An introduction to phrasal verbs

by Liz Walter
All students of English need to learn phrasal verbs! A phrasal verb is a verb and a particle (e.g. up, off, over) used together. Phrasal verbs may seem difficult, but you probably know some already:

I wake up at 7 o’clock.

He puts on his coat.

Sit down, please.


It is often impossible to guess the meaning of a phrasal verb from the meaning of the verb. For example, if you give up smoking, you stop smoking, and if you carry on doing something, you continue to do it. You have to learn the meaning of these phrasal verbs in just the same way as you do with a single verb.


It can also be difficult to know when you can separate the parts of a phrasal verb and when you can’t. A good learner’s dictionary such as the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary can help you a lot with this. It uses sth (something) and sb (somebody) to show you where the object can go.

If sth/sb comes after the verb and the particle, the phrasal verb cannot be separated, for example look at sth:

She looked at the picture.

In this case, ‘the picture’ must come after the phrasal verb.

However, if sth/sb comes between the verb and the particle, the phrasal verb can be separated or kept together, for example put sth on:

She put her coat on.

She put on her coat.


One important thing to remember is that if you use a pronoun (e.g. it, them, her) with a phrasal verb that you can separate, you must put it between the verb and the particle:

She put it on.

The teacher told us off.


Some phrasal verbs have two particles. With these, the object always comes after the particles:

I won’t put up with this behaviour.

Are you going out with Suzie?


Phrasal verbs are used a lot in English! It is not true that they are all informal, and if you try to avoid them, you will probably use words that are too formal, and you will lose marks in your exams. For example, it is much more natural to say leave out than omit, put up with than tolerate, tell off than rebuke and join in than participate.


Phrasal verbs aren’t as difficult as you may think, so don’t give up, but keep on trying to learn them. When you see them, note them down, and if you need more help, look them up in your dictionary!

19 thoughts on “An introduction to phrasal verbs

  1. Marilyn Pietersz

    Should’nt it be: She puts (with s) her coat on or She puts on her coat? Or am I mistaken and you do not put an s in phrasal verbs constructions? Please let me know.

  2. Liz Walter

    Ah Marilyn, I’m sorry if this was confusing – what I wrote was a past tense, but of course you can’t tell that from the context! You’re right that in the present tense, you have to say ‘She puts her coat on’.

    1. Marilyn Pietersz

      Dear Liz,

      Thank you for the reaction. Much obliged. It’s completely clear, now. Let me say that I enjoy these writings a lot. It helps to improve my English, as I’m not a native speaker.

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