Phrasal Verbs


By John-Allen Payne, Ph.D.
Department of English
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

Phrasal verbs represent a practically limitless group of verbs that can be combined with short adverbs or prepositions to produce new meanings. Here are some examples:

With short adverbs:

give up (= surrender; quit)
find out

(= learn; get information about)
take off

(= leave quickly; fly away)
draw out (= prolong)

With prepositions:

work on

(= give effort and thought to developing)
wait on (= serve)
look after (= take care of)
come across
(= find by chance)

With a short adverb plus a preposition:

put up with (= tolerate)
crack down on
(= deal firmly with)
come up with
(= devise)
look up to (= respect)

Phrasal verbs are ubiquitous in all forms of written and spoken modern English, making the ability to understand and produce them a requisite for an adequate command of the English language. Research studies indicate that although phrasal verbs are fairly well established in hearing children at three and four years of age (Fischer, 1972), many deaf children as old as 18 and 19 still have difficulties with them (Payne 1982; 1987).

This module will first present a brief description of phrasal verbs and how they are used in English language discourse. Second, it will summarize a few research studies on deaf children's comprehension of phrasal verbs. Finally, it will suggest ways that teachers may deal with phrasal verbs in their classes.

Major Considerations

1. Phrasal verbs are an essential component of English rhetorical structure.

2. The ability to comprehend phrasal verbs is an indispensable requisite for success in reading English

3. The ability to produce phrasal verbs is an indispensable requisite for success in writing English.

4. The comprehension and production of phrasal verbs pose a significant challenge for many young deaf students.

5. Young deaf students perform better on some types of phrasal verbs than they do on other types.

History of Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs have roots back in the earliest Old English writings, where verbs with short adverbs and prepositions were used in a very literal sense showing mostly the direction, place, or physical orientation of a noun in the sentence (Spasov, 1966; Hillard, 1971; Kennedy, 1920; Meyer, 1976), such as in the following example:

The boy walked out. (direction)
The boy stood by. (place)
The boy held his hand up. ( physical orientation)

Like short adverbs, prepositions also indicated direction, place, or physical orientation; but they also specified a relationship between the verb and an object in the sentence.

The army charged up the hill.
The painter stood by the house.
The thief climbed out the window.
Hang it over the fire. (Physical Orientation)

Over the centuries, the combinations of verbs with short adverbs and prepositions increased. Their meanings diversified by imperceptible degrees. Eventually, they came to be the most productive means for the creation of new verbs that exists in Modern English (Konishi, 1958; Makkai, 1972).

To illustrate this diversification of meaning, below are presented some of the nuances that the short adverb out acquired over several centuries:

In the ninth century, it had the literal meaning of moving toward the outside such as in walk out and ride out. But by the fourteenth century, out had added the idea of making something audible such as in cry out and call out. By the fifteenth century, it had added the idea of bringing something to extinction such as in die out and burn out. By the sixteenth century, it had added the idea of apportioning something to everyone such as in pass out and parcel out. And by the nineteenth century, it had acquired the idea of removing the contents of something such as in clean out and rinse out (Oxford English Dictionary, 1979).

Grammatical Summary

To get an overview of the productivity of this type of combination, view the table below by Francis (1958) containing eight verbs and three short adverbs. The combining of each verb with each short adverb will yield a total of 24 new phrasal verbs. For example, the verb make yields make out, make up, and make over.

throw (out)
hold (up)
give (over)

Components of Phrasal Verbs

The number of verbs that can form phrasal verbs in English is limitless. But the number of short adverbs and prepositions that can accommodate this structure is much smaller. They include more or less the words in the two columns below, most of which serve as both adverbs and prepositions:

Short Adverbs, Prepositions

about, about
across, across
around, around
down, down
by, by
in, in
off, off
on, on
out, out
over, over
through, through
to, to
aside, at
away, for
back, from
together, of

The possible syntactic patterns that accommodate phrasal verbs are varied, but the following five are considered basic:

1. Verb adverb
2. Verb adverb object
3. Verb object adverb
4. Verb preposition object
5. Verb adverb preposition object

Verb Adverb (VA)

This is the shortest and simplest pattern, consisting of only a verb (V) and a short adverb (A). The combination is abbreviated as VA. Here are some examples:

wash up
buckle up
take off
look out
break down

Verb Adverb Object (VAO)

If you add a direct object to the previous pattern, the result is a verb-adverb-object sequence, abbreviated as VAO.

wash out the pot
blow up the bridge
tear down the building
hang up your coat
put out the fire

Verb Object Adverb (VOA)

If you move the adverb to the right side of the direct object, the result is a verb-object-adverb sequence, abbreviated as VOA.

wash the pot out
blow the bridge up
tear the building down
hang your coat up
put the fire out

Patterns VAO and VOA are often considered variants of each other with the short adverb appearing either before the direct object (VAO) or after the direct object (VOA) with no discernible difference in meaning. Observe these two phrasal verb patterns with identical meanings:

Take off your hat. Take your hat off.
Put on your shoes. Put your shoes on.
Hand in your homework. Hand your homework in.

