English Phrasal Verbs: What are they and how do I use them?

“My girlfriend turned up at my apartment, turned the lights on, and then turned the radiator up, despite turning my invitation down earlier”. Did you understand that sentence? For many people studying English, that sentence will prove very difficult to understand because of a specific type of expression.

That type of expression is called a ‘phrasal verb’. In the above sentence, each time that the verb ‘turn’ is used, it’s actually being used as part of a different phrasal verb.

Phrasal verbs are an important part of English that you probably already use, even if you don’t know about them. To learn more about them, as well as learn a few new ones, read on.

What are phrasal verbs?

Phrasal verbs are phrases and expressions that act as verbs. They indicate an action that takes place, just like a normal verb does.

The structure of phrasal verbs can be any of the following:

Just like with ordinary verbs, phrasal verbs can appear in various tenses as well. When changing the tense of a phrasal verb, you simply have to conjugate the verb as you would do normally. Any prepositions and adverbs don’t need to be changed.

a castle in Scotland

Undertanding the meaning of phrasal verbs

One of the difficulties when it comes to studying phrasal verbs is that their meaning is often idiomatic. That means that just like English idioms, the meaning of the phrasal verb is different from the literal meaning of the words themselves.

Take a look at the following example of a phrasal verb:

Do you see how different the literal meaning and phrasal verb meaning are? This is the case with many phrasal verbs, which make them difficult to understand if you haven’t studied that particular phrase before.

For this reason, phrasal verbs are normally studied separately from the verb that they use, as it can be easy to confuse the two.

Another thing to be wary of when learning new phrasal verbs is that some of them have multiple meanings depending on the context. Let’s look at an example:

As you can see, even a single phrasal verb can have many very different meanings. When studying phrasal verbs, I recommend that you check that you understand the context that the phrase is used in, in addition to the meaning itself.

What are separable phrasal verbs?

Some phrasal verbs can have their verb and adverb/preposition used separately in a sentence. Phrasal verbs that can do this are called: separable phrasal verbs. When they are used separately, the sentence structure is this:

Verb > Object > Adverb/Preposition

Take > the sweater > off

When separated, phrasal verbs will always be used in this structure. In most scenarios, you can choose whether or not to separate a separable phrasal verb. However, if the object is a pronoun (it, him, etc.) then the phrasal verb must be split. Let’s take a look at these rules in action (the phrasal verb is in italics):

A list of some common phrasal verbs

Now that you know what phrasal verbs are and how to use them, let’s start learning some! This list is made up of a variety of commonly used phrasal verbs, so it’s a great place to start learning them. Let’s get into it!

Are you looking forward to using these?

So, now you know what English phrasal verbs are, are you feeling ready to start trying them out? They’re an important part of English, so whether you are telling a story in English, arguing your point view, or writing a formal document, you are sure to use some English phrasal verbs.

PS: If you are learning English, you can use our free language tool to create and record your own English vocabulary and phrase lists