What Are Phrasal and Prepositional Verbs?
Phrasal and prepositional verbs are verbs that are made up of a verb and one or two particles:
- a preposition
- an adverb
They are more common in spoken than in written English because most people consider them more informal.
The terminology can be a bit confusing: most textbooks simply treat them as “phrasal verbs” and don’t go into any more detail. This makes sense: the differences are the kind of thing linguists argue about, and most students of English as a Foreign Language simply don’t need them. Still, the distinctions explain a lot of ‘weird’ stuff about them, so some terminology might be useful. I’ll be using the following:
- “phrasal verb” (in quotation marks): this refers to all of them.
- phrasal verb proper (no quotation marks): the particle is an adverb. (hand * in)
- prepositional verb: the particle is a preposition. (look into * , eat out)
- phrasal-prepositional verb: there are two particles, first an adverb, then a preposition. (put up with * )
→ The asterisk (*) is where you have to put the sentence’s Object if there is any and if it’s short (basically, if it’s a pronoun).
→ Even better: take note of whether the Object is a person or not: the meaning often changes. Thus:
- send sb up (play a practical joke on somebody, make fun of somebody)
- send sth up (pass something, such as information, to a superior in the chain of command)
→ Tip: Don’t bother with (😉) the explanations too much: use the asterisk trick to learn the “phrasal verbs”.
It can be difficult to understand what a “phrasal verb” means from its components. Most of them are basically metaphors, so they don’t necessarily mean the same as the combination of the two or three words. So, put up with * means, tolerate * , endure * . It’s hard to say how that could have happened, but well…
→ Tip: Learn “phrasal verbs” as units, not as ‘verb + particle’.
Phrasal Verbs Proper
Phrasal verbs proper are those that are made up of a verb and an adverb. Of course, the same word can be an adverb or a preposition depending on context: in turn in (go to bed) or turn * in (betray somebody to the police, or, alternatively, give something to the authorities) the word in is an adverb. In (😉) there’s some cold water in the fridge, it’s a preposition.
Confusing? Remember what I said about the asterisk, and don’t worry.
As the particle in a phrasal verb proper is an adverb, there are two possibilities:
There’s no Object:
→ drop off (fall asleep)
→ pick up (of wind, cars…: increase in strength/velocity, of people, businesses…: make progress, improve)
→ take off (of aeroplanes etc: leave the ground, of people: leave)
There is an Object:
→ drop * off (leave sb/sth in a place)
→ pick sb up (collect somebody from a place)
→ pick sth up (collect something, especially from the floor or learn something in an informal way, especially a language)
→ take sth off (remove clothing, glasses, etc.)
If there is an Object, and it’s short, it should go between the verb and the particle. If the Object is a pronoun, it has to.
Phrasal verbs proper that require an Object (“transitive” ones) are often referred to as “separable phrasal verbs”.
Prepositional verbs are those “phrasal verbs” where the particle is a preposition:
→ look into * (investigate * )
→ go through * (experience a difficult situation)
→ run into * (meet sb by chance or encounter a problem)
→ look after * (take care of *)
Prepositional verbs always have an Object, and it has to go after the preposition. This is why they’re also called inseparable “phrasal verbs”.
Some “phrasal verbs” have both an adverb and a preposition. Most of these have one Object that goes after the preposition:
→ give in to * (surrender to *)
→ look forward to * (feel excited about something in the future)
→ check up on * (look to make sure sb/sth is fine)
Some might have two Objects, though:
→ make sth up to sb (compensate sb for sth)
→ put sth down to sb/sth (attribute sth to sb/sth, blame sth on sb/sth)
Tips for Learning “Phrasal Verbs”
- Get your mind right. Try and consider “phrasal verbs” as something fascinating rather than exasperating. Yes, this is sooner said than done, but it helps. There’s so much fun you can have with “phrasal verbs”!
- Throw your bilingual dictionary away. “Phrasal verbs” are a perfect example of one of those points English teachers make about 500,000 times a day: translating into your mother tongue holds you back. Use paraphrases and examples instead, and visualise. Cartoons like the one above work great.
- Work with semantic fields. “Hide” “phrasal verbs” between other words and expressions you need for a specific topic, rather than getting down to work on a list of “phrasal verbs” longer than your arm and totally unconnected with each other. It’s going to be so much easier. Even so, you’ll find a link to such a list below.
- Use word spiders. If you want to learn a handful of “phrasal verbs” with a specific verb, use word spiders and definitions to help you remember and understand them. There’s an example below.
- Visualise the prepositions. Prepositions are famously hard to translate, and almost impossible to master on the basis of translations. Meanwhile, they have lots of metaphorical meanings. The step from “the cat is jumping through the hoop” to “your shirt is see-through” (transparent) is easy. Once you’ve got there, “I could see straight through her lies” is no trouble at all.
Resources for Practice