However, there are instances when the two patterns are not interchangeable. And here are some of them:

  • If the direct object is long or stressed, people tend to use pattern VAO:

wash out the aluminum, glass-topped coffee pot.
blow up the three-mile-long suspension bridge.

  • If the direct object is a gerund (VERB-ing), people use pattern VAO:

give up smoking
keep on talking
take up dancing
put off deciding

  • If the direct object is a pronoun, people use pattern VOA almost exclusively:

wash it out. (NOT: wash out it)
blow it up.
take it off
put them on
hand it in

  • A great many phrasal verbs tend to appear consistently in only one or the other pattern. A prime example is phrasal verbs that are contained within idiomatic expressions such as the following:

let off steam (VAO)
put up a good fight (VAO)
keep your shirt on (VOA)
cry your eyes out (VOA)
blow someone's head off (VOA)

None of these expressions would sound correct if the short adverb changed places.

  • Some phrasal verbs change their meanings when the short adverb is moved. For example, when the phrasal verb keep up means "to continue" or "to maintain," it takes pattern VAO:

Keep up the good work.

But when that same phrasal verb means to keep awake, it takes pattern VOA:

He kept the neighbors up with his loud music.

Verb Preposition Object (VPO)

The verb-preposition-object sequence, abbreviated VPO, is illustrated below:

work on the project
count on your friends
run into an old flame
head for home

The VPO pattern resembles the VAO pattern superficially and therefore can sometimes cause confusion. But since a preposition serves to connect the verb to a following noun phrase object, the pattern VPO can never become VOP. Nobody would ever say, "work your project on," "count your friends on," "run an old flame into," or "head home for."

Even with a pronoun object, the preposition cannot change places. Nobody would ever say "work it on," "count them on," "run her into," or "head it for."

Verb Adverb Preposition Object (VAPO)

Abbreviated as VAPO, this category combines pattern VA with VPO as in the following examples:

keep up with the news
make off with the money
brush up on your skills
come down with a cold
come up with a plan
do away with someone

Summary of Syntactic Patterns of Phrasal Verbs

Below is a summary of the material just covered. These five syntactic patterns are the most frequent to accommodate the English phrasal verb:

Verb adverb (VA): wash up
Verb adverb object (VAO): take off your hat
Verb object adverb (VOA): take your hat off
Verb preposition object (VPO): work on a project
Verb adverb preposition object (VAPO): come up with a plan

Nobody has succeeded in finding a successful way of categorizing phrasal verbs semantically, that is, in terms of meaning. Linguists who try to categorize them disagree sharply. But for the purpose of learning and teaching them more easily, it is quite useful to posit the following three broad categories of semantic difficulty:

1. Literal
2. Semi-idiomatic
3. Idiomatic

1. Literal

In this category, the verb retains its basic concrete meaning while the short adverb or preposition maintains a literal meaning (Frazer, 1976). Such combinations are the easiest for language learners to understand and learn.

Examples with adverbs (VA, VAO, and VOA):

walk out
fall down
hang up your coat
hang your coat up
take down the picture

Examples with prepositions (VPO):

walk out the door
fall down the stairs
come into the house
stay in the car
walk across the bridge
run through the house

Examples with adverbs plus prepositions (VAPO):

jump up on the table
come out of the house
walk away from the car
get down off the ladder
climb out through the window

2. Semi-Idiomatic

In this category, the verb retains its concrete meaning, but the short adverb or preposition adds a nuance that would not be discernible from its basic meaning (Spasov, 1966). Even though the exact meaning of these phrasal verbs might not be clear, an approximate meaning might be grasped by a language learner. Examples include the following:

Examples with adverbs (VA, VAO, VOA):

write up
write down
write out

The basic notion of the three phrasal verbs above is the activity of writing, but each of the short adverbs conveys a different nuance to that activity of writing. Other examples include these below:

wash up
wash off
wash down
read over
read through
read off
hand over
hand in
hand out
dry up
dry off
dry out
pay up
pay off
pay out
drive up
drive off
drive on

Examples with prepositions (VPO):

believe in (believe that someone will succeed)
work on (work to fix, develop, or improve something)
feed on (feed oneself with)
trust in (trust that someone will do something)
exist on (exist by using a limited resource)
insist on (insist that something happen your way)

Like the short adverbs, most prepositions of this VPO category add a nuance to the meaning of the verb. Some, however, may serve merely as an empty connector between the verb and its object.

