English Phrasal Verbs: Definition

wake up sgn
Wake up is one of the many phrasal verbs in English that contain the adverb up. Others include make up, clean up, speak up, call up, follow up, pick up, set up, come up, wind up, put up, warm up, and end up. Andrejs Zemdega/Getty Images

A phrasal verb is a type of compound verb made up of a verb (usually one of action or movement) and a prepositional adverb—also known as an adverbial particle. Phrasal verbs are sometimes called two-part verbs (e.g., take off and leave out) or three-part verbs (e.g., look up to and look down on).

There are hundreds of phrasal verbs in English, many of them (such as tear off, run out [of], and pull through) with multiple meanings. Indeed, as linguist Angela Downing points out, phrasal verbs are "one of the most distinctive features of present-day informal English, both in their abundance and in their productivity" (English Grammar: A University Course, 2014). Phrasal verbs often appear in idioms.

According to Logan Pearsall Smith in Words and Idioms (1925), the term phrasal verb was introduced by Henry Bradley, senior editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

​​​Examples and Observations

Mignon McLaughlin

"What you can't get out of, get into wholeheartedly."

William Shakespeare

"Put out the light, and then put out the light."

Frank Norris

"I never truckled; I never took off the hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth."

K.C. Cole

"Clots of excited children egged each other on, egged on their parents, egged on the blue-haired ladies and the teenage lovers and janitor who put down his mop to play."

Joseph Heller

"Major Major had never played basketball or any other game before, but his great, bobbing height and rapturous enthusiasm helped make up for his innate clumsiness and lack of experience."

The Semantic Coherence of Phrasal Verbs

Laurel J. Brinton

"Like compounds, phrasal verbs have semantic coherence, evidenced by the fact that they are sometimes replaceable by single Latinate verbs, as in the following:

Furthermore, the meaning of the combination of verb and particle in the phrasal verb may be opaque, that is, not predictable from the meaning of the parts."

The Structure of Modern English: A Linguistic Introduction. John Benjamins, 2000)

  • break out: erupt, escape
  • count out: exclude
  • think up: imagine
  • take off: depart, remove
  • work out: solve
  • put off: delay
  • egg on: incite
  • put out: extinguish
  • put off: postpone

Phrasal Verbs With Up

Ben Zimmer

"[P]hrasal verbs with up have filled a wide variety of roles in both British and American English. Up gets used for literal upward movement (lift up, stand up) or more figuratively to indicate greater intensity (stir up, fire up) or completion of an act (drink up, burn up). It’s particularly handy for blunt imperatives calling for resolute action: think of wake up!, grow up!, hurry up! and put up or shut up!"

– "On Language: The Meaning of ‘Man Up.'" The New York Times Magazine, September 5, 2010

Phrasal Verbs and Prepositional Verbs

"A phrasal verb differs from a sequence of a verb and a preposition (a prepositional verb) in [these] respects. Here call up is a phrasal verb, while call on is only a verb plus a preposition:
(R.L. Trask, Dictionary of English Grammar. Penguin, 2000)

  1. The particle in a phrasal verb is stressed: They called up the teacher, but not *They called on the teacher.
  2. The particle of a phrasal verb can be moved to the end: They called the teacher up, but not *They called the teacher on.
  3. The simple verb of a phrasal verb may not be separated from its particle by an adverb: *They called early up the teacher is no good, but They called early on the teacher is fine."

Also Known As: compound verb, verb-adverb combination, verb-particle combination, two-part verb, three-part verb

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Nordquist, Richard. "English Phrasal Verbs: Definition." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/phrasal-verb-1691624. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). English Phrasal Verbs: Definition. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/phrasal-verb-1691624 Nordquist, Richard. "English Phrasal Verbs: Definition." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/phrasal-verb-1691624 (accessed June 5, 2023).