views updated May 09 2018

PHRASAL VERB [First used in print by Logan Pearsall Smith, in Words and Idioms (1925), in which he states that the OED Editor Henry Bradley suggested the term to him], also verb phrase, compound verb, verb–adverb combination, verb–particle construction (VPC), AmE two-part word/verb and three-part word/verb (depending on number of particles: see below).

A type of VERB in English that operates more like a phrase than a WORD, such as go up (as in The balloon went up), put off (as in Don't put it off any longer), and take down (as in That'll take him down a peg or two). Such composites derive primarily from verbs of movement and action (go, put, take) and ADVERBIAL PARTICLES of direction and location (up, off, down). The base verbs are mainly monosyllabic and may underlie a range of phrasal verbs: for example, get underlying get up, get down, get in, get out, get on, get off, get away, get back. The combinations are used both literally and figuratively, and are often idioms or elements in idioms: to get away with murder, to get on like a house on fire, to get back at someone, to get up to mischief.


Although the phrasal verb has been present in English for many centuries, it has only recently been described in detail. Citations in the OED date from Middle English: for example, turne aboute 1300; gon doun 1388. They are common in Shakespeare: ‘So long, that ninteen Zodiacks haue gone round’ (Measure for Measure, 1603). Such verbs have often been used to translate Latin verbs (to putte downecalare, deponere: Catholicon Anglicum, 1483) and to define verbs of Latin origin in English (abrogatetake away: Cawdrey, Table Alphabeticall, 1604). The 18c lexicographer Samuel JOHNSON was among the first to consider such formations seriously:
There is another kind of composition more frequent in our language than perhaps in any other, from which arises to foreigners the greatest difficulty. We modify the signification of many words by a particle subjoined; as to come off, to escape by a fetch; to fall on, to attack; to fall off, to apostatize; to break off, to stop abruptly … These I have noted with great care (Preface, Dictionary of the English Language, 1755).


Grammarians have adopted two main position with regard to the nature and use of phrasal verbs: (1) That the literal use of a form like go up is not a phrasal verb as such, but a verb operating with a particle: The balloon went up into the air. The term phrasal verb should properly be reserved for figurative and idiomatic uses: The balloon went up (= The crisis finally happened). Here, it is the holistic and semantic aspect of go up which is considered to identify the type, not syntax or morphology. (2) That the term covers both the literal and figurative/idiomatic uses and therefore includes syntax, morphology, and semantics: that is, both senses of go up, as above. This is the position adopted in the following review, which begins with a consideration of the grammatical aspects of phrasal verbs under three headings: transitivity and word order; particles functioning as adverbs and/or prepositions; and the position of adverbs.

Transitivity and word order.

Phrasal verbs may be intransitive (‘When they went away, she got up and went out’) or transitive (‘She put the book down, then picked it up again’). If the verb is transitive, the object can go before or after the particle without affecting meaning: She put the book down, She put down the book. If, however, the object is a pronoun, it comes between verb and particle: She put it down, not *She put down it. However, young children and occasionally adults for emphasis have been known to place the pronoun last: Put down IT!

Adverbial and prepositional particles.

A sentence containing a verb followed by a prepositional phrase can usually (but not always) be shortened so as to turn preposition into adverb: He carried the box up the stairs becoming He carried the box up (stairs understood). If a further prepositional phrase is added, two particles (the first adverbial, the second prepositional) may occur in sequence: He carried the box up to his room. The syntactic relationships in such sentences can be shown by bracketing: (He carried the chair up) (to his room). Usage may appear inconsistent with regard to compound forms: into; out of; BrE on to, AmE onto; off of, non-standard in BrE, often standard in AmE. However, in terms of phrasal verbs, such usage is straightforward: the sentences She took the books into the room, She took the books out of the room, She lifted the books on to/onto the table, and She lifted the books off (of) the table all reduce to She took the books in/out and She lifted the books on/off. The particle out is followed in England by of in such sentences as They looked out of the window, but in AmE, CanE, ScoE the form is generally They looked out the window.

The position of adverbs.

Adverbs often appear alongside the particles of phrasal verbs. With intransitive usages, the adverb can take any of the positions in: He happily ran away, He ran happily away, He ran away happily, the last probably commonest. With transitive usages, the adverb goes either before the verb or after the object or particle, whichever is last: She eagerly picked the letter up, She picked up the letter eagerly, She picked the letter up eagerly, She picked it up eagerly, no usage predominating, but in most contexts there are no such forms as *She picked the letter/it eagerly up. (Notes such relatively rare possibilities as He pushed the letters clumsily through).

