Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal Verbs

By John-Allen Payne, Ph.D
The National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

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Phrasal verbs represent a practically limitless group of verbs that can be combined with short adverbs or prepositions to produce new meanings. Here are some examples:

With a short adverb:

give up
find out
take off
draw out

(=surrender; quit)
(=learn; get information)
(=leave quickly; fly away)

With a preposition:

work on
wait on
look after
come across

(=give effort and thought to developing something)
(=take care of)
(=find by chance)

With a short adverb and a preposition:

put up with
crack down on
come up with
look up to

(=deal firmly with)

Phrasal verbs are ubiquitous in all forms of written and spoken modern English, making the ability to understand and produce them a requisite for an adequate command of the English language. Research studies indicate that although phrasal verbs are fairly well established in hearing children at three and four years of age (Fischer, 1972), many deaf children as old as 18 and 19 still have difficulties with them (Payne 1982; 1987).

This module will first present a brief description of phrasal verbs and how they are used in English language discourse. Second, it will summarize a few research studies on deaf children's comprehension of phrasal verbs. Third, it will offer the reader a short guided practice in recognizing the syntactic and semantic levels of phrasal verbs. Finally, it will suggest ways that teachers may help their deaf students deal with phrasal verbs in their reading and writing.

The Evolution of Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs have roots back in the earliest Old English writings, where verbs with short adverbs and prepositions were used in a very literal sense showing mostly the direction, place, or physical orientation of a noun in the sentence (Spasov, 1966; Hillard, 1971; Kennedy, 1920; Meyer, 1976), such as in the following example:

The boy walked out. (direction)
The boy stood by. (place)
The boy held his hand up. ( pyhsical orientation)

Like short adverbs, prepositions also indicated direction, place, or physical orientation; but they also specified a relationship between the verb and an object in the sentence.

The army charged up the hill. (direction)
The painter stood by the house. (place)
The thief climbed out the window. (direction)
The woman hung the pot over the fire. (Physical Orientation)

Over the centuries, the combinations of verbs with short adverbs and prepositions increased. Their meanings diversified by imperceptible degrees. Eventually, they came to be the most productive means for the creation of new verbs that exists in Modern English (Konishi, 1958; Makkai, 1972). To illustrate this diversification of meaning, below are presented some of the nuances that the short adverb out acquired over several centuries:

In the ninth century, it had the literal meaning of moving toward the outside such as in walk out and ride out. But by the fourteenth century, out had added the idea of making something audible such as in cry out and call out. By the fifteenth century, it had added the idea of bringing something to extinction such as in die out and burn out. By the sixteenth century, it had added the idea of apportioning something to everyone such as in pass out and parcel out. And by the nineteenth century, it had acquired the idea of removing the contents of something such as in clean out and rinse out (Oxford English Dictionary, 1979).

Grammatical Summary

Present Productivity of Phrasal Verbs

To get an overview of the productivity of this type of combination, view the table below by Francis (1958) containing eight verbs and three short adverbs. The combining of each verb with each short adverb will yield a total of 24 new phrasal verbs. For example, the verb make yields make out, make up, and make over.



Components of Phrasal Verbs

The number of verbs that can form phrasal verbs in English is limitless. But the number of short adverbs and prepositions that can accommodate this structure is much smaller. They include more or less the words in the two columns below, most of which serve as both adverbs and prepositions:

Short Adverbs:




Syntactic Patterns of Phrasal Verbs

The possible syntactic patterns that accommodate phrasal verbs are varied, but the following five are considered basic:

1. Verb adverb (VA)
2. Verb adverb object (VAO)
3. Verb object adverb (VOA)
4. Verb preposition object (VPO)
5. Verb adverb preposition object (VAPO)

Pattern 1: Verb Adverb (VA)

This is the shortest and simplest pattern, consisting of only a verb (V) and a short adverb (A). The combination is abbreviated as VA. Here are some examples:

wash up
buckle up
take off
look out
break down

Pattern 2: Verb Adverb Object (VAO)

If you add a direct object to the previous pattern, the result is a verb-adverb-object sequence, abbreviated as VAO.

wash out the pot
blow up the bridge
tear down the building
hang up your coat
put out the fire

Pattern 3: Verb Object Adverb (VOA)

If you move the adverb to the right side of the direct object, the result is a verb-object-adverb sequence, abbreviated as VOA.

wash the pot out
blow the bridge up
tear the building down
hang your coat up
put the fire out

Patterns VAO and VOA are often considered variants of each other with the short adverb appearing either before the direct object (VAO) or after the direct object (VOA) with no discernible difference in meaning. Observe these two phrasal verb patterns with identical meanings:

Take off your hat.
Put on your shoes.
Hand in your work.

