What are phrasal and prepositional verbs?

Verbs that take a particle or particles are called phrasal or prepositional verbs. Particles are adverbs that describe the verbs and prepositions (words like in, on, at, up, down, etc.). A preposition takes an object, but an adverb does not. So, when we use the preposition on we might say; The pen is on the table (table is the object). Compare this with; Go on (continue), tell me more!

Similarly, with at or in we would use this to describe where, such as at the library or at the swimming pool or at school in the classroom, at work in the office, etc. Compare this with I’m not sure what you are getting at (what you mean)? Or; All this information is difficult to take in (understand and remember).

Can you think of any phrasal or prepositional verbs right now? Do you think they describe English grammar or vocabulary? Does it really matter?

There are four types and by categorising them we can apply general rules of use. Therefore, they can fit into the grammar category. However, each verb and particle combination have individual meanings which you need to learn, so they are vocabulary. In short, they are both grammatical and lexical.

Phrasal and Prepositional Verbs are everywhere!

You have probably realised that phrasal and prepositional verbs are commonly used in everyday English and you need to learn and use them to progress and develop your understanding and use of the language.

phrasal verb

At this point you are probably saying to yourself: It’s all too much to take in!

Don’t give up!

Don’t give up but carry on reading and you shall get it sooner than you think! Interestingly, first language speakers of English acquire these verbs when they are children and are familiar with them before they understand the more formal, academic meanings. For example, they learn, and use get up well before raise yourself or look after before they understand oversee. The reverse is often true for many learners of English as a foreign or second language, as they have not got used to (become familiar with) hearing or seeing them through listening to their teachers or reading textbooks.

The 4 types of phrasal verb.

All the examples are taken from the box above.

Type 1: Intransitive

For example; Turn up (happen, become available). The solution turned up without having to think too much about it.

What do these verbs have in common? They do not take an object. Can you think of example sentences with these Type 1 verbs?

  • Come off (separate or break)
  • Come away (leave)
  • Come around / come to (regain consciousness)
  • Get up (raise your body after sleeping or sitting)
  • Get down (crouch, lower your body)

Type 2: Transitive and inseparable

For example; Look through (read or briefly examine). She looked through the magazine while waiting for her dental appointment.

These verbs must take an object (the magazine, in the example above). The object always comes after the verb. So, we cannot say: She looked the magazine through….X

Can you think of example sentences with these Type 2 verbs?

  • Arrive at (reach a decision)
  • Come across (find by chance)
  • Count on (depend)
  • Get at (criticize)
  • Look after (take care of, oversee)

Type 3: Transitive and separable

For example; Work out (calculate, discover an answer or develop an idea). …working out their meaning / working their meaning out.

As you can see from the example above, the object can either come after the verb and the particle or between it. If the object is a pronoun then it must come between them. Work it out. We cannot say: Work out it … X

Can you think of example sentences with these Type 3 verbs?

  • Bring up (start to talk about a specific subject)
  • Put across (communicate)
  • Put off (postpone)
  • Put out (publish)
  • Take back (return)

Type 4: Prepositional Verbs (verbs with 2 particles, transitive and inseparable)

For example; Focus in on (direct one’s attention on something, concentrate hard) …focusing in on them. These verbs take an adverb + a preposition. Therefore, they are often referred to as prepositional verbs.

They are transitive, so they need an object, but the object cannot go between the parts of the verb. So, we say; We must put up with learning phrasal verbs. We cannot say: We must put phrasal verbs up with or We must put up phrasal verbs with … X

Can you think of example sentences with these Type 4 verbs?

  • Come down with (become ill with)
  • Come up with (produce
  • Fill in for (substitute)
  • Get on well with (have a good relationship with)
  • Read up on (search for information)

What is the best way to learn these four types of verb?

The best way for learning new vocabulary is by reading as much and as widely as you can. As you come across new phrasal and prepositional verbs in your reading, stop to think about their meaning and form (What type of verb are they?). Listening to authentic English is also very useful.

You can make a note of the ones you particularly like or, at the very least, highlight them in the text. You will probably come across them again so is worth trying to notice them as often as you can. Want to find out more?

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Paul Woodfall, B.A (Hons), Dip.Tefla, Dip Ed. Man., is OUP’s Regional Training Co-ordinator for Middle East and Central Asia. He has given training workshops from K1 -12, and trained English Faculty at universities in several different countries around the world including Spain, UAE, KSA, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the Sultanate of Oman.

He has lived and worked in the region for over 20 years. Before joining OUP in 2011, Paul was ICT Co-ordinator, Team Leader for CELA exams, an IELTS examiner for 9 years (IELTS examiner trainer for six of those years) as well as teacher and teacher trainer based at the British Council in Dubai, UAE.


Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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