This week I have been looking at one of the trickiest vocabulary topics in my Adult English classes – phrasal verbs. These are incredibly common in modern English, and aren’t really something that learners can memorise by heart. What you can do however is look out for them whenever you read, whether this is fiction, newspaper articles or even in everyday speech, and make a note of how they function! Trust me, they really are everywhere.

Phrasal verbs are essentially just a verb and a particle (or sometimes two particles). The meaning of many of them is often quite intuitive, for example “she picked up the glass”. However compare this with an alternative meaning of the very same phrase – “she picked up English very easily during her lessons”. Not quite so obvious this time!? But help is at hand, there are four broad categories that these phrasal verbs (sometimes termed multi-word verbs) fit into. They are as follows….

1. Separable

In our normal S-V-O (Subject – Verb – Object) sentences, something like the following works very well:

She cut down the oak tree.

But compare it with the next sentence:

She cut the oak tree down.

These particular phrasal verbs are called separable, because, you guessed it…. You can separate them without changing the meaning. To see whether phrase fits into this category, you can either look it up in a dictionary or practice separating it yourself. If it just sounds odd with an object in the middle, chances are it might fit better in our next category….

2. Non-Separable

I’m sure you can guess how these phrasal verbs behave. For example:

Can you look after my bag whilst I pop out?

Absolutely no worries!

But can you look my bag after? Eurgh…. it just sounds peculiar.

So there you go, you now have your first two categories: Separable and Non-Separable.


N.B. Picky Pronouns

If you are using pronouns with separable phrasal verbs (i.e. words like he, she, it, they….), these must come in the middle of the phrase.

For instance: She cut it down is a perfectly acceptable way to refer to the oak tree.

But: She cut down it? Not quite so rosy.

If it’s a non-separable phrasal verb, no problem. The pronoun would come after the verb, just like your usual sentences.

Can you look after her? Yes, no problem!

Now that we’ve tackled our first two types, the second pair are much easier to get your head around.


3. Two Particles

As the grammar-guide’s inventive naming continues… this type of phrasal verb is so called, because… drumroll… it has two particles instead of one. These are easy to spot.

I’m not going to put up with your behaviour any longer.

When did you come up with these ridiculous grammar rules?

I don’t know… but bear with me for just one last grouping….

4. Intransitive

The second I say this word, English learners tend to assume its something super complicated. But it really isn’t. An intransitive verb is simply one that doesn’t have an object. Take a look at the following phrases:

Will you get up?

Will you wake up?

The plane is taking off….

You can’t get up something. You just get up!


A final word of caution – there are some phrasal verbs such as wake up, which depending on how you’re using them can fit into more than one category. For example:

When do you wake up? – Intransitive

Can you wake up the dog?

Can you wake the dog up? – Separable

Whilst the meaning of wake-up stays the same across all these examples, there are some phrasal verbs such as give in which can be used in different senses too:

I give in – Intransitive

I will never give in to your demands – Non-separable (i.e. surrender)

I will give my homework in – Separable (i.e. hand-in, not to be confused with hand-out!)


As ever with English, so much of grammar depends on your meaning and the stresses you with to place in your sentence. This is why its so important to be aware of these rules, when you can break them, and when you can’t! The only way to do this is by practicing speaking, listening and reading. The more the better. Good luck.

For an extensive list of phrasal verbs, check out Ginger’s Grammar. Please do feel free to comment with your own experiences of learning English and getting to grips this tricky topic. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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