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Phrasal Verbs

Many English verbs require more than one word to express their meanings. These are called phrasal verbs. Compare the single-word verbs with the phrasal verbs in these sentences.

  • She put her hat on the table.
  • She put on her hat and her coat.
  • The sunflower turned toward the light.
  • turned off the light when I left the room.

Usually the word attached to a phrasal verb looks like a preposition, such as out, in, off, up, or on. However, when these words are essential parts of a phrasal verb, they no longer function as prepositions and are instead called particles.

Phrasal verbs are extremely common in English. The following are a few familiar examples:

hand outtake offcarry on
pass outtake onfigure out
put offtouch downget up
put up withturn ongive in
send offturn uphand in
stand byuse upbreak down

Like single-word verbs, phrasal verbs can be transitive or intransitive, depending on their meaning. For example:

  • Transitive: Take off those wet clothes before you catch cold. (remove)
  • Intransitive: I am going to take off after the meeting is over. (leave)
  • Intransitive: The plane finally took off after the wings were de-iced. (took flight)

Phrasal verbs are either separable or inseparable. If a phrasal verb is separable, its direct object can come between the verb and the particle.

  • Correct: She put on her coat.
  • Correct: She put her coat on.
  • Correct: I cannot figure out this problem.
  • Correct: I cannot figure this problem out.

Inseparable phrasal verbs must stay together.

  • Correct: She could not deal with the situation.
  • Incorrect: She could not deal the situation with.
  • Correct: I need to read up on modern philosophy.
  • Incorrect: I need to read up modern philosophy on.

Some grammarians would say that only separable verbs are true phrasal verbs. They would call inseparable phrasal verbs prepositional verbs.

Gray Area: The Particle at the End of the Sentence

A common English grammar rule says that sentences cannot end with a preposition. This rule was derived from languages like Latin and French, in which it is grammatically impossible to put a preposition at the end of a sentence. Unfortunately, the rule is nonsensical when applied to English, and nowhere is this more evident than with phrasal verbs. As Winston Churchill suppos-edly said:

  • “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

Churchill’s sarcastic statement uses a phrasal verb, put up with, to make its point. The innocent phrasal verb appears to use prepositions, so purists insist that it must be split if it appears at the end of a sentence. As this quotation shows, splitting up the verb and its particles makes the sentence ridiculous.

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