Examples with adverbs plus prepositions (VAPO):

read up on (study quickly and thoroughly by reading)
sneak up on (sneak towards)
listen in on (eavesdrop by listening)
fit in with (fit harmoniously, match, suit)
hold on to (hold for support)
move in on (move towards for the purpose of attacking)
meet up with (meet again by chance)

3. Idiomatic

These combinations are fully idiomatic. No part of the meaning of the combination is predictable from the meanings of the verb and the short adverb or the preposition.

Examples with adverbs (VA, VAO, VOA):

work out (come to a successful solution)
work out (perform physical exercise)
bring up (suggest a topic)
bring up (raise children)
carry on (continue)
carry out (perform duties)
make out (see clearly)

Examples with prepositions (VPO):

count on (depend on)
run into (meet by chance)
happen on (notice something important by chance)
come across (notice something by chance)
wait on (serve someone in a restaurant)
go by (base one's judgment on)

Examples with adverbs plus prepositions (VAPO):

do away with (kill)
put up with (tolerate)
make off with (steal something and escape)
come down with (contract a disease)
run out of (exhaust one's supply of something)
live up to (meet someone's expectations)

Summary of Semantic Categories of Phrasal Verbs

Here is a summary of the three syntactic categories:

lift up
jump off
climb down off

wash up
work on
read up on

make out
wait on
put up with

In English, there is a tendency to use phrasal verbs more in spoken and colloquial communication than in formal writing. In formal written communication, however, people often prefer to use English verbs derived from French, Latin, and Classical Greek. This is only a tendency; nevertheless, it is a salient one and it has a long history.

While the phrasal verb was evolving naturally in the English language, an event happened that caused English to evolve along two parallel paths. This event was the Norman French occupation of England.

In 1066, William the Conqueror of Normandy placed all of England under an occupation that was to last for almost a century and a half. During this time, the French language came to dominate the upper echelons of English society while the English language was allowed to languish. Then, in 1204, England became officially separated from France again and the English language was once more free to flourish.

By this time, the English language had become uncultivated. And since French was the language of the educated people at that time, it was inevitable that scholars would draw new words from the French language in order to help replenish the impoverished English language (Nist, 1966). Coincidentally, at that time many educated people also knew how to read and write Latin and Classical Greek; so they turned to these languages as well to find new words for English in order to help them keep up with new fields of learning for which there were no English words.

English became laden with foreign terms that vied with native English words to express shades of the same idea. Nuances of a word like foretell could be expressed with the Latin word predict or with the Greek word prophesy. As a result, while the native phrasal verb continued to evolve naturally in the population to express ordinary needs and topics, foreign words provided people with a scholarly and scientific vocabulary.

Even today, English continues to evolve along these two parallel paths. As a result, hundreds of native English phrasal verbs have French, Latin, or Classical Greek counterparts with almost the same meanings but with a slightly more erudite ring to them. The list below illustrates this fact.

Before the hyphen are selected English phrasal verbs; After the hyphen are nonphrasal synonyms of French, Latin, or Greek origin.

blow up - explode
bring about - cause, engender
come to - revive
put off - postpone
look up to - admire, respect, esteem
put out - extinguish
put together - assemble, compose, synthesize
look forward to - anticipate
hand in -  submit
rack up - accumulate
get around - circumvent
make up - fabricate
stand for - represent
find out - ascertain
speed up - accelerate
leave out - omit
make up - constitute
point out - indicate, designate
pull out - extract
throw up - vomit
go against - oppose

As teachers, it is important that you not only teach the meanings of phrasal verbs, but also see to it that students understand the appropriate registers for their use.

Research Findings

Brannon (1968), in an elicited language task, showed that deaf children used 35% fewer verbs, 87% fewer adverbs, and 60% fewer prepositions than hearing subjects did. Since phrasal verbs contain verbs, adverbs, and prepositions, one would expect deaf children to use fewer phrasal verbs, as well.

Kluwin (1979), in a study using elicited writing samples from deaf adolescents, found improper use of both literal and nonliteral prepositions by subjects. Since literal and nonliteral prepositions are an important component of phrasal verbs, one would expect deaf children to use them improperly in phrasal verbs, as well.

Odom and Blanton (1967) found that deaf students who learned sequences of words were not influenced by natural phrasing. For example, their deaf participants had equal difficulty in learning a sequence like "paid the tall lady," which has natural phrasing, as they had in learning a sequence where the word order was jumbled such as in "lady tall the paid." In contrast, the hearing participants remembered more easily the sequences with the natural phrasing. The implication is that deaf students would also have difficulty learning phrasal verbs, for the ability to attend to phrasing is an important requisite for learning phrasal verbs.

