5 Phrasal verbs to impress your teachers

KUO CHUN HUNG/iStock/Getty
KUO CHUN HUNG/iStock/Getty

Many of my students worry about phrasal verbs, and I have written several posts about them, including a basic introduction to the what they are and how they are used and a more recent post on phrasal verbs for everyday actions.

One of the most common complaints is that there are simply so many of them, and that they are difficult to remember, especially when the main verb is a very common one such as take or set. In this post, therefore, I have selected just 5 phrasal verbs. All of them are extremely common, and all of them can be used in a wide variety of contexts. If you learn just these 5, you will be able to use them in your writing and impress your teachers.

The first phrasal verb I would urge you to learn is carry out. This is extremely common in British English, and is just a more formal way of saying ‘do’. We use it particularly when talking about things like work and experiments, or things we have been told to do:

Scientists are carrying out tests on the materials.

We carried out all their instructions.

It is very unusual to separate this phrasal verb, except (as is the general rule) when the object is a pronoun:

I hired them to do some work and paid them when they had carried it out.

My second useful phrasal verb is point out. This has two useful and related meanings – first, to make a person notice something:

As we travelled around the city, our guide pointed out some interesting buildings.

And second, it means to tell someone a fact, especially in order to support your argument:

I pointed out the advantages of the system.

Note that we often use that with this meaning:

He pointed out that the office was closed on Fridays.

Thirdly, I offer set up. This phrasal verb means to start a company or an organization:

She set up a support group for single parents.

The firm was set up by an American entrepreneur.

My fourth useful phrasal verb is sort out, meaning to deal successfully with a problem or a difficult situation or to arrange or organize things that are untidy or not in the correct order:

The heating’s not working, but someone’s coming to sort it out soon.

The papers in his office were in such a mess, they took weeks to sort out.

And finally, the fifth phrasal verb I recommend you learn is put off. This verb has two particularly useful meanings – first, to decide to do something at a later date:

I need to see a dentist, but I keep putting it off.

The second meaning is to make someone dislike something or someone or to make them not want to do something:

I’d love to go skiing, but the cost puts me off.

I was put off chicken by reading about how the birds are kept.

Note that if this phrasal verb is followed by another verb, the second verb needs to have an -ing form:

She put off applying for the job until it was too late.

These experiences put me off going into politics.

This is a rather random selection, but you have to start somewhere, and these are all verbs I think you will be glad to know. Any other suggestions for particularly useful phrasal verbs are welcome!

65 thoughts on “5 Phrasal verbs to impress your teachers

  1. hi

    i think i have already posted about the PHaVE dictionary which lists the 150 most common phrasal verbs in American English along with their most common meanings; but i will ask your indulgence and post again : )

    according to the PHaVE list “point out” is the only one in the top 10; and further it collapses your two meanings for that verb onto one


    1. Liz Walter

      That’s interesting, thanks! Do you know where they got the frequency data from? I’m not claiming to be listing the most frequent phrasal verbs, just ones that I think students would be likely to find useful in many situations. I think that most learners of English would find the explanations given in the Cambridge dictionary easier to follow that the ones on your link – or they could use both!

      1. Hi data is from COCA. Yes I agree mainstream dictionaries would be good for explanations. PHaVE can be seen as a starter list. In absence of good reasons to use particular verbs frequency is a useful proxy.

    1. Liz Walter

      Hi Zeron – remember that when you use a pronoun (in this case ‘them’) with a phrasal verb, the pronoun *always* goes between the verb and the particle: ‘… we put them off …’ . You do not need a hyphen (-) with a phrasal verb, although nouns formed from phrasal verbs (e.g. pay-off, set-up) sometimes have them.

      1. wildchocolate99

        i want to learn english ,im not really good with phrasal verbs, can sb tell me a website where to learn them

      2. Hi Liz, very good answer; except that in this particular case we would also frame the hyphenated phrase
        (minus the hyphens) with single quotation marks (apostrophes) in American English, or regular quotation marks in British. This is to show the intent of the writer, who wants to highlight which phrases or phrasal verbs are under discussion.

  2. Ansauro

    Hi Liz,
    Thank you very much for your clear-cut examples on the use of the five phrasal verbs of your choice.
    I wonder whether you would devote some of your pages to -in my humbled opinion- the paramount difficulty of the English language to non-native speakers: idioms. These are used on a daily basis for all of you, but advanced students of your language often struggle with these eccentric modes of expression as they have no obvious connection within the context of an otherwise perfectly innocuous conversation. As an example thereof, I would only like to mention some of them: shaggy-dog story, take umbrage, red herring, white elephant, and so forth.