Adverbial particles

The particles commonly used are: aback, about, ahead, along, apart, aside, around, away, back, beyond, down, forth, in, off, on, out, over, past, round, through, up. The commonest are down, in, off, on, out, up. BrE favours about (running about), AmE (a)round (running around). A verb–particle combination may have: any of the meanings of the verb plus any of the meanings of the particle, and any meanings that emerge jointly in particular contexts, including a distinct figurative and often holistic meaning. For example: (1) The phrasal verb get up may be intransitive (They got up) or transitive (Get them up), may mean ‘move from lower to higher’ (He got the child up on to the wall), ‘move from far to near’ (One of the other runners got up to him and passed him), ‘gather, accumulate’ (The engine got up steam), ‘organize, make’ (He can get up the plot of a new film in no time at all), and something like ‘put on special clothes’ (They got themselves up as pirates). (2) The particle up can mean upward direction (The smoke rose up), approaching direction (He swam up to the boat), completion in the sense that nothing is left (They used up all the oil), completion in the sense that something is done as fully as possible (They tidied the room up), and emphasis (Hurry up!). It may also have several nuances, as with Drink up!, both completive and emphatic.

The use of phrasal verbs

Such verbs are often informal, emotive, and slangy, and may contrast with Latinate verbs, as in They used up/consumed all the fuel; They gathered together/assembled/congregated in the hall; The soldiers moved forward/advanced. Putting off a meeting parallels postponing it; driving back enemy forces repels them; putting out a fire extinguishes it; bringing back the death penalty restores it. However, such pairing often depends on context and collocation. In some cases, one phrasal verb may match several Latinate verbs: bring back = restore (the death penalty), return (money to someone), retrieve (a shot bird or animal from where it has fallen). In other cases, one Latinate verb may match several phrasal verbs: demolish matching knock down, tear down, blow up as variants in destructive style. It is sometimes possible to match the elements of phrasal verbs and Latinate verbs: climb up with a/scend, climb down with de/scend. See BISOCIATION.

Literal and figurative usages

The verb bring in is used literally in The milkman brought in the milk, figuratively in The prime minister brought in a new policy. Only in the second sense can bring in be matched with introduce (itself originally metaphorical in Latin): not *The milkman introduced the milk, unless a joke is intended. Jokes and cartoons are often based on a deliberate confusion of phrasal-verb meanings: as when someone says, ‘Put the kettle on’ (taken to mean heat some water in a kettle for tea), then notes with appreciation, ‘Mmm, it suits you’ (crossing over to putting on clothes and leaving the listener to imagine someone wearing a kettle). An artist might build a cartoon round the literal/figurative contrast in Where did you pick up that idea?, with someone searching through garbage for inspiration, and the headline OIL WILL RUN OUT SOON might be supported by a picture of barrels with legs leaving a room.

Derived phrasal verbs

In addition to the traditional combination of verb of movement plus directional particle, phrasal verbs are commonly created from adjectives, nouns, and Latinate verbs: (1) From adjectives. Basically, with -en verbs: brighten/brighten up, flatten down/out, freshen up, harden off, loosen off/up, slacken off/up, smarten up, soften up, tighten up, toughen up. Where verbs in -en cannot be formed (that is, from adjectives ending in n, ng, m, l, r, th, or a spoken vowel), the particle is added directly: calm down to become/make calm, cool off become/make cool, even out to become/make even, tidy up to make tidy. (2) From nouns. By telescoping an expression containing a phrasal verb and a special noun: hammer out encapsulating beat out with a hammer; channel off telescoping carry or run off by means of a channel; brick up meaning close up with bricks. many phrasal verbs emerge in this way: bed down, board up, book out, button up, dish out, fog up, gang up, hose down, iron out, jack up, mist up, saddle up, sponge down, wall in. (3) From Latinate verbs. Particles are added, usually as completives and intensives, to two- and three-syllable verbs of Latin origin: contract out, divide off/up, level off, measure off/out, select out, separate off/out. Such usages are sometimes described as barbarous and pleonastic, but such criticism does not affect their widespread use.

Nouns from phrasal verbs

Two kinds of noun are formed from such verbs: (1) The major pattern. In speech, the level stress of bréak dówn changes to the compound stress of BREAKdown. In writing and print, nouns like this are either solid (breakdown) or hyphenated (round-up). The solid form is common when a usage is well established and is favoured in AmE. Hyphenation is common for newer usages and is favoured in BrE, in which a solid form may seem confusing or odd, especially when vowels come together: cave-in as cavein, make up as makeup. Typical nouns are: blackout, breakout, breakup, build-up, getaway, get-together, hold-up, mix-up, sit-in, take-off, white-out. (2) The minor pattern. By a process of inversion: when a disease breaks out, there is an outbreak of that disease. Again, compound stress occurs: OUTbreak. In writing and print, the presentation is usually solid. Typical nouns are: input, onrush, outflow, output, overflow, overspill, throughput, upkeep, upsurge, uptake. The contrasting patterns sometimes prompt different forms with different meanings: a breakout usually of people, an outbreak usually of disease and trouble; a layout in design and decoration, an outlay of money and goods; a lookout posted to observe, an outlook usually relating to weather, attitude, and prospects. Most phrasal nouns relate to situations. The few which relate to things and people tend to be dialectal, idiomatic, and slangy: BrE layabout someone who lays/lies idly about; AmE dropout someone who drops out of society or education; write-off a car so badly damaged that it is written off the books of an insurance company; blow-up a photograph blown up like a balloon. As with the verb forms, phrasal nouns can run parallel with Latinate nouns that tend to be elevated, technical, and formal where the phrasal nouns are colloquial, informal, and slangy: break-up/disintegration, checkup/examination, letdown/disappointment, let-up/relaxation, sellout/betrayal, shake-up/reorganization.

