Give Me A Break with Phrasal Verbs

Sick Car C479581563As mentioned in our last entry in the Phrasal Verbs series, phrasal verbs give the English language the power to do more with less. Because of the prevalence of phrasal verbs, instead of using completely new words to describe different actions, English speakers are able to make small – but important – additions to existing words. Nor are examples like “blow” (which is associated with at least four different phrasal verbs) isolated examples; consider, as we will today, the word break – it has more than a dozen!

Break Down / – to malfunction or stop working

  • I need to buy a new car because, after more than ten years of heavy use, my old one broke down last week.


  • After several weeks of extreme stress Jack decided to take a vacation before he broke down under the strain.

Note: As the second example shows, this phrasal verb can be used to describe people as well as machines. When applied to people, however, it typically involves a mental, not physical, breakdown. [Breakdown, the related noun form of this phrasal verb, is one word, not two.]

Break … Down – to examine closely

  • To better break down difficult problems Matt likes to work in a calm, quiet place.

Note: The object of this phrasal verb can come either between the words or, as in the case above, after it.

Break In / – to interrupt

  • While watching a tense conversation between his parents Jeremy waited for an opportune moment to break in and make his big announcement.

Note: “Break into” is a common variant of this phrasal verb that has the same meaning. In the above example, however, we might change the sentence to say “break into the conversation…” instead.

Break In/ – to enter a location forcibly (and often illegally)

  • The band of thieves broke in at midnight and was gone – with the jewels – in less than five minutes.

Note: As with the other meaning of break in, above, this phrasal verb often appears as “break into” – in which case the location often immediately follows it in the sentence.

For more on our system of notation – as well as a lot more phrasal verbs – check out our phrasal verb blog posts!

Bring It On With Phrasal Verbs!

happy thanksgiving 187817836While the English languages is comprised of more than a million words – just take a look at the many volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary for proof of this – the simple truth is that the average person uses far fewer. In fact, according to some scholars, only 300 words account for 65% of all written communication. What does that mean for you? Well, it means that English language learners can do more with less and, one way to do exactly that is to use more phrasal verbs. Here are few that all use the same root: bring:

Bring … About – to cause or initiate

  • By studying hard you, too, can bring about incredible success.

Note: Remember, this phrasal verb, like all others, must be modified to make the tense (present, past, future). For example, though the sentence above is in the present tense, this phrasal verb is often used in the past and therefore written as “brought about”.

Bring … Along – to carry or take with

  • The worried parents always bring along supplies for their new baby – that way they have what they need under any circumstances.

Bring … Around – to convince or otherwise change someone’s mind

  • After discussing the issue for several hours Debbie was finally able to bring Mike around to her side of the problem.

Note: As noted with the symbols above, this phrasal verb must have the person or thing being convinced between the two verbs (and not after them).*

Bring … On – to cause something to happen

  • James should have known better – discussing politics at Thanksgiving always brings on a fight between his sisters.

Note: “Bring about” and “bring on” are extremely close in meaning and can often be used interchangeably.

For more on our system of notation – as well as a lot more phrasal verbs – check out our phrasal verb blog posts!

Blow Out The Candles and Celebrate with Phrasal Verbs!

Senior woman blowing out candles on cake 71036955Phrasal verbs may have a reputation for being confusing – why, after all, does look up mean something so different than look over? – but, they should be appreciated equally as much for their power as for their complexity. As the above example shows, changing the complement of a verb can radically alter its meaning (from “research” to “review”),* and as the following examples prove, can allow us to use a single word – blow –  to describe a number of unique situations.

Blow In – to arrive suddenly

  • When James blows in unexpectedly things at our house can go from quiet to complicated in no time!

Note: This phrasal verb can be used to describe things (as in weather) or people (in which case it has a meaning that is slightly more negative [and often used to describe unexpected visitors]).

Blow Out – to extinguish with breath or went

  • “Don’t forget to make a wish when you blow out the birthday candles!”

