P is for Phrasal Verb

29 08 2010

Quiz: which of these are phrasal verbs?

Who let the dogs out?

a. go in (as in She went in the office)
b. take turns (as in We took turns minding the baby)
c. approve of (as in My mother doesn’t approve of him)
d. sit down (as in, erm, Sit down!)
e. let out (as in Who let the dogs out?)

Now read on.

A good while back an ELT author advised me: “If you want to make a few quid, write a book on phrasal verbs”. I never did, but at the time the advice was probably sound. Nowadays, the same advice might be couched: ”If you want to attract punters to your website, provide stuff on phrasal verbs”. A quick check for “phrasal verbs” using Google (never reliable, I know) logged 673,000 results, compared to 322,000 for “present continuous”.

The typical phrasal verb site will offer some kind of definition and categorisation of types, a list of phrasal verbs (seldom if ever selected and organized in terms of frequency), and some rudimentary exercises, almost always of the gap-fill type. Sadly, the explanations are seldom reliable, or even (for a learner) intelligible. As often as not, a phrasal verb is defined as “a verb plus preposition, whose meaning is idiomatic”, theoretically excluding combinations of the type sit down and let out (as in Who let the dogs out?) where down and out are not – technically – prepositions (more on that below), and nor are the meanings idiomatic. And when exactly does an idiom become an idiom: is let out in I let the dress out a phrasal verb, but in Who let the dogs out not?

On the other hand, the lists of examples often include items that, however you stretch the definiton, can hardly be classified as phrasal verbs. Two websites consulted more or less at random supplied go in (example: She went in the office), make room for, and take turns as all being phrasal verbs. This suggests that any verb followed by a prepositional phrase (like look out (the window)), or any idiomatic expression that contains a verb (like make do with something) qualifies as a phrasal verb. That – it seems to me – is stretching the category to breaking point.

This is not to underestimate the problems of definition. About the only thing grammars agree on is that phrasal verbs consist of more than one part. What the ‘other’ part is – or should be called – is still somewhat disputed. Most grammars now hide behind the somewhat meaningless term ‘particle’ but there’s no escaping the fact that many (most?) particles can behave like prepositions, in some contexts, and like adverbs, in others. When they behave like adverbs – i.e. when they don’t have any noun phrase complementation – they’re said to be phrasal verbs. Hence, the difference between:

a. She looked up the chimney.
b. She looked up the word. (Or: She looked the word up.)

In the case of (b) look up passes all the tests, both syntactic and prosodic, of ‘phrasal verb-ness’. The problem (or one of them) comes with particles with no complementation but which nevertheless have prepositional meaning:

c. She looked up.

And then, what about those particles that are only ever prepositions, but which seem somehow more attached to the verb than a simple prepositional phrase? So, take after is considered a phrasal verb:

d. She takes after her father.

But not run after:

e. She ran after her father.

And where does that leave verbs with dependent prepositions? Such as

f. She depends on her father.

The Cambridge Grammar of English (Carter and McCarthy, 2006) is happy to include approve of , depend on and cope with in its (prepositional) phrasal verbs, but I’m not so sure.

Well, you can read more about this in An A-Z of ELT. But what I’m particularly interested in is the ‘rule’ whereby separable phrasal verbs don’t allow a choice if the object is a pronoun. So:

g. She put up the picture.
h. She put the picture up.
i. She put it up.

But not

j. She put up it.

I’d often wondered why this was the case, and whether, as stated in the Cambridge Grammar, this is always the case. Then, when I was researching the notion of end-weight – i.e. the principle that new information goes at the end of the clause (see P is for Passive) – I understood why. The pronoun – because it usually has back-reference – seldom ever encodes new information, hence it feels uncomfortable stranded at the end of a sentence. But there are sometimes contexts when the pronoun does introduce new – or at least contrasting – information. Take this (invented) example:

k. Kim can pick up Chris, but who will pick up me?

Because of the principle of end-weight, this sounds just as natural as

l. Kim can pick up Chris, but who will pick me up?