Compounds and attributives

Phrasal nouns can occur in compound and attributive formations: (1) With the phrasal noun first: blackout regulations, breakdown service, check-up period, getaway car, input time, overflow pipe, round-up time. (2) With the phrasal noun second: aeroplane take-off/airplane takeoff, traffic holdup, cholera outbreak, enemy build-up, population overspill, student sit-in. (3) With the phrasal noun between other nouns: cattle round-up time, truck break-down service, population overspill problem.

Phrasal-verb idioms

Idiomatic usages are usually colloquial and informal, more or less obvious figurative extensions of ordinary uses. Expressions used to gloss them are often more formal, less direct, and less emotive, as with: bring down or defeat (a government), bring in or introduce (a new law), bring off or clinch (a deal), bring on or encourage and train (a student), bring out or publish (a book), bring up or raise (a child); be carried away or overwhelmed (by one's emotions), carry off or win (a prize), carry on or continue (one's work), carry out or perform (one's duty), carry through or sustain (a project, to the end); a machine coming apart or disintegrating, a deal coming off or succeeding, work coming on or improving, soldiers coming through or surviving, something coming up or happening; cutting back or economizing (on expenses), cutting down or reducing (one's expenses), cutting in on or interrupting (a conversation), cutting people off or isolating them, cutting something out or excising or eliminating it; getting down or alighting (from a train), getting all the information in or collecting it, getting on or succeeding (in life), getting off or disembarking, or being allowed to go free, after an offence, getting out of or escaping from (a prison), and getting out or producing and publishing (a magazine), getting up or increasing (pressure), and getting up or rising from one's bed in the morning. Similar lists can be made for such other everyday verbs as be, do, go, keep, make, pass, pull, put, run, set, take, turn.

Phrasal verbs and prepositions

There is a continuum between the phrasal verb as described above and verbs followed by phrases in which the preposition may or may not be part of the phrase. A phrasal verb can be formed elliptically from a verb plus prepositional phrase (like He took the box up from He took the box up the stairs). A transitive usage may not be separable (like pick up the book/pick the book up), but may have distinct meanings depending on where the particle is placed (get round someone, get someone round). Particles may not be clearly either adverbial or prepositional, as with off in BrE get off the bus (compare widespread AmE get off of the bus). Some prepositions may be attached to verbs preceding them, usually for figurative reasons: where the sentence He came across the street is analysable as (He came) (across the street), the sentence He came across an old friend makes more sense as a phrasal form: (He came across) (an old friend), come across glossed as meet by chance. Some grammarians and lexicologists call a usage like come across a prepositional verb, because the particle is not adverbial but prepositional. Such a terminology, if extended, should turn phrasal verbs proper into ‘adverbial verbs’, but has not yet done so. Other commentators call the usage a fused or non-separable phrasal verb, because the preposition has been ‘stolen’ from its own phrase and fused with the preceding verb in an idiom. Others still consider some particles so equivocal that they are neither adverbs as such nor prepositions as such, but ‘adpreps’. Usages include: act for represent, bargain for expect, call for demand, come by obtain, get at imply, go for attack. The issue is further complicated by occasions when the fusion occurs between a phrasal verb proper and a following preposition, as with look down on hold in contempt, check up on investigate, go along with accept, face up to confront, look back on recall, look forward to have good expectations of, look up to admire, meet up with encounter.


In normal speech, if no special emphasis is employed, the adverbial particle in a phrasal verb proper is stressed: to píck úp a bóok/píck a bóok úp. The preposition in a two-part fused (prepositional) verb is not usually so stressed: They dídn't bárgain for thát. In a three-part fusion, the stresses combine the patterns: to lóok UP to sómeone, lóok DOWN on sómeone.


Phrasal verbs have always been common, but have increased in number since the mid-19c and even more so since the mid-20c, especially in AmE. As a result, a number of dictionaries of phrasal verbs have been published since 1974 and increasingly dictionaries for both native and foreign users have given phrasal verbs main-entry or high secondary status. They are increasingly the subject of special attention in courses for foreign learners of English, and it was in this area that the category came of age as a distinct aspect of grammar, word-formation, and usage. See PREPOSITIONAL VERB, SLANG, WORD-FORMATION.

phrasal verb

views updated May 18 2018

phras·al verb • n. Gram. an idiomatic phrase consisting of a verb and another element, typically either an adverb, as in break down, or a preposition, for example see to, or a combination of both, such as look down on.