Phrasal Verb Rules

What is a Phrasal Verb?

According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, a phrasal verb is “a verb combined with an adverb or a preposition, or sometimes both, to give a new meaning”. The new meaning is different to that of its separate parts. Some examples of phrasal verbs are ‘look up’, ‘put off’, and ‘make up for’.

Types of Phrasal Verbs

There are two types of phrasal verbs: separable (the verb and particle can be separated) and inseparable (the verb and particle can’t be separated).

Transitive verbs are verbs that require a direct object to complete their meaning. Transitive phrasal verbs can be separable or inseparable.

With separable phrasal verbs, we can place the object after the particle or between the verb and the particle.

Transitive & Separable:

  • Can you take out the bins, please?  
  • Can you take the bins out, please?  

Examples of transitive, separable phrasal verbs include fill in, turn off, put on, and pick up.

Inseparable phrasal verbs work together as a single semantic unit, so they cannot be separated by an object. The object must come after the particle.

Transitive & Inseparable:

  • She looked after the children.  
  • She looked the children after.  ✘

Three-part phrasal verbs are always transitive and inseparable.

  • I’m looking forward to the trip.

Examples of transitive, inseparable phrasal verbs include run into, go over, cut down on, and come across.

Intransitive verbs are verbs that don’t require a direct object to complete their meaning. Intransitive phrasal verbs are always inseparable.

Intransitive:

  • The car broke down on the highway.
  • Sit down and open your books.

Some phrasal verbs can be transitive or intransitive depending on how they are used, or they may have multiple meanings, where in some cases they are transitive and in others they are intransitive.

Transitive:

  • Wake Jo up at 8 am. / Wake up Jo at 8 am.

Intransitive:

  • I woke up early.

Transitive:

  • Take your coat off. / Take off your coat.

Intransitive:

  • The plane took off at 7 pm.

We often replace nouns with pronouns; for example, the man = he, and the car = it. When using a pronoun in place of a direct object with separable transitive phrasal verbs, we must place it between the verb and the particle.

  • He turned the TV off.  
  • He turned off the TV.  
  • He turned it off.  
  • He turned off it.  ✘

Don’t forget that when the phrasal verb is inseparable, this rule does not apply. We must place the direct object after the particle(s), even if it is a pronoun.

See our Phrasal Verb ESL Materials below…

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