The words “phrasal verbs” might sound intimidating but, in truth, they shouldn’t be. “Phrasal verbs” are, after all, simply verb phrases – multi-word verbs that are formed by combining ordinary verbs like look, bring, come, and go with prepositions or adverbs like in, on and over.
These multi-word verbs are more than the sum of their parts, however, while look, a verb meaning “to see” can be found in any dictionary, a phrasal verb like “look up” cannot be translated word for word.
While it can mean to look at the ceiling, look up more commonly means “to search for information” and, perhaps more importantly still, this meaning is neither informal nor particularly uncommon. It is exactly because they are such an important part of everyday English at all levels – many phrasal verbs lack easy one-word synonyms (meaning that in some cases there is no alternative to the phrasal verb) – that every student of English needs a basic understanding of phrasal verbs.
Unfortunately, this can sometimes seem easier in practice than in theory. Still, while there are no foolproof rules that dictate the when and why of these combinations, a little bit of grammar (and a lot of practice) can make phrasal verbs much easier to manage. In fact, before we can even begin a discussion of phrasal verbs we need to understand the difference between the subject and the object of a sentence.
Subject and Object
While the subject of a sentence is the person doing the verb, the object is the recipient of the verb’s action. For example, in the sentence, “I throw the ball” the person doing the action – I – is the subject but the thing receiving the action – the ball – is the object. It is, after all, the thing being thrown. Another example is “We like Jake” where we do the action – in this case “liking” – and Jake is, literally, the object of our affection. Because phrasal verbs are verbs this distinction between subject and object is very important.
Separable and Inseparable Phrasal Verbs
Most phrasal verbs are either separable or inseparable. Separable phrasal verbs can be separated by their objects. When the object is a noun, it is usually entirely optional whether the object is placed within the phrasal verb or after it. Thus, using the example of “look up” mentioned above, it is equally correct to say:
- I look up the information
- I look the information up
Note, however, that when a pronoun is used in the place of a noun as the object of the sentence, it is only correct to put the pronoun within the phrasal verb. Thus we say:
Correct: I look it up
Incorrect: I look up it
For our purposes, and for the sake of clarity, separable phrasal verbs will always have a double dash (–) between the verb and its particle (e.g., look – up).
Of course, if there are separable phrasal verbs there are also inseparable phrasal verbs which, as their name implies, cannot be separated by their object: Thus we say:
Correct: I look for the key
Incorrect: I look the key for
Note: Many phrasal verbs that are longer than two words are inseparable. Here is an example with “look in on” (a phrasal verb meaning “to monitor):
Correct: We look in on the children often
Incorrect: We look in the children on
Intransitive Phrasal Verbs
Finally, it is important to note that phrasal verbs do not play well with objects at all. These intransitive phrasal verbs can neither be separated nor followed by an object. For example, blow over – a phrasal verb is roughly equivalent in meaning to “dissolve” or “go away” – is used in the following way:
Correct: I hope that problem blows over without a major emergency this weekend.
Where it is the problem that blows over, or dissolves, and precedes the phrasal verb. Despite the fact that the problem is actually the object of our hopes, because blows over is an intransitive phrasal verb it cannot be placed inside of or after the phrasal verb.
Given the complexity of this topic it is understandable to be a little confused at this point. Fortunately, with our Phrasal Verb Blog Series available to provide plenty of practice, expert use is only a matter of time!