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!

47 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. Muhammad Baba

    Thanks! I really find it very educative and i’m free of any confusion with regard to phresal verb. Kudos to you, sir!

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

  4. 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.

    1. Bento

      Yes, that ‘s why we have formal phrasal verbs and informal phrasal verbs. You use the formal phrasal verbs in formal writing and the informal ones in informal forum or colloquial contexts.

  5. 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.

    1. Liz Walter

      If you would like to know more about phrasal verbs, browse through previous posts – there are lots on this subject.

  6. 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.’

  7. Bento

    Good explanation, I could learn a bit more about the phrasal verbs. However I have got a few questions related to the issue.
    Firstly, Do english teachers and other experts in linguistics understand The meaning of all phrasal verbs?
    secondly , is there any way to understand the phrasal verb without looking up the meaning in a dictionary or elsewhere?
    Thanks in advance and l look forward to hearing from you soon.

    1. Liz Walter

      Well people who have English as a first language don’t even know what phrasal verbs are! They just learn them in the same way as they learn other verbs and don’t even think about it. So yes, English teachers with a native standard of English will know them (perhaps apart from some that are very new or very specialised). The more phrasal verbs you learn, the more you will learn some patterns of particle meanings, and that may help you guess meanings, but on the whole you have to look them up.

      1. bento

        Thank you very much for the explanation, I am very much satisfied with the response. however, another question cropped up as I was reading your brilliant explanation.
        you said that native speakers” learn them in the same way as they learn other verbs and don’t even think about it” does this method make it easier to learn them or what? on the other hand,would you kindly explain how do phrasal verbs come to the existance, who build them up ? I am making this questions they may seem to be childish but it is because phrasal verbs are very tricky. Most of times the meaning have nothing to do with the combination itself.( my perception)
        Many thanks in advance and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

  8. Tania Aguiar

    Hi Liz! My name is Tania and I’m an English teacher in Brazil.
    This is the first time I’ve read your posts through. They’re indeed very useful.
    Actually, I’ve realised that the more you explain phrasal verbs, the more confused students may get. Therefore, I try to take a very simple approach to them. I first explain what Phrasal Verbs are about and, believe me, my explanation is very much the same as yours. Secondly, I help them come up with some phrasal they may have heard in songs and, finally, I go through the separable/inseparable ones, as well as the position of pronouns.
    Thank you.

  9. bento

    And my Question to Tânia guiar is:
    After this strategy, do students apply the same phrasal verbs correctly in different contexts?

  10. john

    it is not enough for my project… project for english grammer is to
    TO GIVE an historical account on correct usage of phrasal verbs and humour in the errors that creep
    into its usage.

  11. Yvetita

    Dear Liz.
    Could you tell me the difference between phrasal verbs and idioms? Do idioms include phrasal verbs?

    1. Liz Walter

      Good question. A phrasal verb always has a verb plus a preposition/adverb, e.g. give up, come across. We can say that many of them are idiomatic, in the sense that their meaning is often not the literal meaning of their words. However, we don’t usually refer to even very idiomatic phrasal verbs as idioms. We use that word for other non-literal phrases, e.g. over the moon, a piece of cake.

  12. Pingback: Is there any difference between “How are you holding up” and “How are you doing” or are they the same? (grammatically correct) – All The Differences

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