Learning About Phrasal Verbs



What is a Prepositional Verb? What is a Phrasal Verb?

In English there exist two-part special verbs: prepositional verbs and phrasal verbs which reinforce or change the meaning of the basic verb. A prepositional verb is an idiom which consists of a verb followed by a preposition. Phrasal verbs -also known as two-part verbs or multi-word verbs- are idioms which consist of a verb followed by an adverb (also called adverbial particle, or just particle).

BASIC VERB: to look  -  PREPOSITIONAL VERB: to look for
BASIC VERB: to look  -  PHRASAL VERB: to look down

What is a Preposition? What is an Adverbial Particle?

A preposition links nouns or pronouns to other words in a sentence. The word or phrase that the preposition introduces is called the object of the preposition. An adverbial particle is a part of the verb and depends on it modifying its meaning as a basic verb. In both prepositional or phrasal verbs, the preposition or adverbial particle extend the meaning of the basic verb to create a new meaning. Let's analyze the difference:

PREPOSITIONAL:  Roberto lived down Madison Avenue.
In this example,
down is a preposition (Roberto lived away from central Madison Avenue)

ADVERBIAL:  Roberto lived down the situation.
In this example,
down is an adverbial particle. It is a part of the verb and depends on it to create a new meaning (Roberto lived so as to annul his previous behavior)

With prepositional verbs, in the affirmative and negative sentences, you must place the preposition before the object, whereas the interrogative sentences or questions –beginning with interrogative pronouns– usually end with the verb preposition. Check these examples:

AFFIRMATIVE SENTENCE: I'm looking for Martha
NEGATIVE SENTENCE: I'm not looking for Peter
INTERROGATIVE SENTENCE: Who are you looking for?

Phrasal verbs show different characteristics which will be analyzed below.

1) Very often a phrasal verb has the same meaning as a basic verb. In that case, we prefer to use the phrasal instead of the basic verb to express something informally.

BASIC VERB: to compensate  -  PHRASAL VERB: to make up
FORMALLY: He tried to compensate for the damage.
INFORMALLY: He tried to make up for the damage.

2) A phrasal verb can be transitive or intransitive. A transitive verb is followed by and object, but an intransitive verb is not followed by an object.

TRANSITIVE VERB: to make up - She made up the gossip. (OBJECT: the gossip)
INTRANSITIVE VERB: to turn up - They turned up very late. (no object)

3) A transitive phrasal verb can be separable or inseparable. Separable phrasals take the object between the verb and the preposition. Inseparable phrasals take the object after the preposition. Some separable verbs can take a preposition in both places.

SEPARABLE PHRASAL: to take off (remove)
-  He took off his hat (Correct)  -  He took the hat off (
-  He took it off (Correct)  -  He took off it (
Not Correct)

INSEPARABLE PHRASAL: to take off (leave the ground)
-  His plane took off at 6 pm. (Correct)  -  His plane took at 6 pm off. (
Not Correct)

Four Phrasal Verb Structures


(transitive verb taking an object)

The preposition is placed between the basic verb and the object.

Blowing up the balloons for the party was easy.



(transitive verb taking an object)

1) If the object is a NOUN, the adverbial particle can be placed after the verb or after the object.

The oldman gave away his houses.
The oldman gave his houses away.

2) If the object is a PRONOUN, the adverbial particle is placed at the end.

The oldman gave them away.



(transitive verb taking an object)

The first particle is adverbial and the second one is a preposition. No extra word can be placed between both particles.

Helen ran out without saying goodbye.



(intransitive verb not taking an object)

The adverbial particle is placed immediately after the basic verb.

Our car broke down yesterday morning.

IMPORTANT: Among others, there are verbs like "ACCELERATE" which --although having their respective German and Latin equivalents-- in casual conversation it is usually preferred the Germanic equivalent (SPEED UP) and in scientific and legal contexts, its Latin equivalent (ACCELERATE) .

Sometimes the use of many phrasal verbs varies between British and American English. For example, in order to express the idea of telephoning someone, British people use to ring someone up whereas the Americans prefer the expression to call someone.

Also, because of differences in dialect, the meanings of some phrasal verbs may vary among dictionaries. Our section OM PHRASAL provides samples of phrasal verbs in British and American English and separable verbs have been highlighted  IN WHITE . Start making the most of these 1000 verbs just clicking on any letter in the menu below.


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