Take your hat off.
Put your shoes on.
Hand your work in.

However, there are instances when the two patterns are not interchangeable. And here are some of them:

If the direct object is long or stressed, people tend to use pattern VAO:

wash out the aluminum, glass-topped coffee pot.
blow up the three-mile-long suspension bridge.

If the direct object is a gerund (verb-ing), people use pattern VAO:

give up smoking
keep on talking
take up dancing
put off deciding

If the direct object is a pronoun, people generally use pattern VOA:

wash it out. (NOT: wash out it)
blow it up.
take it off
put them on
hand it in

A great many phrasal verbs tend to appear consistently in only one or the other pattern. A prime example is phrasal verbs that are contained within idiomatic expressions such as the following:

Let off steam
put up a good fight
keep your shirt on
cry your eyes out
blow his head off


None of these expressions would sound correct if the short adverb changed places.

Some phrasal verbs change their meanings when the short adverb is moved. For example, when the phrasal verb keep up means to continue or to maintain, it takes pattern VAO:

Keep up the good work.

But when that same phrasal verb means to keep awake, it takes pattern VOA:

He kept the neighbors up with his loud music.

Pattern 4: Verb Preposition Object (VPO)

The verb-preposition-object sequence, abbreviated VPO, is illustrated below:

work on the project
count on your friends
run into an old flame
head for home

The VPO pattern resembles the VAO pattern superficially and therefore can sometimes cause confusion. But since a preposition serves to connect the verb to a following noun phrase object, the pattern VPO can never become VOP in the same way that the pattern VAO can become VOA. Hence, nobody would ever say, "work your project on," "count your friends on," "run an old flame into," or "head home for."

Even with a pronoun object, the preposition cannot change places with the object. Nobody would ever say "work it on," "count them on," "run her into," or "head it for."

Pattern 5: Verb Adverb Preposition Object (VPO)

Abbreviated as VAPO, this category combines pattern VA with VPO as in the following examples:

keep up with the news
make off with the money
brush up on your skills
come down with a cold
come up with a plan
do away with someone

Summary of Syntactic Patterns of Phrasal Verbs

Below is a summary of the material just covered. These five syntactic patterns are the most frequent to accommodate the English phrasal verb:

Verb adverb (VA):
Verb adverb object (VAO):
Verb object adverb (VOA):
Verb preposition object (VPO):
Verb adverb preposition object (VAPO):

wash up
take off your hat
take your hat off
work on a project
come up with a plan

Semantic Categories of Phrasal Verbs

Nobody has succeeded in finding a successful way of categorizing phrasal verbs semantically, that is, in terms of meaning. Linguists who try to categorize them disagree sharply. But for the purpose of learning and teaching them more easily, it is quite useful to posit the following three broad semantic categories:

1. Literal
2. Semi-idiomatic
3. Idiomatic

1. Literal

In this category, the verb retains its basic concrete meaning while the short adverb or preposition maintains a literal meaning (Frazer, 1976). Such combinations are the easiest for language learners to understand and learn.

Examples with adverbs (VA, VAO, and VOA):

walk out
fall down
hang up your coat
hang your coat up
take down the picture

Examples with prepositions (VPO):

walk out the door
fall down the stairs
come into the house
stay in the car
walk across the bridge
run through the house

Examples with adverbs and prepositions (VAPO):

jump up on the table
come out of the house
walk away from the car
get down off the ladder
climb out through the window

2. Semi-idiomatic

In this category, the verb retains its concrete meaning, but the short adverb or preposition adds a nuance that would not be discernible from its basic meaning (Spasov, 1966). Even though the exact meaning of these phrasal verbs might not be clear, an approximate meaning might be grasped by a language learner, as in the following:

