The English Phrasal Verb


"There is another kind of composition more frequent in our language than perhaps in any other,
from which arises to foreigners the greatest difficulty."
----Samuel Johnson
Preface, Dictionary of the English Language, 1755


make up give in look after carry on 
blow out put off put up with call off
pull through drink up  take down break up
pass out turn into look up come to
These are just a few examples of the many English phrasal verbs, which constitute one of the most distinctive and creative features of the English language. The phrasal verb consists of a verb, usually a monosyllabic verb of action or movement such as go, put, take, and one or more particles. The particle may be an adverb, a preposition, or a word that can act as either adverb or preposition. Often the meaning of these verb phrases is idiomatic and cannot be determined by knowing the meaning of their individual parts. Because of this, phrasal verbs are often difficult to master for students of English as a second language.

Phrasal verbs are extremely common, especially in spoken English, and are used more informally than their Latinate synonyms, e.g. use up vs. consume; gather together vs. assemble; put out vs. extinguish. English grammarians note that phrasal verbs have increased significantly since the mid-nineteenth century and especially so in mid-twentieth century American English. Many phrasal verbs can be replaced, with little change of meaning, by single word verbs: give in by yield, look after by tend, carry on by continue, put up with by tolerate. In most cases the phrasal verb is less formal, more colloquial and more image-and/or emotion-laden than the single word. Phrasal verbs and their noun derivatives account for a significant number of new words now being coined in the English language.


A phrasal verb is a type of verb in English that operates more like a phrase than a word. Tom McArthur in the Oxford Companion to the English Language notes that these verbs are also referred to by many other names such verb phrase, discontinuous verb, compound verb, verb-adverb combination, verb-particle construction (VPC), AmE two-part word/verb and three-part word/verb (772). David Crystal in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language calls this linguistic phenomenon a "multi-word verb" that is best described as a lexeme, a unit of meaning that may be greater than a single word (118).

Phrasal verbs may be intransitive: The party broke up when we turned in, or transitive: She put the heckler down, She put down the heckler. In the case of an object (noun) receiving the action of the verb, the object may come before or after the particle.

If the object is a pronoun, it comes between the verb and particle: She put him down, not *She put down him.

Some grammarians, such as Martha Kolln in Understanding English Grammar, take the view that phrasal verbs define only those combinations that form an idiom, a phrase whose meaning cannot be predicted from the meaning of its parts (35). This is the holistic or semantic view, which focuses mainly on the meaning of the verb combination (McArthur 773).

For example, Kolln would say that go up in this sentence is not an example of a phrasal verb: The balloon went up into the sky because the sentence can be rephrased as Up the balloon went into the sky. Kolln would designate up as an adverb modifying went.

Kolln also applies the test of meaning to phrasal verbs as in these examples: give in can be replaced by surrender; pull through, by recover, and come by, by acquire, and break up, by end. Each phrasal verb could be replaced by a single verb with the same general meaning.

However, McArthur in his treatment of the phrasal verb states that phrasal verbs cover both the literal and figurative/idiomatic uses (773). Grammarians who take this position classify phrasal verbs based on their use in sentence patterns (syntactical properties) and as new word formations (morphological properties), as well as by the overall meaning of these verb combinations (semantic properties). The examples below illustrate the same phrasal verb having both a literal and figurative meaning.

She put down the book. (literal)
The army put down the rebellion. (figurative/idiomatic)


In addition to a single literal and/or figurative meaning, some phrasal verbs can have a multitude of different meanings depending on the context. For example, here are some of the many ways in which the phrasal verb pick up is currently used:

Pick up that book. (to take up by hand)
Please, pick up your room. (to tidy up)
The airport van picked up its passengers. (to take on)
I picked up this ring on sale. (to acquire casually)
He picks up foreign languages fairly easily. (to acquire knowledge or learning)
He picked up his package at the post office. (to claim)
She picked up some milk on her way home. (to buy)
Her boss picked up the tab for lunch. (to pay a bill)
He picked up a virus on his trip. (to come down with a disease)
The home team picked up eight yards on the play. (to gain)
He picked up a date at the singles bar. (to make casual acquaintance)
The police picked up the bank robber. (to take into custody)
The dog picked up the scent of the kidnapper. (to come upon and follow)
The lawyer picked up his argument after the noon recess. (to continue after a break)
Retail sales always pick up around the holidays. (to improve)
She just picked up and left town. (to pack one’s belongings)
The red pickup was parked in the drive. (noun derived from the verb--a type of truck)

To get a feel for how students studying English as a second language have to struggle with the idiomatic aspect of phrasal verbs, try these two exercises from the OZ ESL Online Web site. A native speaker of English should have no difficulty.

PV Particle Quiz


PV Verb Quiz


Some grammarians warn against the indiscriminant use of phrasal verbs. McArthur describes them as "informal, emotive and slangy"; he indicates that there are many good Latinate synonyms that can be used in place of their phrasal verb counterparts (774). Fowler in Modern English Usage notes that one of the main objections raised to phrasal verbs is that they are used when the simple verb alone would suffice (594). These examples illustrate the redundancy of some phrasal verb combinations:

meet up with = meet lose out = lose miss out on = miss
visit with = visit rest up = rest drop off = drop, fall
divide off/up = divide measure off/out = measure select out = select


As noted above, the phrasal verb is an interesting linguistic phenomenon--syntactically, morphologically and semantically. Historically, although the phrasal verb has been present in English for many centuries, the term was first used in print in 1925 (McArthur 772). Phrasal verbs were found in Middle English, common in Shakespeare, and often used to define verbs of Latin origin. McArthur states that the famous lexicographer of the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson, was one of the first to consider these formations carefully (773).

