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Two-Word Verbs


Verbs can be single words or can have "helpers" such as has, have, had, is, am, was, or were. Verbs can be accompanied by modals such as could, would, might, or may. As if that were not confusing enough, there exists another kind of verb, phrasal verbs, which look like verbs with prepositions (or adverbs) attached: hand in, break up, fill out, run into. Some are three words: come up with, check up on.

You probably have run into many verbs like these without experiencing any discomfort. You might never even need to know that phrasal verbs exist. However, if you have learned to identify the subject and verb of a sentence by crossing out all the prepositional phrases (up the stairs, out the door), then phrasal verbs may be problematic. For instance, in the phrasal verb come up with, is with a preposition? Then where is the object of the preposition? Or is it part of the verb?

Take, for example, this sentence: "You have run into verbs like these."  It would be easy to make the mistake of calling the verb run, and identifying into verbs as a prepositional phrase. In fact, the verb is run into, meaning encountered; verbs is a direct object: what you encountered. You have not run. You have encountered.

Phrasals can look like a verb + preposition (look into), or a verb + adverb (get away), or a verb + adverb + preposition (get away from). An Internet search turns up exhaustive discussions of phrasals (they are separable, inseparable, transitive, intransitive) and word order related to phrasals, but in general, phrasal verbs have the following general characteristics:

  • They are informal; usually there exists another, more "proper" word with the same or similar meaning.
  • They are idiomatic; that is, you cannot easily make out the meaning of the verb by adding up the meanings of its parts.
  • They are, nevertheless, often sensible, even if not obvious; phrasals do make a certain amount of sense, depending on how you understand the particle, or preposition-like attachment.

Phrasal verbs are informal, though perfectly acceptable in most academic papers. However, some phrasal verbs contain "filler" words that do not add meaning (keep on going means the same thing as keep going, for example; fell off of means the same as fell off). Some are vague or somewhat cliché. In order to attain vivid writing, you will sometimes want to substitute other, stronger verbs. 

For example, here are some phrasal verbs and possible substitutes:


Phrasal verb Substitution
Hand in Submit
Check out Examine or borrow
Look up to Admire

Some phrasal verbs are difficult to replace. It's hard to think of a better way, for example, to say, "I had to look up the word in the dictionary." And if you happen to be writing dialogue, the informality of phrasals may be more authentic than stuffier language.

There are a great many phrasal verbs, far too many to list or memorize. For lists of phrasal verbs with their corresponding meanings, try searching the Internet using the keyword "phrasal verbs."

Phrasal verbs are idiomatic. For example, even if you know the meanings of blow and up, you cannot add them together to arrive obviously at the intended meaning of blow up, which means explode or erupt with force. Blow + up might just as easily refer to a gentle updraft of wind.

Because they are idiomatic, phrasals and their meanings might vary depending on where the speaker lives. This TIP Sheet uses meanings commonly understood in the United States, specifically in California, and even more specifically in a rural area of Northern California. Speakers of British English or even speakers from other regions of the U.S. might understand some of these expressions differently. For example, while an American might call you up on your cell phone, a Brit would ring you up to tell you he needed to kip down (stay temporarily, the American equivalent of crash) in your apartment. In the southern U.S., one might scoot down the car; in California one would hose it down with water.

The website Phrasal Verb Demon offers a great discussion of phrasals. At the same time, it illustrates the idiomatic nature of phrasals, giving definitions as they are commonly understood in Great Britian; some of these may be new to U.S. readers (whose computers, for example, usually freeze up, while British computers pack up.)

Even though they are idiomatic, many phrasals do make a certain amount of sense, depending on how you understand the particle, or preposition-like attachment. A single preposition/particle can carry any of a multitude of meanings, and the meaning of a phrasal verb like blow up depends largely on which meaning of up you choose. For example, up can refer to increase (freshen up = increasing freshness); to movement (boil up = move about in a chaotic way); or being out of bed (get up, stay up = getting or staying out of bed).

For example, in the case of blow up, you might understand up as relating either to increase (as a fireball increases, perhaps), or to movement (for chaotic movement of air and debris). (Up in blow up, on the other hand, has nothing whatever to do with staying out of bed.)

It is largely the particle that changes the meaning of a phrasal verb. For example, the word break usually means a sudden stopping, bursting, or loss of function. On the other hand, the website Phrasal Verb Demon lists seven different senses of the word up, nine different senses of out, and ten of down. Break up is a phrasal verb meaning to end a personal relationship (up = completion). Break down means to stop functioning (down = failure), and break out means to happen suddenly (out = appearance).

Phrasals frequently are figurative; there is often an underlying metaphor that can help you make sense of them. In the case of blow up, the metaphor compares the movement of air created by an explosion to the movement of boiling water in a kettle. In addition, blow up is frequently itself used in a figurative sense, as in, "The issue of the councilman's overspending blew up once the newspapers ran the story." Here, the sudden public revelation and subsequent discussion of the councilman's overspending is compared to an explosion.

For more discussion of phrasals and their underlying logic, see





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