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Understanding the Grammar of Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are very common in everyday English. Learning the definitions of phrasal verbs and understanding the grammar of phrasal verbs are probably the biggest challenges for ESL students. We often hear from our students that they hate phrasal verbs. So what are phrasal verbs, and why are they so difficult?

Generally phrasal verbs are verbs that consist of two parts. The first part is always a verb (give, break, cut, get, etc.) and the second part is a particle (a preposition or adverb). Sometimes phrasal verbs consist of a verb and two particles (an adverb and a preposition). The particle changes the original meaning of the verbs. Together as a phrase they have a completely different meaning as compared to the verb itself. The meanings of some phrasal verbs are rather easy to understand. They are still close to the original meaning of the verb. (get up, fall through, sit down) However, if the phrasal verb is idiomatic, it has a special meaning that we cannot easily guess. Usually phrasal verb has a non-phrasal synonym, but this is not always the case.

For example:

To give up = to quit
To set up = to establish
To find out = to discover

All information you need to know about grammar of phrasal verbs

There are five main types of phrasal verbs. These are:


Intransitive phrasal verbs – phrasal verbs which do not need an object

To grow up – to mature
Children grow up so fast.

To pass out – to faint
When Ann heard the bad news, she passed out.

To pull over – to stop at the side of the road
Pull over, we need to ask for directions.


Transitive phrasal verbs – phrasal verbs which must have an object.

1.Transitive phrasal verbs where the particle can be before or after the object.

To put on – to dress oneself in smth

I think I’ll put on my coat. (the particle is placed before the object)
I think I’ll put it on. (the particle is placed after the object)

To pack smth in – to finish with smth

She packed in a well-paid job. (the particle is placed before the object)
She packed a well-paid job in. (the particle is placed after the object)

2. Transitive phrasal verbs where the particle is always placed after the object

To see smb off – to accompany smb to their place of departure
Are you going to the airport to see your friends off?

To get smb down – to depress smb
The bad weather this summer is getting me down.

When the object is a personal pronoun, the particle is ALWAYS placed after the object.

To pick up – to give smb a lift
I’ll pick up my son from school at 4.30.
I’ll pick you up from school at 4.30. NOT I’ll pick up you from school at 4.30.

To ring up – to telephone smb
I rang up the manager.
I rang him up. NOT I rang up him.

3. Transitive phrasal verbs where the particle is always placed before the object.

To count on smb – to rely on smb
You can always count on Jane to give you good advice.

To take after smb – to resemble smb
Sarah takes after her mother.

To decide on – to choose, to make up one’s mind about smth
Have you decided on a name for you baby yet?

To give up – to quit
He had to give up cigarettes. BUT He had to give them up.

4. Transitive phrasal verbs with two objects, one is placed before the particle and one after.

To rush smb into smth – to cause smb to make a quick decision without considering the options
The estate agent tried to rush us into buying an old house.

To talk smb into smth – to persuade smb to agree to smth
The salesperson tried to talk me into buying a new car.

Phrasal verbs that consist of three parts, the verb and two particles. In this case the object always placed last.

To come up against smb/smth – to be confronted with or opposed by smb/smth
We didn’t expect to come against so many issues.

To put up with smb/smth – to tolerate
I’ve put up with your complaints long enough.

There are probably more transitive verbs than intransitive. Some intransitive verbs can become transitive by the addition of a direct object, but the meaning may change:

He had to slow down immediately. (intransitive – decreased speed)
The driver had to slow the car down. (transitive – same meaning)

What time did the plane take off? (intransitive – left the ground)
Matthew took off the coat. (transitive – removed his coat – different meaning)

We will go through the different meanings of phrasal verbs in our next lessons. We hope that now you are more comfortable with the grammar of phrasal verbs and the structure of phrasal verbs. It is always a good idea to keep a dictionary with you, it will help you identify the correct structure you should use for each phrasal verb. Grammar of phrasal verbs is also explained in details on British Council website.

We pay special attention to grammar of phrasal verbs in our English Skype lessons, check out our plans and prices.

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