Everyday Grammar: Our Top 10 Separable Phrasal Verbs

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Welcome back to Everyday Grammar from VOA Learning English.

Today we return to a very common verb form in English – phrasal verbs. You will find one phrasal verb in every 192 words of written English. They will make your English sound more natural once you begin using them correctly. In an earlier program, we explained how and why English speakers use them.

Today we look at some often-used phrasal verbs. This type of phrasal verb allows a direct object to come between the verb and the preposition or adverb. As you will hear, there is a special rule that learners should know about when using these 10 phrasal verbs.

The structure of phrasal verbs

As you know, a phrasal verb is a phrase with two or more words: a verb and a preposition or adverb or both. We call the preposition or adverb a particle when it combines with a verb. Here are two examples:

"Please put the lamp on the desk."

"I think you're putting me on."

In the first sentence, on is a preposition showing the position of the lamp. In the second sentence, on is an adverbial particle. Put on is a phrasal verb meaning "fool" or "trick" in this sentence.

An important point is that a regular verb+preposition combination has two meanings. A phrasal verb, that is, a verb+particle, has a single meaning within a sentence. Many phrasal verbs have a number of different meanings in different situations. Yet the meaning of the verb+particle can usually be expressed with a single Latin-based verb.

Here are two sentences with the same meaning:

"They tore down the old building."

"They demolished the old building."

The verb tear has its own meaning, and so does the preposition down. They can combine with other words when they are alone. But as a phrasal verb, tear down, they have one meaning: "destroy."

In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan visited West Germany. He told a crowd in the divided city of Berlin, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Separable phrasal verbs

Now for the tricky part. You know that some verbs are transitive, which means they have a direct object. When such verbs appear as phrasal verbs, an object can either separate the phrase or follow it. Here’s an example.

"I decided to throw out my old jeans."

"I decided to throw my old jeans out."

Both of these sentences are correct. The object of the phrasal verb throw out is jeans. You can use a pronoun instead of jeans and ask,

"Are you sure you want to throw them out?"

However, you cannot ask, "Are you sure you want to throw out them?" Here, the pronoun them must appear between the verb and the particle.

Finding the frequent phrasal verbs

In recent years, language experts began to use computers to examine a large collection, or corpus, of written and spoken language. When researchers look for phrasal verbs, they find that many deal with an activity. They also find a few verbs combine with many particles. Among the most common verbs are come, put, get, go, pick, sit and take. These combine with the adverb particles up, out, in, on, off, and down to make up a group of very useful phrasal verbs.

Now, let’s look at transitive phrasal verbs. See the list at the end of the article. The verb get is part of many phrasal verbs. For example, we use get up to mean "to wake oneself up" or "to awaken someone." For example:

"My son loves to sleep late. I got him up on time to catch the bus this morning."

Remember, the pronoun has to come between the verb and the adverb, so we cannot say, "I got up him."

Notice how the Norwegian group A-ha uses a separable phrasal verb two ways in their song, "Take On Me." Which one is correct in formal grammar?

I'll be coming for your love, OK?
Take on me, (take on me)
Take me on, (take on me)
I'll be gone
In a day or two

Remember, singers and poets have the right to use language as they please.

For Learning English Everyday Grammar, I’m Jill Robbins. And I’m John Russell.

Now it’s your turn. Write a sentence that uses a separable phrasal verb and we will give you feedback in the Comments Section.

Dr. Jill Robbins and Adam Brock wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

transitive - grammar, of a verb. having or taking a direct object

adverbgrammar. a word that describes a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a sentence and that is often used to show time, manner, place, or degree

prepositiongrammar. a word or group of words that is used with a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase to show direction, location, or time, or to introduce an object

object - grammar. a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun that receives the action of a verb or completes the meaning of a preposition

corpusn. a collection of writings, conversations, speeches, etc., that people use to study and describe a language

Here’s our list of 10 useful phrasal verbs:

Phrasal Verb



put on

wear, produce, fool, pretend

That cannot be true. You must be putting me on.

put off

postpone, disturb

The report is due today. Stop putting it off and turn it in.

put down

criticize, write

Her boss was always putting her down so she resigned.

give up

surrender, stop trying

Your singing is beautiful – don’t give it up.

give away

give, offer

That radio station gives turkeys away for Thanksgiving.

give back

return, restore

I got so much help from the town, I want to give something back.

get off

leave, finish, send

Please get the letter off to them today.

get up

awaken, rise

Mom had to get us up every day for school.

pick up

collect, lift, learn, bring, clean

I picked the living room up before our guests arrived.

take on

assume, fight

The union took on the huge oil company.

Everyday Grammar - Our Top 10 Separable Phrasal Verbs
Everyday Grammar - Our Top 10 Separable Phrasal Verbs