Examples with adverbs (VA, VAO, VOA):

Write up

Write down

Write out

The basic notion of the three phrasal verbs above is the activity of writing, but each of the short adverbs conveys a different nuance to that activity of writing. Other examples include these below:

wash up
read over
hand over
dry up
pay up
drive up

wash off
read through
hand in
dry off
pay off
drive off

wash down
read off
hand out
dry out
pay out
drive on

Examples with prepositions (VPO):

believe in
work on
feed on
trust in
exist on
insist on

(=believe that someone will succeed)
(=work to fix, develop, or improve something)
(=feed oneself with)
(=trust that someone will do something)
(=exist by using a limited resource)
(=insist that something happen your way)

Like the short adverbs, most prepositions of the VPO category above add a nuance to the meaning of the verb. Some, however, may serve merely as an empty connector between the verb and its object.

Examples with adverbs plus prepositions (VAPO):

read up on
sneak up on
listen in on
fit in with
hold on to
move in on
meet up with

(read to learn quickly and thoroughly)
(sneak towards)
(listen to eavesdrop)
(fit harmoniously, match, suit)
(hold for support)
(move towards for the purpose of attacking)
(meet again by chance)

3. Idiomatic

These combinations are fully idiomatic. No part of the meaning of the combination is predictable from the meanings of the verb and the short adverb or the preposition.

Examples with adverbs (VA, VAO, VOA):

work out
work out
bring up
bring up
carry on
carry out
make out

(come to a successful solution)
(perform physical exercise)
(suggest a topic)
(raise children)
(perform duties)
(see clearly)

Examples with prepositions (VPO):

count on
run into
happen on
come across
wait on
go by

(depend on)
(meet by chance)
(notice something important by chance)
(notice something by chance)
(serve someone in a restaurant)
(base one's judgment on)

Examples with adverbs plus prepositions (VAPO):

do away with
put up with
make off with
come down with
run out of
live up to

(steal something and escape)
(contract a disease)
(exhaust one's supply of something)
(meet someone's expectations)

Summary of Semantic Categories of Phrasal Verbs

Below is a summary of the material just covered. These three broad semantic categories help to us classify the semantic levels of the English phrasal verb:

Literal: The verb has a concrete meaning and the short adverb /preposition retains a basic literal meaning.

Semi-idiomatic: The verb has a concrete meaning and the short adverb /preposition adds an unpredictable nuance.

Idiomatic: No part of the meaning of the combination is predictable from the meanings of the verb and the short adverb/preposition.

French, Latin, and Greek Synonyms of Phrasal Verbs

In English, there is a tendency to use phrasal verbs more in spoken and colloquial communication than in formal writing. In formal written communication, however, people often prefer to use English verbs derived from French, Latin, and Classical Greek. This is only a tendency; nevertheless, it is a salient one and it has a long history.

While the phrasal verb was evolving naturally in the English language, an event happened that caused English to evolve along two parallel paths. This event was the Norman French occupation of England.

In 1066, William the Conqueror of Normandy placed all of England under an occupation that was to last for almost a century and a half. During this time, the French language came to dominate the upper echelons of English society while the English language was allowed to languish. Then, in 1204, England became officially separated from France again and the English language was once more free to flourish.

By this time, the English language had become uncultivated. And since French was the language of the educated people at that time, it was inevitable that scholars would draw new words from the French language in order to help replenish the impoverished English language ( Nist, 1966 ). Coincidentally, at that time many educated people also knew how to read and write Latin and Classical Greek; so they turned to these languages as well to find new words for English in order to help them keep up with new fields of learning for which there were no English words.

English became laden with foreign terms that vied with native English words to express shades of the same idea. Nuances of a phrasal verb like put together could be expressed with the Latin word compose or with the Greek word synthesize. As a result, while the native phrasal verb continued to evolve naturally in the population to express ordinary needs and topics, foreign words provided people with a scholarly and scientific vocabulary.

Even today, English continues to evolve along these two parallel paths. As a result, hundreds of native English phrasal verbs have French, Latin, or Classical Greek counterparts with very similar meanings but with a slightly more erudite ring to them. The list below illustrates this fact.

