Phrasal Verbs

Learn why “listen up” is different from “listen.”

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #114

Listen up, everyone! Today’s topic is phrasal verbs, as in to listen up.

A listener, Paulino from Minneapolis, would like to know what phrasal verbs are and why they are called that.

Phrasal verbs always seemed to stump my students when I taught English as a second language in Tokyo, Japan. Even those of you who are native speakers might not know what a phrasal verb is, but you probably use one at least every hour. Let’s go over them, then (hint, hint!).

What Is a Phrasal Verb?

A phrasal verb is a verb that comprises more than one word, often a verb and a preposition, such as to back off or to hold up (1). Some other common ones are to give up, to break down, and to run out of. I imagine phrasal verbs are called that because the two (or sometimes three) components make up a phrase, and this set of words acts as a single verb unit. Phrasal verbs are often considered idioms or components of idioms (2). As with idioms like to kick the bucket, which is an impolite way of saying to die, the meaning of phrasal verbs doesn’t always make sense from the words used in the phrase.

This is definitely a challenge for students of English. For example, one meaning of the phrasal verb to hold up is to assault someone with a weapon in order to steal money or valuables. It has nothing to do with the verb to hold. Some phrasal verbs have multiple meanings, so that makes it even more difficult for language students. Another meaning of to hold up is to manage, as in “How are you holding up?” The sad news for English learners is that you have to just memorize phrasal verbs and their meanings, in the same way that French or Spanish learners have to memorize verb conjugations. And I’m sorry to say that there are thousands of phrasalverbphrasal verbs.

Splitting Phrasal Verbs

Not only do you have to memorize the meanings of phrasal verbs, but you also have to remember if you’re allowed to split the verb from the preposition. For example, if you use the phrasal verb to hold up, you could say, “The crook held up the bank” or you could say, “The crook held the bank up.”

But you can’t split up other phrasal verbs. For example, you have to say, “We ran out of napkins.” You couldn’t say, “We ran napkins out of.”

Formal Versus Informal

One listener wonders about all the cooks on TV, who use "up" after "fry." Is "fry up" a proper phrase? That's a good question. To fry and to fry up mean about the same thing, just as to eat means about the same thing as to eat up. In these cases, if you add an up, it makes your sentence more colloquial, more informal. I suppose the cooks on TV are being conversational and friendly when they advise you “to fry up a few jalapeños.” If they were writing a formal cookbook, though, I imagine they'd stick with to fry: “Take three jalapeños and fry them lightly.”

You, too, should use your judgment. For example, if you were writing a dissertation on Henry VIII, you might not want to write, “The king hung out with all the nobles.” It would probably be better to write, “The king associated with all the nobles.” If there’s a doubt, use more formal language.

Phrasal Verbs at the End of a Sentence

Some of you might be wondering what to do with a phrasal verb when it ends a sentence. Perhaps you were taught that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. That isn't always true, but even if it were, phrasal verbs are a unit, so if you end a sentence with a phrasal verb, you’re not ending it with a preposition; you’re ending it with a phrasal verb. For example, “Let’s kiss and make up” ends with the phrasal verb to make up, as in to reconcile. The sentence would not make sense if you deleted the up just to make a nosy grammarian happy: “Let’s kiss and make.” That clearly doesn't work.

When Phrasal Verbs Become Nouns and Adjectives

Although phrasal verbs are made of two or three separate words when you use them as verbs, you squish them together as a closed compound or use a hyphen when you turn them into nouns or adjectives. For example, you can “break down” (two words) or have a “breakdown” (one word). Or you can “tune up” your car (two words) or get your car a “tune-up” (hyphenated, tune-hyphen-up). Unfortunately, there are no firm rules and you'll have to check a dictionary to see whether you make a closed compound or hyphenate.

For all you non-native speakers who are listening, I know that phrasal verbs are frustrating. Lucia comments: “I hate phrasal verbs, they are ... too hard to remember ... and then you can misuse them and put yourself into really embarrassing situations. Could you give me some advice ... on these English mutant monsters?” Lucia, I’m sorry you see these as monsters. When I was an ESL teacher, I remember trying to explain the meaning of to clean, to clean up, to clean off, and to clean up after. There’s a subtle difference in the meaning of each. Eventually I decided to write a guide to 120 of the most common phrasal verbs. Since I saw myself as a humorous, off-the-wall teacher, I called it Off-the-Wall Skits with Phrasal Verbs.

It’s a real achievement when English learners can master common phrasal verbs and sound like a native. Lucia was right, though; you can put your foot in your mouth if you make a small mistake with a phrasal verb, so be careful. As for you native speakers listening, just remember that there are no hyphens in phrasal verbs when you use them as verbs. Check your dictionary when you use adjectives or nouns that are derived from them.


Thanks to Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, for writing this episode. She blogs at http://sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.

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That's all. Thanks for listening.


1. Garner, B. Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 608.

2. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O29-PHRASALVERB.html. Accessed June 18, 2008.

About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.