarding phrasal verb usage.

First of all, they are often used in a literal sense. That is, the combination of the verb with the preposition leads to a logical understanding. There are times when the meaning is far removed from the original verb and takes on a completely idiomatic usage.

Example: The boy jumped on the bed.
Jumped on literally means what it says.
Example: The boy in the race jumped into the lead.

Jumped into (almost literally) means what it says. This is bordering on idiomatic, but it is still somewhat literal.

Idiomatic Usage

The problems begin when the verb 'jump' is combined with other prepositions or adverbs that give it a completely idiomatic meaning.

Example: "Did you get the weekend off?"
"Yes, but I had to jump through all the hoops."

Here, jump through has a metaphorical, or idiomatic meaning. It means 'forced or made to do something unpleasant; made to follow procedure.' (Think of a lion or tiger performing at the circus... being made, or forced by the whip, to jump through the hoops the lion tamer is holding.)

The above is quite typical when it comes to phrasal verb usage. The good thing is that these verbs often follow set patterns.

Phrasal Verb Patterns

Phrasal verbs can be either intransitive or transitive. That is, they are either followed by an object, or not. An intransitive verb does not have an object while a transitive verb does.

Difficulties sometimes occur when deciding if a verb can be 'separated' from the preposition that forms the phrasal verb. The following examples illustrate the problem.

Example: Turn off the TV.
Example: Turn the TV off.
As seen above, some phrasal verbs can be separated with the object of the verb coming between the main verb and the preposition. It's important to know and remember, however, that some phrasal verbs can NOT be separated, and the verb and preposition must remain together.

Example: The sewer gave off a horrible smell.
NOT: The sewer gave a horrible smell off.

Some verbs require that the object comes before the adverb.

Example: They allowed the boy through.
NOT: They allowed through the boy.
When dealing with transitive verbs and the object is a pronoun, then the pronoun comes before the adverb.

Example: Turn it on.
NOT: Turn on it.
If the above seems to be a little too much to take in at one time, then I suggest coming back and doing a page or two at a time. My intentions are to include exercises along with some timely theory lessons to help you solidify your knowledge of phrasal verbs.

For more information regarding prepositions and phrasal verbs, click on the preceding link.