Some examples I found in the the Corpus of Contemporary American English include:

1. you know, I didn’t pick out the leaders. They picked out me.
2. a process of elimination that weeds out all but the best drivers. It won’t weed out me, however

And these examples, because the object is a compound, are easily explainable:

3. Those pillars couldn’t hold up me or you, ” the contractor had told her
4. suddenly, I let out a huge fart, which woke up me, my boyfriend, and his mom.
5. Scandinavian airline SAS bought out him and some associates for $ 30 million.

These are less easily explained, however:

6. The crowd applauds. I pick up him by the throat with one hand, grab the stake with the other,
7. And I think it’s a worthy debate to have, but a lot of people want to put down him for saying that.
8. And someone had somehow found out that he was gay and broke into his apartment, beat up him, stole all his money
9. ROS: We cheer up him –; find out what’s the matter GUIL: Exactly…
(That last one comes from the British National Corpus and is from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead)
10. Sylvia had rung up me about booking for a meal (also from the BNC)

Any theories?



28 responses

29 08 2010

I really appreciated the insight about why we don’t typically use pronouns after the phrasal verb when the “particle” is essential to the meaning.

Perhaps example number 10 could be explained as contrastive (or emphatic stress). A:I thought Silvia had rung up Barbara . B. Actually Silvia had rung up me (ie not Barbara). the prominence assigned by B to her response would reflect this, “me” would be the tonic.
Or it may be simply be that the speaker wants to mirror the sequence used by her conversation partner. In examples 1 and 2 there seems to be a rhetorical impact gained from the symmetry of repeating the sequence.

29 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Duncan,
Yes, that’s a fair hypothesis, and it led me back into the BNC to see what the extended context of citation #10 was. This is it:

There were ten of us. Mal and Steve and Alan and Joyce and and Gloria and oh, I can’t even say the name and Keith and Anne. Ah! Thirty one. We were saying Mike that er Eva said it had taken them nearly a month to get booked up. For a Saturday night. Sylvia had rung up me about booking for a meal and I thought, originally they talked about going a Friday night, and they said, Friday and Saturday are fully booked for the next five weeks…

There’s every chance that ‘me’ is stressed in this instance – which would support your argument – i.e. that it is new infomation. But without a transcription that includes intonation it’s impossible to tell.

30 08 2010

In ‘He looked up the word’ I had always understood that ‘look up’ was a phrasal verb because the ‘up’ was not being used with its literal sense.

As it is a phrasal verb, the pronoun cannot go after the verb (forgetting for a moment those [marked?] examples you give at the end of your post). You cannot say ‘I looked up it’ if ‘it’ refers to ‘word’.

However, I am now flummoxed by ‘I take after my father’. ‘After’ is obviously not being used literally and yet you can say ‘I take after him’. My theory collapses.

Boy am I confused.

I think you are going to say that the difference is that in ‘He looked up the word’, there is no noun phrase complementation. But how is ‘the word’ not a noun phrase complement here? Because a complement is not required/possible after an adverb? Maybe. But if I don’t add ‘the word’ at the end of the sentence, the verb changes meaning. Am I mixing up semantics with grammar?

30 08 2010

OK. Now I am seeing this:

‘After’ is a preposition. That makes the verb ‘take after’ inseparable. That explains ‘I take after him’.

So now I am left with the question about your initial definition.
Why are the words ‘the word’ in ‘I looked up the word’ not a noun phrase complement?

(On a historical note, I’m wondering if separable phrasal verbs have their origin in Anglo-Saxon. They might then be linked to German separable verbs, but with the difference that English allows the noun object to go after the particle whereas German does not. They both behave in the same way with respect to pronouns, which must come before the particle [barring the exceptions you have been finding]. Need this speculation to be confirmed by an expert. I may be talking rot.)

30 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Glennie – thanks for sharing your ruminations! The problem you’ve hit on is the classic one of how to analyse multi-word verbs:

1. She looked the word up (in the dictionary) – is ‘the word’ the object of ‘looked’ with ‘up’ as a sentence adverbial? Or is ‘the word’ the object of a compound verb ‘looked up’? Common sense favours the latter, especially given the question is “What did she look up?” (as opposed to “Where did she look?”). But the fact that ‘up’ can be placed after the object rather complicates the matter: the compound verb is only loosely compounded.

