Phrasal Verbs — The Bad News (The Grammar)

The topic of phrasal verbs includes a little grammar and a little pronunciation. Since the grammar part is more complicated than the pronunciation part, this introduction to phrasal verbs covers the “bad news”.

First, what is a phrasal verb?
In order to speak in English, it is important to know about phrasal verbs. They are used very frequently in spoken English — much more than in written English — and so students who have studied English mostly through reading and writing are sometimes not be aware of them.

Phrasal verbs are also sometimes called two-word verbs or three-word verbs, because they use two or three parts to make up one verb. In a two-word verb, the first part is a basic verb, and the second part looks like a preposition. Here are some examples:

“pass away” which means: to die. For example: His grandfather passed away last year.
“make up” means: to invent. She had to make up a story for drama class.
“call off” means: to cancel. The meeting was called off at the last minute.
“run into” means: to meet by chance. I ran into an old friend last week.

For three-word verbs the third part also looks like a preposition.
“hang on to” means: to keep. I think I’ll hang on to this, it might be useful later.
“look up to” means: to respect or admire. It’s hard to look up to someone who is not honest.
“drop in on” means: to make an unexpected visit. Let’s drop in on Joe to see if he wants to join us.

Here are some important things to know about the grammar of phrasal verbs.

1. Are they separable or non-separable?
Some phrasal verbs can be separated and some cannot. If they are separable, other words can be in between the two parts.

An example of a separable phrasal verb is “call off”. It can be used together or separated.
They called off the meeting.
They called the meeting off.

But if a pronoun is used in place of the noun, then the phrasal verb must be separated.
They called it off.
It is not correct to say: ! They called off it.

An example of a non-separable phrasal verb is “run into”.
I ran into an old friend.
It is not correct to say: ! I ran an old friend into.

2. Some phrasal verbs have more than one meaning.

“make up” can mean…
invent: She had to make up a story for drama class.
compensate: We can make up the lost time if we hurry.
reconcile: They were angry with each other all day, but finally decided to make up.

Phrasal verbs can be confusing because there are thousands of them, some have several meanings, some are separable, and some are not. The bad news is that you can’t easily predict which ones are separable and which are non-separable. So you need to be aware of them, and watch out for them. They are used all the time in spoken English.

(Note: There are workbooks and dictionaries available just for phrasal verbs — here are a few that I would recommend.)

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