Common mistakes with phrasal verbs

by Liz Walter

Dave and Les Jacobs/Blend Images/Getty
Dave and Les Jacobs/Blend Images/Getty

Phrasal verbs are never easy, but this post will explain some very common mistakes and show you how to avoid making them.

One thing that often causes problems is using another verb after a phrasal verb. Just as with one-word verbs, you need to know the pattern of the verb that follows. Probably the most common mistakes are with phrasal verbs that need an -ing verb after them:

I’m looking forward to seeing you soon.

I’m looking forward to see you soon.

Look forward to is a common and useful phrasal verb, so it is important to remember to use an -ing verb after it. My theory is that it’s because the verb itself is so often used in the present continuous (-ing form) that students often can’t quite believe you need another -ing form after it – but you do!

Another very common group of multi-word verbs that must be followed by -ing forms are ones that mean ‘continue’, for example carry on, keep on, and go on.

I asked them to be quiet, but they carried on talking.

I asked them to be quiet, but they carried on to talk.

Back in 2015, I wrote a post on 3-word phrasal verbs. Verbs that follow them always need -ing forms:

The flowers are to make up for missing her birthday.

We couldn’t talk her out of quitting her job.

Although most mistakes come from forgetting to use an -ing verb, some phrasal verbs must be followed by a to-infinitive:

The man turned out to be a doctor.

The man turned out being a doctor.

We didn’t set out to win any prizes.

We didn’t set out winning any prizes.

A good learner’s dictionary such as the one on this site will give you information about verb patterns, often with an example, so if you are in doubt, look at the relevant entry.

The other extremely common mistake with phrasal verbs is the position of pronouns (words like him, it, us).

The rule here is very simple: if you use a pronoun as the object of a phrasal verb, it must always come between the verb and the particle:

We collected the books and put them away.

We collected the books and put away them.

I love jogging. I took it up last year.

I love jogging. I took up it last year.

If you look at my previous posts, you’ll find several more about phrasal verbs. Do let me know if there’s anything in particular you still want to know about them!

34 thoughts on “Common mistakes with phrasal verbs

  1. Pingback: Common mistakes with phrasal verbs – Cambridge Dictionary About words blog (Oct 26, 2016) | Editorial Words

    1. Liz Walter

      Here is the definition from the dictionary on this site: a phrase that consists of a verb with a preposition or adverb or both, the meaning of which is different from the meaning of its separate parts:
      “Pay for”, “work out”, and “make up for” are all phrasal verbs.

      I have written lots of posts about phrasal verbs: have a look at previous posts if you’re interested.

  2. Pingback: Common mistakes with phrasal verbs | Editorials Today

  3. Hadeel Hammam

    Hi Liz
    I am happy to read your interesting post today as it stirs my enthusiasm to learn more and study hard to be ready for TKT Cambridge Exam in my city after a couple of days. Make me happier and provide me with some advice, please, for getting the best mark.

  4. Andrei Aleinikov

    I’m a bit confused with “you’ll find several more about phrasal verbs”. Is it correct to use ‘several’ in such a way? If yes, please kindly explain. Thank you in advance.

  5. Shraddha

    Thanks, Liz!
    I have a query regarding pronouns.
    We made a document saying about invitee.
    Sentence is “We will take care of invitee and his personal conduct”
    If the invitee is female, do I need to change his to her?
    In the document, we have mentioned her name.

    Thank you in advance!

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, if you are inviting one female, you should write ‘her’. And you need to put ‘the’ before ‘invitee’. It’s a bit old-fashioned to use ‘he’ to mean all people these days. So if you were inviting several people, men and women, it would be better to write ‘We will take care of the invitees and their personal conduct.’

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