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Finding Your Way Around Phrasal Verbs In English

English speakers use phrasal verbs a lot. To improve your English, you'll need to use them too. Learn the 4 varieties of phrasal verbs and the right way to use them.

Phrasal verbs: They make life easier for native speakers and harder for non-natives. Expressions such as "She shut me up" or "He shut me out of the conversation" or "I’ll drop by later" are common occurrences in English. Native speakers take them for granted, but they can confuse everybody trying to learn English. It’s easy to mess up your English when you use phrasal verbs.

So let’s get familiar with these two-word and three-word phrases. They consist of a verb followed by an adverb or a preposition. For instance, cut. If you add an up or an off, or even an out or an in to it, it’s enough to change its meaning altogether.

Still confused? Let’s consider a few different types of phrasal verbs so we can investigate their grammar and sort this out — i.e., "organize things".

SEPARABLE verbs

Some phrasal verbs are separable; you can shift the position of the adverb or preposition and it won’t alter the intended meaning. Let’s try it.

If you want some silence, you can turn off the radio or turn the radio off.

If you want to throw a dinner party, you can set up the dining room or set the dining room up — with plates, cutlery and maybe even some candles.

Separable phrasal verbs are your relaxed and cool cousin who shrugs his shoulders and is perfectly willing to try things a different way — a fun relative who never critiques your efforts and never tells you that you’ve done it wrong.

But that is not always the case.

INSEPARABLE verbs

Some phrasal verbs are inseparable — they always go hand-in-hand and the particles cannot be moved around.

A good example is go over, which means to review something, or get over, which means to recover from disappointment or illness. You cannot include any words in-between; only after the verb and the particle.

For instance, you can take care of my daughter while I’m away — but you cannot take of my daughter care.

You can say I ran into a friend yesterday, if you met him unexpectedly, but you cannot say you ran a friend into.

Inseparable phrasal verbs are the anal-retentive aunt who goes mad if the trains are late and the dinner isn’t ready on time. She always carries her bag and never leaves it behind, like a verb glued to its additional particles.

INTRANSITIVE verbs

(not followed by an object)

Phrasal verbs can also be intransitive, since they are not followed by an object. Here is a paragraph with a few examples.

I might not have much money, but I get by (I manage to survive with little). When the sun rises, I get up (get out of bed). I work five days a week, save my money and once a month I eat out (enjoying a meal at a restaurant). Sometimes I go clubbing — I always manage to get in, since I’m friendly and polite. When I manage to save up (save some money), I run off (take a trip) to a nice sunny place and treat myself to an extended weekend of relaxation. Life is good!

These verbs stand on their own and you can write a short sentence without further explanation.

Imagine them as the frugal uncle who lives in a nudist colony and has few possessions apart from his books and records. He doesn’t accessorize, doesn’t have a driver’s license, owns no property and cannot understand why others do. Straight to the point and no frills, what you see is what you get!

THREE-WORD verbs

But what about three-word phrasal verbs? They do exist — and maybe you’ve heard a few before. The following paragraph includes a few examples.

My mother dropped out of school (she left school before graduating) but went back to finish her studies later in life. We had to cut down on expenses (reduce expenses) after both mom and dad lost their jobs — we simply could not spend as much money as before. I get along with my parents (we coexist harmoniously). And I look up to my uncle ( I admire and respect him immensely). Sometimes we go on family picnics to catch up with each other (we ask each other what is happening in our lives). My uncle’s doctor told him to cut down on sugary treats (to not eat so many), but he makes up for it (he compensates) by riding his bike. He says pleasures are interchangeable and if you can’t have one, you can choose another!

These three-word phrasal verbs are not separable, so you will always hear them as a whole phrase followed by an object.

Picture them as the sophisticated brother you admire and envy. He is verbose, has a Master’s Degree in Contemporary French Literature, a PhD in Political Science and will always know more than you do about everything you can think of. Why use one word when you can use three?

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So how should you learn these verbs and avoid messing them up (confusing them)? Start by memorizing a couple and drop them into (include them) conversation whenever you communicate in English. Take it slowly, and pay attention to the phrasal verbs that you hear English speakers use. When you look out for them (search for them), you will notice phrasal verbs all the time!

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