Phrasal verbs with more than one meaning

by Liz Walter

Michael Sutton/EyeEm/Getty

Phrasal verbs are often difficult to learn because they tend to be formed from fairly common verbs and particles. To make matters worse, many of them have more than one meaning, and some have many, many meanings – pick up has 24 senses in the Cambridge Phrasal Verbs Dictionary!

Look at these sentences with go out, for example:

Did you go out last night? (leave your home for a social activity)

The fire’s gone out. (stopped burning)

The tide will go out at around 6 today. (go away from the shore)

However, the situation isn’t quite as bad as it may seem at first glance. For a start, many senses that look different are in fact connected in a figurative or metaphorical way. For instance, although these senses of break down would be treated as separate meanings in most dictionaries, we can see that they are all connected with the idea of a thing or a person not functioning correctly:

My car broke down. (stopped moving)

Talks between the two groups broke down. (ended in failure)

She broke down when we told her the news. (started crying and couldn’t control her emotions)

Secondly, different meanings often have a different syntax, by which I mean they are connected in different ways to the words around them. For example, there are several common phrasal verbs that have different meanings depending on whether they are transitive (have an object) or intransitive (do not have an object). Look at the following pairs:

You can look up the words in your dictionary. (transitive: find information in a book or on a computer)

We’ve had a hard time, but things are looking up now. (intransitive: improving)

He took off his coat. (transitive: removed it)

The plane took off. (intransitive: left the ground)

Another thing that often helps to distinguish different meanings of a phrasal verb is the type of object it takes, especially whether the object is a thing or a person, as in these pairs of meanings:

She brought up her children alone. (looked after them until they were adults)

Rex brought up the subject of finance. (mentioned it)

We had to put the meeting off until the following week. (arrange something for a later time)

I was going to go running, but the bad weather put me off. (made me not want to go)

And what about monster phrasal verbs like pick up? Well, some of those 24 senses are very rare, and while you may want to look them up if you come across them in a text, you probably won’t miss them if they’re not in your active vocabulary. However, the following two meanings are very common, so I recommend that you start with them:

I asked Dad to pick me up from the station. (collect me in his car)

He picked up the gun. (lifted it in his hand)




31 thoughts on “Phrasal verbs with more than one meaning

  1. Galia

    Dear Liz,

    I don’t even know how to thank you for such great job you do
    How much my students and I appreciate it.
    Great job and we cannot get enough of it !!!!

  2. Dear Liz, thank you very much indeed for your informative & well-written posts, which I tremendously enjoy reading. What I especially like is how you explain complex issues in a very simple & comprehensible way (and I must admit that your posts often inspire me in my own work as a teacher). Many, many thanks & well done! Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

  3. Pingback: Phrasal verbs with more than one meaning – Cambridge Dictionary About words blog (Mar 15, 2017) | Editorial Words

  4. Piergiorgio FUOCHI

    I would like to thank Ms. Walter for the very useful information regarding he different meaning of some phrasal verbs. I am Italian and I lived for three years in Canada when I was a post-doc at the University of Alberta. There I improved my school English and that helped me a lot in my work as a researcher at the National Research Council of Italy, but now that I retired from work I don’t have many possibilities to keep my English up-to-date. Thank you again.
    Piergiorgio Fuochi

    1. Liz Walter

      Succeed in is more common, so I would use that, and remember that you need an -ing verb afterwards: We succeeded in finding the money. If you use succeed at, you’d be more likely to use a noun afterwards: He succeeded at business.

  5. Pingback: Phrasal verbs with more than one meaning | Editorials Today

  6. Enzee

    Thank you so much. I’d love to see something on word order, please. I believe WO is challenging in the EFL context, and my students would benefit from your simple explanations. Once again, thank you.

  7. Tatiana Balandina

    Thank you, Liz! I really enjoy reading your posts. Will you go on writing about phrasal verbs? I always look forward to reading your new articles.

  8. k

    Pick up means albo, by my recalling, trying to turn girl’s attention on you. Its even more common than these two you mentioned 😊

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  10. c.sugumar

    unlike maths, all languages are full of ecentrics.English is no exception. Such information helps me to learn correct English.Thanks.

  11. Judith

    It is indeed hard to learn! Your article is great, thank you for that! Can you tell me a way to avoid making these mistakes while writing? I am having huge problem with it 🙁

  12. kh

    It is difficult to memorize all this but in the end it is a language like any other we must work hard to get there .. thank you very much for what you do

  13. Tesoura Júlio Tuboi

    Wonderful. I want to thank for your briliant lessons. It has helped me so much to improve my grammer.

  14. sal

    im picking up what you are putting down

    Heard that slang before?

    Im sure you can guess the meaning, but if not, it essentially means I understood the meaning of what you said

  15. Sam Collins

    Can any one help me, please?
    Is it possible to use the same phrasal verb twice in a sentence, and each time, that phrasal verb has a different meaning?
    e.g. I was blowing up a balloon, but I put too much air inside and finally, it blew up!
    blowing up = inflate, blew up = it exploded!

    1. Liz Walter

      In theory that’s possible, yes! Though in this particular case, we don’t usually talk about balloons ‘blowing up’ – we normally say that they ‘explode’ or more informally ‘pop’.

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