Dwight Bolinger, in The Phrasal Verb in English, answers the question of why there are so many of these formations in English. He states, "They are words. The everyday inventor is not required to reach for elements such as roots and affixes that have no reality for him. It takes only a rough familiarity with other uses of head and off to make them available for head off, virtually self-suggesting when the occasion for them comes up, which is not true of learned formations like intercept" (xii).

In addition, he notes that phrasal verbs are more expressive than the synonyms they replace. He contrasts insult with to jump on; exult with to jump up and down with joy; and assault with to jump at (xii).

Another aspect of phrasal verbs that is often overlooked is the number of new nouns derived from them. According to Bolinger, the phrasal verb is "next to the noun+noun combinations, probably the most prolific source of new nouns in English" (xiii). Here are some examples:

runaway from run away,
makeup from make up,
breakout or outbreak from break out
break-up from break up
get-together from get together
blackout from black out
sit-in from sit in
upkeep from keep up
layout and outlay from lay out
dropout from drop out
blow-up from blow up
checkup from check up
letdown from let down
sellout from sell out
shakeup from shake up


To test the hypothesis that phrasal verbs have multiplied in number and in use, especially in the twentieth century, I chose to analyze texts of four nonfiction works published in each of the last four centuries from Project Gutenberg. I chose to analyze non-technical works; I also avoided fiction since the period of the story or the style in which the characters conversed could affect the use or non-use of phrasal verbs.

Because I was not able to analyze for phrases, I chose the particle up, which Bolinger ranks as the one most often used in phrasal verbs (175). By using the rrecktek electronic text search and analysis site, I searched for the occurrence of up in each of these works:


Publication date
Project Gutenberg #
Total number of words
Walton, Izaak
The Compleat Angler
Franklin, Benjamin
Huxley, Thomas
Autobiography and Selected Essays
Levy, Steven
Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution

Then I analyzed the use of up in context and determined how many times it occurred as part of a phrasal verb. The following are the result of this analysis:


Author Total occurrences of "up" Phrasal verb occurrences of "up" PV/Total use of "up" occur-rences PV/total word ratio


Walton 63 46 0.7301 0.0006845
Franklin 103 91 0.8834 0.0013372
Huxley 79 75 0.9493 0.0013373
Levy 35 31 0.8857 0.0019434

Walton used 30 different phrasal verbs combinations of up in his work. Take up was used most often, 12 times. In various contexts, it was used to mean "to use up or consume or occupy; to raise or lift; to develop an interest in or a devotion to."

Franklin used 27 different phrasal verb combinations of up in his work. Set up was used most often, 23 times. It was used to mean "to establish in business by providing capital, equipment or other backing" in every case. The second most used phrasal verb combination, draw up, was used 15 times to mean "to write or set down in proper form." One of the most colorful phrasal verb combinations of up that Franklin used was "he preach'd up this charity" meaning "to promote."

Huxley used 33 different phrasal verb combinations of up in his work. Build up was used most often, 13 times. In various contexts, it was used to mean "to develop in states or by degrees, to increase, or to construct." Make up (for) was used 10 times to mean "to compose, to reconcile or to compensate."

Levy used a total of 18 different phrasal verb combinations of up in his work. Six combinations were used three times each: grow up, to become an adult; take up, to consume, use up or occupy; sign up, to enlist or volunteer; show up, to arrive or put in an appearance; come up with, to produce or bring forth; and open up, to make available. He also used some of the most colloquial or slangy combinations, screw up and soup up.

Levy used more different phrasal verb combinations of up based on the total number of words in his text than did any other of the authors analyzed. This indicated to me a level of comfort with this type of verb formation not apparent in the three earlier works.

While my study is limited by the small sample of texts analyzed over the period of 350 years, it does support the theory advanced by Bolinger (xi), Crystal (212) and others that the use of phrasal verbs has increased in number and usage into the present era. The results of the "PV/total word ratio" calculation show a gradual increase in the use of phrasal verbs from the earliest work published in 1623 to the most recent work published in 1984.

Larger studies, analyzing a wider range of texts and a wider variety of phrasal verbs, would be necessary to support this conclusion. However, electronic analysis seems to be of great benefit in tracking the syntactical, morphological and semantic changes in our language over the centuries. It would be helpful to know if such studies indicate a movement away from the use of Latin loan words and toward verb phrases more typical of those found in Germanic languages that share their origins with English.

These studies could also be helpful in answering some of the larger questions concerning change in our language. Is English becoming more idiomatic? Will the increase in the number and usage of phrasal verbs increase the difficulty for persons learning English as a second language? And if so, what do these trends predict about the future of English and the changes it may undergo?


Sources Consulted

The American Heritage Dictionary. 2nd college ed. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1985.

Bolinger, Dwight. The Phrasal Verb in English. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Crystal, David. Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Dee, James H. "Latin Prefixal Derivatives and English Phrasal Verbs: an Important Parallelism for Etymology Courses." The Classical Journal 86 (1991), 353-

Fowler, H. W. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 3rd ed. edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Kolln, Martha and Robert Funk. Understanding English Grammar. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998.

McArthur, Tom, ed. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Palmer, Frank Robert. The English Verb. London, New York: Longman, 1988.


Additional Sources

Courtney, Rosemary. Longman Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs. New York: Longman, 1983.

Cowie, A.P., and R. Mackin. Oxford Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Joos, Martin. The English Verb: Form and Meanings. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.



Written by Ann Stephens, student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke,

Edited by Mark Canada, Ph.D.