2. She takes after her father. Again, is ‘her father’ the complementation of a prepositonal phrase beginning with ‘after’, or is it the object of a compound verb ‘take after’? Again, the question “Who does she take after'” suggests the latter, but the fact that “after” is a preposition complicates the matter. Because, theoretically, we can analyse it the same way as ‘ran after’, as in ‘She ran after her father’ , where ‘after her father’ is clearly a prepositional phrase. Yet the ‘after’ in ‘take after’ is clearly a stronger collocation than the ‘after’ in ‘ran after’. Test: “After her father she ran”, but not ?”After her father she takes”. Better, therefore, to call it an inseparable phrasal verb. The question then arises, but why is it inseparable? Answer: because ‘after’ is a preposition, not an adverb. And why is ‘after’ a prepostiton? Because it is inseparable. You can see the circularity of the argument.

I notice that the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber et al. 1999) calls the adverbial type of phrasal verb (like ‘look up’) “phrasal verb” and the prepositional type (like ‘take after) “prepositional verb”. This seems like a safe distinction. (Although it doesn’t allow for the fact that there is some slippage between these two categories, as in the prepositonal verb ‘come with’ which – in some dialects of English – is increasingly used like a phrasal verb, as in “Are you coming with?”

30 08 2010

Many thanks indeed Scott for taking the trouble to provide that lengthy explanation. What a minefield!

31 08 2010
Luiz Otávio Barros

If I remember correctly, Headway (at least the old old old editions) used to call them “multi-word verbs”, which at least avoids the issue of what the particle is exactly, right?
What really bugs me, though, is the way textbooks tackle phrasal verbs. Some label them “grammar” and give students lists of “separable” or “inseparable” phrasal verbs to memorize and, of course, fill in the gaps afterwards. And even when they’re taught as vocabulary, it’s often in the look up/down/under/over/into sort of fashion, as if grouping these verbs by particle had any mnemonic effect whatsoever.
Couldn’t books simply treat phrasal verbs (or multi-word or whatever) as lexical items like any others? You know, present them thematically, ALONG WITH other related words and with the sort of word exploration (and that would include “separability” issues) that many other lexical items also deserve?

31 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Luiz – and, yes, most grammars create an ‘arch-category’ called multi-word verbs, within which both phrasal and prepositional verbs (not to mention phrasal-prepositional verbs, of the type: look forward to, get along with…) are sub-categorised, along with other anomolous constructions, such as “to make do” and de-lexicalised verb combos, as in ‘take care of’, ‘make fun of’ etc.

As for your second point – the way that phrasal verbs are dealt with in coursebooks: they’re a good example of the ‘fuzziness’ of the boundary between lexis and grammar, since they straddle both semantics (word meaning) and sytnax (word order) – they’re an example both of ‘big words’ or ‘small grammar’. I’ve argued elsewhere that all grammar is really collocation, and phrasal verbs are a good example of this phenomenon.

1 09 2010
Adrian Underhill

Fascinating! You make the important point that pronouns can be given end weight if context or speaker require it. For me this accounts for your egs 1 and 2, and egs 3 – 5 you’ve already accounted for. While reading egs 6 – 12 (five instances of him and one of me) I found myself constantly trying to make them work, and I could, by imputing dramatic or contrastive stress as Duncan says, or contextual harmony or creative (eg poetic) language play, or other discoursal pressures. As you say Scott, without a transcription that includes intonation it’s not possible to say.

And this highlights the problem that the printed text is only a thin slice of the action that is being reported, which is part of the limited bandwidth of concordances. If we bring word stress and speaker tonic into the picture we illuminate another dimension of the drama. I tried to track some sort of rules / dependable tendencies in this area in my article on stress in phrasal verbs in the Macmillan Dictionary Phrasal Verbs Plus. This gives us something else to push against by including at least one other level of the drama, the placement of word stress in the various types of phrasal verb being discussed, which in turn feeds the speakerly right to flout it in context.