In the left column are selected English phrasal verbs; In the right column are nonphrasal synonyms of French, Latin, or Greek origin.

blow up
bring about
come to
put off
look up to
put out
put together
look forward to
hand in
rack up
get around
make up
stand for
find out
speed up
leave out
make up
point out
pull out
throw up
go against

cause, engender
admire, respect, esteem
assemble, compose, synthesize
indicate, designate

As teachers, it is important that you not only teach the meanings of phrasal verbs, but also see to it that students understand the appropriate registers for their use.

Research with Deaf Children

Related Research

Brannon (1968), in an elicited language task, showed that deaf children used 35% fewer verbs, 87% fewer adverbs, and 60% fewer prepositions than hearing subjects did. Since phrasal verbs contain verbs, adverbs, and prepositions, one would expect deaf children to use fewer phrasal verbs, as well.

Kluwin (1979), in a study using elicited writing samples from deaf adolescents, found improper use of both literal and nonliteral prepositions by subjects. Since literal and nonliteral prepositions are an important component of phrasal verbs, one would expect deaf children to use them improperly in phrasal verbs, as well.

Odom and Blanton (1967) found that deaf students who learned sequences of words were not influenced by natural phrasing. For example, their deaf participants had equal difficulty in learning a sequence like "paid the tall lady," which has natural phrasing, as they had in learning a sequence where the word order was jumbled such as in "lady tall the paid." In contrast, the hearing participants remembered more easily the sequences with the natural phrasing. The implication is that deaf students would also have difficulty learning phrasal verbs, for the ability to attend to phrasing is an important requisite for learning phrasal verbs.

Research Specifically on Phrasal Verbs

Payne (1982, 1987), in a comprehension study with 45 hearing participants between ages 8 and 12 and 45 prelingually profoundly deaf participants between ages 10 and 19, found the phrasal verbs to be well established in the hearing participants but extremely problematic for the deaf participants.

Order of Syntactic Difficulty

The syntactic combination that was easiest for the deaf students to comprehend in the Payne study was the prepositional-phrase sequence (VPO):

climb out the window

The syntactic combinations of medium difficulty were VA, VAO, and VAPO:

jump down
take out the garbage
jump up on the table

The syntactic combination that was most difficult was the one with the small adverb after the noun (VOA):

turn the money down

Order of Semantic Difficulty

The easiest semantic category for deaf students to comprehend in the Payne study was the literal category.

walk out

(=exit on foot)

The semantic categories that were significantly more difficult for deaf students to comprehend were the semi-idiomatic and idiomatic categories.

wash up
take off

(=wash face and hands)
(=fly away)

Summary of Research Findings

The order of syntactic difficulty for deaf students in the study by Payne is as follows:


(of medium difficulty)
(most difficult)

The order of syntactic difficulty for deaf students in the study by Payne is as follows:

Semi-Idiomatic and Idiomatic

(more difficult)

Guided Practice

Comparing Phrasal Verbs to Single-Word Synonyms

For each phrasal verb in the story about postwar Germany below, pick the single-word synonym that best approximates the meaning of the phrasal verb. The answers appear below the exercise.

  1. After World War II, the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France split up Hitler's Third Reich and created four administrative zones for the purpose of establishing complete control over Germany.
  2. A. devised  B. partitioned  C. established  D. demolish  E. erected

  3. In 1949, the Soviet Union set up a communist system of government in the eastern zone of Germany and called it the German Democratic Republic.
  4. A. devised  B. partitioned  C. established   D. demolish  E. erected

  5. Unfortunately, many East Germans were dissatisfied with life in the German Democratic Republic; these people came up with bizarre and creative ways for escaping to the West.
  6. A. devised   B. partitioned   C. established    D. demolish   E. erected

  7. On 13 August 1961, the Government of the German Democratic Republic put up a 27-mile wall of concrete and barbed wire through the city of Berlin in order to prevent the flow of dissatisfied people to the West.
  8. A. devised   B. partitioned   C. established    D. demolish   E. erected

  9. On 9 November 1989, The Soviet Union and the government of the German Democratic Republic opened the border between East and West Berlin. Immediately, people and machines began to tear down the odious Berlin Wall.
  10. A. devised   B. partitioned   C. established   D. demolish   E. erected


  1. split up → partitioned
  2. set up → established
  3. came up with → devised
  4. put up → erected
  5. tear down → demolish

Determining the Syntactic Patterns of Phrasal Verbs

in the story below about the space shuttle, determine which pattern each emphasized phrasal verb follows: VA, VAO, VOA, VPO, or VAPO. The answers appear below the exercise.