Blow Over – to happen without creating further difficulties

  • I think that Zack should wait until the controversy about his grades blows over before asking his parents for a little extra spending money.

Note: As the above example demonstrates sometime problems only “blow over” after a problem has already happened but in which the situation is improving.

Blow … Up – to explode or cause to explode

  • Building renovations often start when a demolition team blows up the old structure to make space for the new one.

Note: This phrasal verb is inseparable with the first definition (i.e., it blew up) but separable with the second definition (i.e., I blew it up); this is determined by whether the action being described is active or passive.

Blow Up – to become very angry

  • Mark blew up at Stacy after she damaged his new car.

Note: Although inseparable like the passive use of blow up above, this phrasal verb’s alternate meaning is made obvious by its use to describe people (not things).

For more information about phrasal verbs and their use, check our other posts about phrasal verbs!

Don’t Act Up If It Doesn’t Add Up!

As this is the first in our series discussing common phrasal verbs in English* it makes sense to begin, well, at the beginning. In other words, with the letter A. A number of the most common – and commonly confused – phrasal verbs begin with the first letter of the alphabet.

Act Up – to work improperly, as if with a mechanical problem.

Note: This word can be used to describe both people and things. When describing people, however, it is used more for behavioral (not health) problems.

Example:  My laptop is acting up again. The fan is making such a terrible noise that I will probably need to take it to the repair shop soon.


Example:  Whenever we go to the theater Ricky acts up; he makes a lot of noise and refuses to sit still.

 Add … Up – to add things together

Example:  Whenever I go to the grocery store I try to add up my total before I get to the register. I would hate to find out I don’t have enough money during checkout!

Add Up – to be understandable, logical, or believable

Example:  Ricky’s reason for arriving late just does not add up – who ever heard of a blizzard in July?

Note: Add up has two meanings that can be distinguished based on the position of the object* – when the object is inside of or after the phrasal verb it has the first meaning; when it is before the phrasal verb it has the second meaning. Of course, context helps too!

Add Up To – to equal

Example:  Two plus two adds up to four.

Note: This three word phrasal verb, like many phrasal verbs that are longer than two words, is inseparable – that means the object can only come after the complete phrasal verb.

Ask … Out – to invite someone on a (romantic) date.

Example:  Jennifer really wanted Jon to ask her out but was too shy to say anything for a long time!

* Be sure to check out our overview of phrasal verbs to better understand our notation and, of course, for more examples!

Break Out of the Ordinary with Phrasal Verbs

woman biting into dark chocolate 78629003As examples like chocolate, vacations, and friends can prove, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing* and we are here to tell you that phrasal verbs are no different. Just take these examples – all of which use the base verb “break” – if you don’t believe us!

Break … Off – to end something (typically in a dramatic or sudden way)

  • James was in the middle of a call with his girlfriend when, without warning, the connection broke off completely.

Note: Although the above example may not sound so serious, it is quite common to use “break off” to describe the conclusions of friendships, relationships, or engagements.

Break … Off – to take a smaller piece off a larger chunk

  • Although Jill and Sandy each bought different candy bars, each broke off a piece so that the other the other could try some.

Note: Context, no grammar, will help you determine which of the two versions of “break off” is being used in a given situation.

Break out / – appear in a sudden or unexpected way

  • With resentment against the government at all-time highs many observers were concerned that violence could break out at any moment.

Note: It is this meaning of break out that explains why people sometime refer to a bad case of acne as a “breakout”.

Break Out Of / – to escape

  • The dog was a real escape artist – she could always find a way to break out of any place her owners tried to leave her!

Note: This phrasal verb should not be confused with the two word “break out” which, though less common, means to use something special (as in champagne in a celebration).

* In fact, if you are interested in seeing our complete overview of phrasal verbs you can see it here.

Want to learn more about other confusing words? Check out our other blog posts on Phrasal Verbs and learn more tips and tricks at our Learn English section.