I point out that phrasal verbs have either one stress

‘make for ‘look at

or two stresses

,make ‘off ,take a’part

And where one stress it seems to be on the verb, where two stresses the main stress seems to be on the particle, with the secondary on the verb. The first type might mostly include prepositional verbs. The second type are more likely to be separable, with the noun object coming between or after, and the pronoun object coming between, as you have indicated. I don’t say that stress explains anything, but it may hold clues, and factoring it in thickens the picture and gives us more to work on.

In the same place there is also a fascinating discussion of learners and phrasal verbs drawing on the University of Louvain data base of learner English by Sylvie De Cock. This article categorises the problems learners face, including whether they have something similar in the mother tongue, and illustrates with examples from the learner corpus. It also makes practical suggestions including chunking and contextualisation rather than lists, and other things similar to your A – Z entry.

1 09 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Adrian, for that insight into the stress patterns in phrasal verbs.

When I mentioned (in my original post) the “prosodic” test for phrasal verbs, I’d understood this to be the fact that the particle (if an adverb) is stressed – and that this is most easily noted in the question. So:

1. What did she LOOK up? She looked up the CHIMney.
2. What did she look UP? She looked up a WORD (in the dictionary).


3. What did she RUN over? She ran over the BRIDGE.
4. What did she run OVER? She ran over a CAT.

And, as a corollory, prepositional verbs simply follow the (unstressed) preposition pattern:

5. Who did she RUN after? She ran after her FATHer.
6. Who does she TAKE after? She takes after her FATHer.

I know that devious readers will immediately devise contexts in which Who did she run AFTER? would be possible (e.g. to follow the statement: She ran away from her mother) but I’d argue that 1 – 6 are the unmarked stress patterns for these verbs.

PS: I must get hold of both your and de Cock’s articles. On the subject of learners’ phrasal verb problems, I’m reminded of the time (in preparation for a session on phrasal verbs) I asked a colleague: “What problems do your students have with phrasal verbs?” To which he answered “None”. When I expressed surprise, he explained “They don’t use them”.

Perhaps avoidance is both a problem and a strategy.

1 09 2010
Adrian Underhill

Thanks for that clarification. And yes, de Cock says that avoidance is a key strategy esp for those who lack phrasal verbs in L1 (eg Spanish, French she says) while others who do have them (eg Dutch , German) do not seem to avoid them. Other problems she lists include over using PVs in writing, semantic errors (the most common type of error) ie an incomplete understanding of the meaning of the PV. She also includes lack of collocational awareness, and making up their own PVs, etc.

5 09 2010
English Raven

Sorry to be dropping into this discussion a little late, Scott, but your topic here of phrasal verbs reminded me vividly of an article I read by Diane Larsen Freeman about a decade ago (you must forgive me for not referencing it properly, but I think it was in the 3rd edition of Celce-Murcia’s Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language ‘omnibus’ – which is tucked away somewhere in a box that I haven’t unpacked since our move of house earlier this year).

That article had a really major impact on the way I thought about and began to handle grammar in the classroom, and in it Larsen-Freeman made a particular example of phrasal verbs to highlight what she considered to be three equally important aspects of grammar for learning and teaching. Those aspects were form (syntax), meaning(s) (semantics), and use (pragmatics).

Larsen-Freeman presented these interlocked priorities as sections of a wagon wheel. She presented the form/syntax elements for phrasal verbs, then identified (in the meaning/semantics section) literal, figurative and multiple meanings for phrasal verbs, and for use/pragmatics pointed out the role of phrasal verbs for informal discourse, and I think it was the “dominance principle”(?) to account for particle movement (as in, when phrasal verbs could be split and not split).

Hence, using Larsen-Freeman’s example, it was possible to establish that phrasal verbs are more common in informal (spoken?) discourse (as in “put out a fire”), and less common in more formal written discourse (where a word like “extinguish” might find preference over “put out”).

Likewise, it was established that more dominant, longer, newer information would most likely occur after the particle (leaving the phrasal verb ‘unsplit’), whereas shorter, referential information (like a pronoun referring to something already mentioned or easily implied) would be more likely to occur before the particle (and hence separate the verb from its particle). So, basically, we would have: “The firemen arrived to put out the fire” in contrast to “Extra firemen arrived to fight the fire, but their colleagues had already put it out.”