    1. Liz Walter

      Hi Ansauro: there are several blogs about idioms on this site – if you scroll through some of my older entries, you will find some, but my colleague Kate Woodford has written more about idioms, so do take a look at hers – you will find a link to her blogs on the right-hand side of the page.

  3. Tatiana Balandina

    Thank you Liz! You can always make difficult things much easier. What about “carry out”? I’m looking forward to your new articles.

  4. ufuk

    thanks Liza
    thanks to your blog I can learn english much easier. I hope you will keep writing because I’ll keep reading your blog.

  5. Lead Pencil

    thanks for this comman list of 5. however, I have a confusion: why is it ‘I was put off chicken…..’ and not ‘I put off chicken…..’

    May I know what difference ‘was’ creates here. because if I write, I will not add was. I am an English language student. therefore, I would like to learn more from any source.

    1. Liz Walter

      This is a passive sentence. The object of put off is the person. In an active sentence, we could say: ‘Reading about how chickens are kept put me off eating them.’ In other words, the thing that causes you to dislike something has to be the subject of the sentence.

      1. Lead Pencil

        thanks for your reply. You mentioned: the thing that causes you to dislike something has to be the subject. is this a rule? i mean everytime we have to follow it with this phrasal verb when used in this meaning.

  6. Binu

    Hi I’m very happy to learn this lessons.. I would like to know your email address if you don’t mind madam.. Because I have to ask some questions about the lesson. .

  7. Shraddha

    Hi Liz, thanks for an amazing article!
    It’s a very interesting topic..
    What about ‘carry on’
    Is ‘grow up’ also a phrasal verb?

  8. Hadeel Hammam

    I was put off chicken by reading about how the birds are kept. I cannot see the point of this sentence grammatically i mean is it in passive voice or put off is a noun or a adjective? Yes, now I got it. it is passive voice clear there is (by) thank you LIZ I am interested in reading all your posts.

    1. Your Explanation

      A: “Did you read the article on hormones they feed to chicken?”
      B: “Yes. The article has completely put me off chicken. I am not putting poultry into my mouth never ever again!”
      A: “I’m still undecided. I love chickenburger so much, you know.”

  9. Raya

    Hi Liz,

    Brilliant post, thank you so much!

    I was just wondering, is there a significant difference between the meaning of “sort” and “sort out” ? I notice people are often using “we will get it sorted” or “Let me know and I will sort” in emails, but rarely “sort out” ?

    I live in the Northwest – maybe it’s a regional thing?

    1. Liz Walter

      Almost! When I was told he *was* a drunkard …. (have a look at my previous post on reported speech) The phrasal verb part is perfect though!

  10. Milad


    Some kind of phrasal verb has to different meaning in English and American, such as SORT OUT SOMETHING in American and SORT STH OUT in English or PUT UP SOMETHING in American and PUT UP STH in English, how can I use them and how distinguish American from English?

    1. Hi Milad

      Thank you for your question. You’re right that these phrasal verbs can follow two different patterns, for example you can say “put up your hand” or “put your hand up”. However, this is more a personal choice than a difference between British and American English. The way our phrasal verbs appear in our British and American dictionaries is different. This is something we are working to improve.

      I hope this answers your question.

      Best wishes

  11. I speak, read, and write English (US) as a native language, but I read your posts with fascination and find I can use many of your suggestions to improve my own writing. One question: in my reading, I see the word “that” being used frequently in places I do not feel it necessary. For example in the sentence above: I did not say ‘in places that I do not feel…” Am I in error in avoiding it as a needless word?

    1. Hi Will

      Thanks for your comment. Great to know you find our blog useful. In answer to your question: No, it’s not incorrect to omit the word “that”. It is more informal, so if you are writing an essay, it would be better to use “that”. You can find more information and examples here: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/pronouns/relative-pronouns Scroll down to the heading “No relative pronoun”.

      Best wishes

  12. Manar

    Thanks alot for this post but I can’t really get the grammar here in this sentence
    “The papers in his office were in such a mess, they took weeks to sort out.”

    *They took weeks to sort out* here
    Why wasn’t the passive used instead? It seems to me like as if the papers are the subject and they are the ones who sorted themselves.

    1. Liz Walter

      No, perhaps it’s easier to think of it as ‘the papers took weeks to sort out’. It’s just the same as e.g. He took a long time to reply to me.’

  13. Thanks so much for your useful post, Liz. I think this sentence “This a rather random selection, but you have to start somewhere, and these are all verbs I think you will be glad to know,” lacks the verb “is” after “this.” Please check it. 🙂

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