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Phrasal Verbs

phrasal verb is an expression that consists of a lexical verb plus an adverb or a preposition or both an adverb and a preposition.

Some phrasal verbs are formed with adverbs (i.e. words such as away, back, by, down, off, on or out).

  • Please sit down.
  • I wish these dogs would go away.
  • Come back and see us sometime.
  • He broke off a piece of the chocolate and gave it to her.
  • She blew out the candles on her birthday cake.
  • After the storm passed, the wind gradually died down.

Some phrasal verbs are formed with prepositions (i.e. words such as at, by, for, into, of, on, to or with).

  • The horse suddenly broke into a gallop.
  • came across a friend of yours the other day.
  • The robbers were making for the frontier.
  • I just asked her how she was feeling and she flew into a rage.
  • She’s at least seventy but she could pass for a woman in her fifties.
  • That’s a problem we’re going to have to deal with sometime.

Some phrasal verbs are formed with adverbs and prepositions.

  • I don’t know how you put up [adverb] with [preposition] her complaining all the time.
  • We wanted to stay longer but we were running out of money.
  • Her son has decided to go in for dentistry.
  • One should always try to get along with one’s colleagues.
  • He says he’s going to complain but he probably won’t go through with it.
  • She says that if he won’t marry her, she’ll do away with herself.

Notice that in phrasal verbs formed with both adverbs and prepositions, the adverbs (e.g. up, out, in, along, through, away always precede the prepositions (such as with, of, for).

Some phrasal verb constructions have more than one object. In such phrases, both the transitive verb and the preposition are followed by an object:

  • It’s the smell that puts people off durians.
  • One little mistake put the police on to the murderer.
  • You’re the one who got me into this mess, so you could at least try to get me out of it.
  • They passed the photos around the group.

Many phrasal verbs have meanings that can be completely understood from the meanings of the verbs and particles that form them.

  • Please come in.
  • Quick! Run away and hide!
  • How long would it take to drive to London and then drive back?
  • She went out, waited for a moment, then came in again.

However, many phrasal verbs have quite unpredictable meanings:

  • When she was late for work for the third day in a row, her boss just blew up. (= became very angry)
  • I’т off to Japan for my holidays this year, so I must brush up on my Japanese. (= refresh my knowledge of Japanese)
  • John and I get on very well. (= are friendly)
  • I had to fork out for two new tyres this week. (= spend money, pay for trie tyres)
  • You can always rely on me to stick up for you. (= support you)

Not all grammar books mean the same thing when they talk about phrasal verbs.

In some books, only the ‘verb + adverb’ constructions are called phrasal verbs. The ‘verb + preposition’ constructions are called prepositional verbs, and the ‘verb + adverb + preposition’ constructions are called phrasal-prepositional verbs.

On the other hand, for some grammarians only the expressions with unpredictable meanings, such as put up with and stick up for, are considered true phrasal verbs.

Phrasal verbs formed with prepositions (with or without an adverb) are always transitive verbs; that is, they always have a direct object.

Whether it is a noun, a noun phrase, or a pronoun, the direct object always follows the preposition:

  • Her mother looks after the children [direct object] while she is at work.
  • I don’t think I could do without coffee.
  • He takes after his father. They both love golf.
  • You can rely on me to stand up for you.

Phrasal verbs formed with adverbs alone may be either intransitive or transitive:

  • Fortunately, the rain held off till after the match. (intransitive)
  • The soldiers held off the enemy until reinforcements arrived. (transitive)
  • The handle of the jug just broke off. (intransitive)
  • I didn’t break it off deliberately. (transitive)
  • We’ll need to set off first thing tomorrow morning. (intransitive)
  • Something must have set off the alarm. (transitive)

The rules governing the position of the object of a transitive ‘verb + adverb’ phrasal verb are slightly complicated.

If the direct object is a noun or noun phrase, it may stand either behind or in front of the adverb:

  • You deal out the cards. OR You deal the cards out.
  • Hand over the money! OR Hand the money over!
  • Somebody turn the light on, please. OR Somebody turn on the light, please.
  • You shouldn’t bottle up your emotions. It’s bad for you to bottle things up.

If the direct object is a pronoun, the pronoun must come between the verb and the adverb:

  • Of course we’ll come and see you off at the station.
  • The smell of the cheese puts me off.
  • Put that down at once!
  • I’ll pick you up at school and drop you off at the cinema.

An indirect object always comes between the verb and the adverb:

  • Give me back my pencil.
  • Give your sister back her book at once!

If there is both an indirect and a direct object, the indirect object precedes the direct object:

  • Please give me [indirect object] it [direct object] back.

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