This approach to grammar – particularly the use/pragmatics side of things – really influenced my teaching a lot. When it came time to write my own grammar coursebooks, in fact, one of the things I did was divide the books into sections with twinned units – one looking closer at grammar for informal/spoken discourse, the other with a more academic/written focus. To give a very simple example of that, in the very first level the first twinned units looked at present continuous and present simple (respectively). I decided that awareness about present continuous was more important for effective communication in informal/spoken discourse, whereas awareness with present simple was more relevant to effective academic/written discourse. An over-simplistic approach, perhaps (but find me any coursebook approach that doesn’t end up resorting to limited/over-simplistic approaches!), but there was an honest attempt to think about and present grammar with pragmatic considerations in mind – not just form/syntax and meaning/semantics.

Larsen-Freeman’s examples with phrasal verbs were brilliantly explained – never forgot them!


– Jason

5 09 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that Jason. For those interested, the reference is ‘Teaching Grammar’ by Diane Larsen-Freeman in Celce-Murcia, M. (ed.) 2001. Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language. Boston: Heinle, Cengage. To quote the section that Jason refers to, in full:

When is one form of a phrasal verb preferred to another; i.e., when should the particle be separated from its verb (e.g., put out a fire versus put a fire out)? Erteschik-Shir’s(1979) principle of dominance seems to work well to define the circumstances favouring particle movement: if the noun phrase (NP) object is dominant (i.e., a long, elaborate NP representing new information), it is likely to occur after the particle; if the direct object is short, old information (e.g., a pronoun), it would naturally occur before the particle. (p. 254)

This seems to be constent with the end-weight theory I referred to in my original post. Thanks, Jason – and well-remembered!

13 10 2017
Gaylita DeSelby

Doing MA in ELT and this is just what I needed. Big up

5 09 2010
English Raven

Apologies again, Scott – but I’m pretty sure the example I presented in the previous comment has a problem! “The firemen arrived to put out the fire” probably does not accurately show the dominance theory… Perhaps “Firemen rushed to put out a fierce fire in the warehouse district” would be a better example? (As in “Firemen rushed to put a fierce fire out in the warehouse district” does sound awkward?)

6 09 2010

So if ‘the firemen arrived to put out the fire’ (and the fire is something the reader already knows about) sounds perfectly natural, where does that leave the end-weight theory?
Is there maybe something I still haven’t managed to grasp? Perhaps its simply that a pronoun forces itself between the verb and the particle because it almost never represents anything else but ‘the known/old’.

6 09 2010
Scott Thornbury

Yes, on it’s own ‘the firemen arrived to put out the fire’ sounds perfectly natural. On its own. But in context it might sound a bit stilted. ?”A fire broke out in New Town last night. Firemen arrived to put out the fire.” More natural might be: “A fire broke out in New Town last night. Firemen arrived to put the fire out.” (With the stress on ‘out’). More natural still would be to substitute the second mention of ‘fire’ with an anaphoric pronoun: “A fire broke out in New Town last night. Firemen arrived to put it out.” Here, ‘it’ is given and ‘(put) out’ is new information. End-weight rules.

6 09 2010

Scott to the rescue. 😉

8 09 2010

“The typical phrasal verb site will offer some kind of definition and categorisation of types, a list of phrasal verbs (seldom if ever selected and organized in terms of frequency)”

This piqued my interest. Do you know of any freely available listings of phrasal verb frequency? I’d love to be able to make sure I’ve hit all the highest-frequency ones in my lessons.

8 09 2010
Scott Thornbury

Yes, indeed I do, Aaron. For a start, if you have access to the TESOL Quarterly, check out:

Gardner, D., & Davies, M. 2007 Pointing out frequent phrasal verbs: A corpus-based analysis. TESOL Quarterly, 41:2.p. 339-359.

