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Phrasal Verbs in English for ESL Students

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/5/2012

Phrasal verbs are a verb form unique to Germanic languages like English that are formed by a verb and one or more prepositions. English phrasal verbs may be intransitive, nonseparable transitive, optionally separable transitive, or obligatorily separable transitive.

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    English Phrasal Verbs

    The combination of verbs and prepositions to form a single grammatical unit is rather unique to Germanic languages including English. Formed by a verb followed by one or more prepositions functioning as a particle, phrasal verbs are a common periphrastic verb form in the English language that both native speakers and ESL students must learn to use correctly in both spoken and written English. For example, the following verbs are examples of phrasal verbs followed by a definition in parentheses:

    • act up (misbehave)
    • hand in (submit)
    • leave out (omit)

    As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, periphrasis is "a phrase of two or more words that together perform a single grammatical function that would otherwise be expressed by the inflection of a single word." Phrasal verbs are periphrastic because the verb and preposition work together to perform the same functions as single-word verbs.

    Not only must English-speaking and ESL students learn to recognize the form of phrasal verbs but such students must also learn the different types of phrasal verbs. The four types of phrasal verbs in English are:

    1. Intransitive
    2. Nonseparable transitive
    3. Optionally separable transitive
    4. Obligatorily separable transitive

    The following sections define and provide examples of the four types of phrasal verbs in English.

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    Intransitive

    The first type of phrasal verb in English is the intransitive phrasal verb. Intransitive phrasal verbs are as defined as phrasal verbs that cannot or do not take objects. The prepositional functioning as a particle must directly follow the verb. For example, the following italicized phrasal verbs are examples of intransitive phrasal verbs:

    • My car broke down on the interstate. (malfunction)
    • What time did you get up today? (arise)
    • The rain finally let up enough to take out the trash. (lessen)
    • Our neighbor recently passed away. (die)
    • The puppy woke up at the crack of dawn. (awake)
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    Nonseparable Transitive

    The second type of phrasal verb in English is the nonseparable transitive phrasal verb. Transitive phrasal verbs are defined as phrasal verbs that require direct objects and may also take indirect objects. The preposition functioning as a particle must also directly follow the verb in nonseparable transitive phrasal verbs. For example, the following italicized phrasal verbs are examples of nonseparable transitive phrasal verbs:

    • You should bone up on English grammar. (review)
    • He came across his missing sock in the dryer. (discover)
    • My mom dropped by my house this afternoon. (visit)
    • Most children look forward to Christmas morning. (anticipate)
    • The cat puts up with the dog. (tolerate)
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    Optionally Separable Transitive

    The third type of phrasal verb in English is the optionally separable transitive phrasal verb. Optionally separable transitive phrasal verbs also require objects, but the preposition functioning as a particle can follow either the verb or the direct object. For example, the following italicized phrasal verbs are examples of optionally separable transitive phrasal verbs:

    • The Dean will call off the meeting due to the weather. (cancel)
    • The Dean will call the meeting off due to the weather.

    • Please hand out this brochure to new clients. (distribute)
    • Please hand this brochure out to new clients.

    • My grandfather always mixes up the cousins. (confuse)
    • My grandfather always mixes the cousins up.

    • Have you set up the meeting. (arrange)
    • Have you set the meeting up?

    • I need to take off my wet socks. (remove)
    • I need to take my wet socks off.
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    Obligatorily Separable

    The fourth type of phrasal verb in English is the obligatorily separable transitive phrasal verb. Optionally separable transitive phrasal verbs become obligatorily separable phrasal verbs when the direct object is in the form of a pronoun meaning the preposition functioning as a particle must follow the pronoun functioning as the direct object. For example, the following italicized phrasal verbs are examples of obligatorily separable transitive phrasal verbs:

    • Can you add up the bill? (total)
    • Can you add the bill up?
    • Can you add it up?
    • *Can you add up it? (incorrect)

    • The student looked up the word in the dictionary. (research)
    • The student looked the word up in the dictionary.
    • The student looked it up in the dictionary.
    • *The student looked up it in the dictionary. (incorrect)

    • That man ticked off that woman. (anger)
    • That man ticked that woman off.
    • That man ticked her off.
    • *That man ticked off her. (incorrect)

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    Phrasal verbs are a periphrastic verb form unique to English and other Germanic languages. Both native English-speaking and ESL students must learn to recognize and use the four types of phrasal verbs to fully and correctly use the verb form in spoken and written English.

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