Research on phrasal verbs

Payne (1982, 1987), in a comprehension study with 45 hearing participants between ages 8 and 12 and 45 prelingually profoundly deaf participants between ages 10 and 19, found the phrasal verbs to be well established in the hearing participants but extremely problematic for the deaf participants.

Order of syntactic difficulty

The syntactic combination that was easiest for the deaf students to comprehend in the Payne study was the prepositional-phrase sequence (VPO):

climb out the window

The syntactic combinations of medium difficulty were VA, VAO, and VAPO:

jump down
take out the garbage
jump up on the table

The syntactic combination that was most difficult was the one with the small adverb after the noun (VOA):

turn the money down

Order of semantic difficulty

The easiest semantic category for deaf students to comprehend in the Payne study was the literal category.

walk out

The semantic categories that were significantly more difficult for deaf students to comprehend were the semi-idiomatic and idiomatic categories.

wash up (wash face and hands)
take off (fly away)

Summary of Research Findings

The order of syntactic difficulty for deaf students in the study by Payne is as follows:

VPO (easiest)
VA, VAO, VAPO (of medium difficulty)
VOA (most difficult)

The order of semantic difficulty for deaf subjects in the study by Payne is as follows

Literal (easier)
Semi-idiomatic and idiomatic (more difficult)

Guided Practice

Action Steps

1. The most powerful action step of all is that of being aware that phrasal verbs are everywhere, knowing that students may not understand them, and having the knowledge to intervene if it is appropriate.

2. When you prepare reading assignments for your deaf students, check carefully for the presence of phrasal verbs. Point them out and make sure that students understand them. Do not assume that your students will understand a phrasal verb just because it seems literal to you. The meaning may not be as obvious to your students. For example, the phrasal verb take out in the context of take out the garbage may be perfectly clear to you, while a language learner may see the short adverb out as a preposition and think that something is supposed to come out of the garbage.

3. If you use contact sign language (simultaneous communication) for conversing with deaf students, try to sign phrasal verbs conceptually so that students will see the real meaning and understand your communication. For example, when saying the phrasal verb put up with, use the sign for tolerate.

4. If you prefer to sign the individual components of phrasal verbs, make sure that your deaf students understand the concepts behind them.

5. Always present and discuss phrasal verbs in a context, because any combination may well have several meanings ranging from literal to figurative to idiomatic. It is mostly through context that the meaning will become clear. Compare the following examples and notice how context affects their meanings:

look into the mirror, look into the problem
wait on the corner, wait on the customer
live on the third floor, live on rice and beans
settle on the land, settle on a fair price
run into a house, run into a friend
turn into the wind, turn into a pumpkin
hold up your hand, hold up a bank

6. With some language learners, it is helpful to present semi-idiomatic phrasal verbs in sets where the short adverb or the preposition adds the same general nuance across several verbs. In this way, learners have an opportunity to make inductive generalizations (Side, 1990). Some examples from the Oxford English Dictionary (1979) appear below:

In this set of phrasal verbs, the short adverb up suggests confinement into a smaller spacethrough the action of the verb:

roll up
gather up
snuggle up
fold up
shrivel up
round up
crumple up
tie up
lock up
dam up
bottle up
bundle up
wrap up
huddle up
cuddle up

In this set of phrasal verbs, the short adverb up suggests the division of something into pieces through the action of the verb:

break up
tear up
slash up
smash up
cut up
rip up
divide up
split up
grind up
chew up
chop up
slice up
crumble up

In this set, the short adverb up suggests the raising of something off the floor through the action of the verb:

pick up
sweep up
scoop up
mop up
lift up
vacuum up
wipe up

In the following set, the short adverb over conveys a meaning of moving forward and down through the action of the verb:

push over
fall over
tip over
knock over
roll over
lean ove
bend over
double over
topple over

For a thorough, clear, and well-organized treatment of phrasal verbs of this kind, see Britten and Dellar (1989).

7. Since a significant number of phrasal verbs have a decidedly colloquial ring, it is important that you watch students' writing carefully to make sure that they are using them appropriately. Do not hesitate to suggest more formal single-word synonyms for more formal styles of writing.

8. For your own personal preparation, it is a good idea to purchase one or two specialized dictionaries of phrasal verbs, because meanings of phrasal verbs are often elusive and difficult to articulate. There are several on the market, for example, NTC's (1999). Most dictionaries of phrasal verbs are well-written, offering clear definitions at the literal, figurative, and idiomatic levels.

9. There are self-instructional workbooks on the market for the study of phrasal verbs (Hook, 1981; Hart, 1999; Side, 1990). Use them as resource material in the preparation of lessons, for they offer ideas for categorizing and presenting phrasal verbs to learners.

10. Several journal articles are available in which teachers share their experiences and offer suggestions on how to address phrasal verbs in an academic setting. Among them are two excellent articles, one by Arnold (1990) and another by Cornell (1985).