Using the British National Corpus (BNC) as their database, they identify the top 20 lexical verbs functioning in phrasal verb forms, the 10 most frequent being go, come, take, get, set, carry, turn, bring, look, put. The eight most common particles at are: out, up, on, back, down, in, over, and off. They found that the 160 combinations generated by these 20 verbs and these eight particles account for over 50 percent of the half a million phrasal verb occurrences in the corpus. “A more specific analysis indicates that only 25 phrasal verbs account for nearly one third for of all phrasal verb occurrences in the British National Corpus”. The top 10 combinations are: go on, carry out, set up, pick up, come back, go out, point out, find out, come up.

Similar (although less precise) findings are reported in Carter and McCarthy (2006) The Cambridge Grammar of English, where they list the most frequent verbs and the particles that they combine with (p. 430)

8 09 2010
Luke Meddings

I hope the firemen were concentrating on the fire and not on their particles.

Jason’s point about less formal, spoken English (which tends to favour phrasal verbs) and more formal, written English (which tends to do so less) is a clue to the dual Germanic and Latinate origins of modern English. This dual influence is one reason why the active vocabulary in English is relatively large, and one way of exploring this in class is to change the (usually Germanic/Anglo-Saxon) phrasal verbs in an informal text into single (Latinate) verbs, and vice versa.

The question I have after reading the excellent post and comment above (I love Adrian’s comment about the limited bandwidth of concordances) is this: what explanation – if any – of the grammar of phrasal verbs is really useful to learners? I tend to think that seeing and characterising them as collocation is the most useful way, a pragmatic view perhaps encouraged by the lexical approach.

Finally, there is a certain amount of natural variation when it comes to the use of grammar in spoken English, and the sometimes surprising positioning of particles might – when not dictated by clear intention on the part of the speaker – be one example of this.

8 09 2010

As I have a mono-lingual class I tend to teach them by eliciting translations into Spanish from contextualised examples.

Of course, that only deals with the semantics. Word order issues also have to be dealt with.

13 10 2010
Mark Lloyd

To my mind, it’s not so much that there is an explanation of phrasal verb grammar which is of use to learners, but rather that learners are potentially reassured by the knowledge that phrasal verbs are syntactically and semantically (if not pragmatically) bound by rules. On the face of it, the way learners encounter phrasal verbs is inevitably haphazard, which creates the impression that they are rogue, almost randomly generated items of which the second language learner is denied full comprehension. Knowing that, contrary to this impression, there is an underlying grammatical (and phonological) system which explains why we use phrasal verbs the way we do is therefore a relief to learners. Even if they don’t understand the system, they are helped by knowing that it exists!

Bottom line? Phrasal verbs (or multi-word verbs if you prefer) are just lexical chunks – deal with it!

8 09 2010
Tom Smith

Two things I notice about phrasal verbs:

1) They are a very popular form of neologism, in a ‘tech-savvy’ world where new actions need to be labelled (boot up, log on, etc) but where register is increasingly informal.

2) There is a tendency, especially among younger people, to drop the particle. So ‘chill out’ has become chill, ‘hang out(with)’ has become hang, and ‘pass away’ has become pass.

13 10 2017
Gaylita DeSelby


26 09 2013
Philip Quick Republic of Moldova

Personally i’ve always felt using phrasal verbs gives you an extra feeling of expression, of somehow adding a kind of motion to a verb you use. You just feel more a sense of movement when you say I’m heading OFF ….rather than I’m heading home….It has more WHOOOMPH in it…Try it and see….?

17 02 2016
Mark Van Order

One of the things I’ve noticed in reading through the comments about this is that there are two different, distinct classes of phrasal verbs–inseparable and separable. With a separable phrasal verb, the noun (phrase) complement can be placed in the middle of the phrasal verb, as in “She looked the word up in the dictionary,” where an inseparable phrasal verb cannot be so divided without losing its meaning, as in “She had to abide by the decision of the courts.”

6 11 2016

hi all
a commenter asked if there was a list of frequent phrasal verbs and Scott gave a reference from 2007;

there is a newer list from 2014 which also lists the main meanings of the common phrasal verbs; this is important as learners confusion over meaning is significant;

most errors are semantic errors according to De Cock who another commenter referenced

PHaVE dictionary – http://phave-dictionary.englishup.me


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: