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Understanding phrasal verbs 2.

First, read Part 1 (English verb types)...
New! See the Frazels video for phrasal verb practice... 

Part 2: prepositional verbs and phrasal verbs.

Prepositional verbs.

The combination:

verb + preposition (about, up, down, to, after, etc.)

is called a prepositional verb. A preposition is always used with an object. In fact, we can say the object is the object of the preposition.

I'm talking about grammar things.
Walk down this road and the station is on your right.
She's really taken to Spanish food.

As you can see, the meaning may be intuitive, like in the first two examples, or not intuitive, as in the third.


The preposition may change the meaning of the base verb but it is separate from it grammatically. It is part of the adverb phrase that follows. So, with prepositional verbs we can often insert an adverb after the verb and before the preposition, for example:

I don't like to talk too seriously about grammar things.
Walk carefully down the road.
She took readily to Italian food.


Phrasal verbs.

Phrasal verbs are made up of a:

base verb + adverb particle (up, off, out, down, away, on, back, etc.)

We call it an adverb particle because it may change the meaning of the base verb and is a part of it. The adverb particle doesn't have an object like a prepositional verb does.

She brought up the subject of politics.

The direct object, The subject of politics, is not the object of up but really the object of brought up. More examples:

I'm calling off the party. Nobody was interested in coming.
They carried out the plan perfectly.

So, we can't usually insert adverbs between the two parts of a phrasal verb as we can with a prepositional verb.

She gave up smoking quickly.


She quickly gave up smoking.

and not...

She gave quickly up smoking.

Exceptions are heard among native speakers but these may sound strange to some ears (and students should avoid this structure in the FCE exam). The exceptions are when the adverb seems to describe closely the adverb particle. This might happen where the adverb particle has a meaning similar to when it's a preposition, eg:

He sat quietly down on the chair.

Unlike prepositional verbs, phrasal verbs don't always have an object in the sentence:

I got up late this morning.
John and Mary have broken up.
Our car broke down on the motorway.

We say these phrasal verbs are intransitive because they have no direct object.

Transitive phrasal verbs do have a direct object:

I threw away the rubbish in the bins this morning.
The company turned down my application for the job.


Usually, transitive phrasal verbs allow the direct object to go between the two parts or after the two parts with no change in meaning:

I paid back the loan to the bank.


I paid the loan back to the bank.

This rule is different when the direct object is a pronoun (me, him, her, it, us, them). In these cases, the direct object pronoun must go between the two parts.

Remember to switch it on.
I paid it back.

But not...

Remember to switch on it.
I paid back it.

Prepositional verbs do not allow the object or the object pronoun between the two parts, so we can't say:

Look the baby after

we have to say...

look after the baby.

We can't say...

She's taken it to

we have to say...

she's taken to it

What you may have realized here is that a phrasal verb and a prepositional verb may have the same verb + small word combination. But the meanings (and grammar) are different. To use the example from Part 1:

The car ran over the cat. (The car ran it over) - phrasal verb.

I ran over my English homework before handing it in. - prepositional verb.


Phrasal verbs and formal, informal register.

As mentioned before in part 1, verbs with prepositions or adverb particles are very common in the English language especially in less formal spoken language. In fact, we usually avoid phrasal verbs in more formal speaking or writing. We'll say:

I'll send off the package as soon as I get a bit of free time. (informal spoken comment)


We shall dispatch the package in due course. (formal email)


Combined phrasal prepositional verbs.

There are a number of compound verbs that have three parts. Usually, this is a phrasal verb plus a preposition.

The criminal broke out of prison.
I must brush up on my English.
He ended up with a bad cold.

They look complicated but if we consider them as a one-word verb + preposition, then they will seem easier:

I'm cutting down on fats and carbohydrates.

the structure is the same as:

He sat on the chair.

So we can say:

I'm cutting down slowly on fats and carbohydrates (adverb position)
He sat awkwardly on the chair

Fats are difficult to cut down on (preposition end position)
Chairs are easy to sit on



For the grammar of phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs, we should be aware of the differences between the two as the grammar of the two is quite different - usually with reference to the position of other parts of the sentence such as the direct object, pronouns and adverbs.

For learning the meanings of these two or three-word verb combinations, it may not be so important to always try to separate the two types. In the phrasal verb exercises that follow, both phrasal and prepositional verbs are mixed in the same exercise.

Unfortunately, it's not so much the structure of these verbs that make them so difficult to learn but the vast number of them in the English language.

Also, there's the problem of multiple meanings of many phrasal verbs. What about make up with EIGHT different meanings. It's a classic example and many phrasal verbs don't have so many different meanings.

But if you're interested, I'll try to remember the 8 meanings of the verb make up here...

Also, try our other phrasal verb exercises...



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