  1. When a space shuttle prepares to blast off, its external fuel tank and its booster rockets are firmly attached.
  2. Inside the shuttle, crewmembers look forward to the thrill of working in space.
  3. As the main engines rev up and the booster rockets ignite, fire and smoke are everywhere.
  4. Slowly, the shuttle lifts off the earth.
  5. At 28 miles up, the booster rockets use up their fuel.
  6. Then, they fall off and parachute down to the ocean.
  7. At 75 miles high, the external fuel tank drops off and plummets to the ocean below.
  8. During their time in space, astronauts carry out experiments in microgravity.
  9. When, the work in space is finished, the shuttle prepares to head for home.
  10. Before entering Earth's atmosphere, the shuttle must turn around and fire its orbital maneuvering system engines in the opposite direction.
  11. The firing of the orbital maneuvering system engines in the opposite direction helps the shuttle slow down.
  12. For if the shuttle entered the earth's atmosphere too quickly, it would burn up.
  13. At this point, the last of its fuel has run out.
  14. It begins do drop toward the earth with only gravity to propel it and only the earth's atmosphere to slow it down.
  15. At about 2,000 feet from the earth, the shuttle levels off.
  16. Finally, the shuttle touches down and comes to a halt.


  1. blast off = VA (verb + adverb)
  2. look forward to the thrill = VAPO (verb + adverb + prep. + object)
  3. rev up = VA (verb + adverb)
  4. lifts off the earth = VPO (verb + preposition + object)
  5. use up their fuel = VAO (verb + adverb + object)
  6. fall off = VA (verb + adverb)
  7. drops off = VA (verb + adverb)
  8. carry out experiments = VAO (verb + adverb + object)
  9. head for home = VPO (verb + preposition + object)
  10. turn around = VA (verb + adverb)
  11. slow down = VA (verb + adverb)
  12. burn up = VA (verb + adverb)
  13. run out = VA (verb + adverb)
  14. slow it down = VOA (verb + object + adverb)
  15. levels off = VA (verb + adverb)
  16. touches down = VA (verb + adverb)

Action Steps

1. For your own personal preparation, it is a good idea to purchase one or two specialized dictionaries of phrasal verbs, because meanings of phrasal verbs are often elusive and difficult to articulate. There are several on the market, for example, NTC's (1999). Most dictionaries of phrasal verbs are well-written, offering clear definitions at the literal, figurative, and idiomatic levels.

2. There are self-instructional workbooks on the market for the study of phrasal verbs (Hook, 1981; Hart, 1999; Side, 1990). Use them as resource material in the preparation of lessons, for they offer ideas for categorizing and presenting phrasal verbs to learners.

3. Several journal articles are available in which teachers share their experiences and offer suggestions on how to address phrasal verbs in an academic setting. Among them are two excellent articles, one by Arnold (1990) and another by Cornell (1985).

4. When you prepare reading assignments for your deaf students, check carefully for the presence of phrasal verbs. Point them out and make sure that students understand them. Do not assume that your students will understand a phrasal verb just because it seems literal to you. The meaning may not be as obvious to your students. For example, the phrasal verb take out in the context of take out the garbage may be perfectly clear to you, while a language learner may possibly see the short adverb out as a preposition and think that something is supposed to come out of the garbage.

5. If you use contact sign language (simultaneous communication) for conversing with deaf students, try to sign phrasal verbs conceptually so that students will see the real meaning and understand your communication. For example, when saying the phrasal verb put up with, use the sign for TOLERATE.

6. If you use Pigin Signed English and you prefer to sign the individual components of phrasal verbs, make sure that your deaf students understand the concepts behind them.

7. Always present and discuss phrasal verbs in a context, because any combination may well have several meanings ranging from literal to figurative to idiomatic. It is mostly through context that the meaning will become clear. Compare the following examples and notice how context affects their meanings:

look into a mirror
wait on the corner
live on the third floor
settle on the land
run into the house
turn into the wind
hold up your hand

look into a problem
wait on the customer
live on rice and beans
settle on a fair price
run into a friend
turn into a pumpkin
hold up a bank

8. With some language learners, it is helpful to present semi-idiomatic phrasal verbs in sets where the short adverb or the preposition adds the same general nuance across several verbs. In this way, learners have an opportunity to make inductive generalizations (Side, 1990). Some examples from the Oxford English Dictionary (1979) appear below:

In the set of phrasal verbs below, the short adverb up suggests confinement into a smaller space through the action of the verb:

lock up
dam up
bottle up
bundle up
wrap up
huddle up
cuddle up

roll up
gather up
snuggle up
fold up
shrivel up
round up
crumple up

In this next set of phrasal verbs, the short adverb up suggests the division of something into pieces through the action of the verb:

break up
tear up
slash up
smash up
cut up
rip up

split up
grind up
chew up
chop up
slice up
divide up

In this set, the short adverb up suggests the raising of something off the floor through the action of the verb:

pick up
sweep up
scoop up

lift up
vacuum up
wipe up
mop up

In the following set, the short adverb over conveys a meaning of moving forward and down through the action of the verb:

push over
fall over
tip over
knock over

lean over
bend over
double over
topple over
roll over

For a thorough, clear, and well-organized treatment of phrasal verbs of the kind mentioned above, see Britten and Dellar (1989).

9. Since a significant number of phrasal verbs have a decidedly colloquial ring, it is important that you watch students' writing carefully to make sure that they are using them appropriately. Do not hesitate to suggest more formal single-word synonyms for more formal styles of writing.

10. The most powerful action step of all is that of being aware that phrasal verbs are everywhere, knowing that students may not understand them, and having the knowledge to intervene if it is appropriate.


Arnold, K. M. (1990). “Teaching idioms to children who are deaf.” Teaching Exceptional Children, 22(4), 14-17

Brannon, J. B., Jr. (1968). “Linguistic word classes in the spoken language of normal, hard-of hearing, and deaf children.” Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 11, 279-287.

Britten, D., & Dellar, G. (1989). Using phrasal verbs: A complete course in the English phrasal verb system for self study or class use (2nd ed.). New York: Prentice Hall

Cornell, A. (1985). “Realistic goals in teaching and learning phrasal verbs.” International Review of Applied Linguistics, 23(4), 269-280.

Fischer, S. (1972). The acquisition of verb-particle and dative constructions. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

Frazer, B. (1976). The verb-particle combination in English. New York: Academic Press

Hart, C. W. (1999). The ultimate phrasal verb book. New York: Barrons

Hillard, R. (1971). A reexamination of the separable verb in selected Anglo-Saxon prose works. Canadian Archives.

Hook, J. N. (1981). Two-word verbs in English. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Kennedy, A. G. (1920). The Modern English verb-adverb combination. Language and Literature, 1(1), 1-51.

Kluwin, T. N. (1979). The development of prepositional usage in the written English of deaf adolescents. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet College.

Konishi, T. (1958). “The growth of the verb-adverb combination in English-A brief sketch.” In K. Araki et al. (Eds.), Studies in English grammar and linguistics: A miscellany in honor of Takanobu Otsuka. Tokyo, Japan: Kenyusha.

Makkai, A. (1972). “Idiom structure in English”. Janua Linguarum. The Hague: Mouton.

Meyer, G. A. (1976). The two-word verb: A dictionary of the verb-preposition phrase in American English. The Hague: Mouton.

NTC's dictionary of phrasal verbs and other idiomatic verbal phrases. (1993). Chicago: NTC Publishing Group.

Odom, P. B., & Blanton, R. L. (1967). “Phrase-learning in deaf and hearing subjects.” Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 10, 600-605

Payne, J.-A. (1982). A study of the comprehension of verb-particle combinations among deaf and hearing subjects. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Side, R. (1990). “Phrasal verbs: Sorting them out.” ELT Journal, 44(2), 144-152.

Спасов, Д. (1966) Фразеологичен Глагол на Английски, София, България: Наука и Изкуство