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Home » People » Karl Sherlock » Parts Of Speech Guide » Verbs » Types » Phrasal (Combinative)

Phrasal Verbs (a.k.a. Combinative Verbs)



"Phrasal" means, "expressed as a phrase."  "Combinative" means, "tending to combine with other elements." Therefore, phrasal verbs "combine" base verbs and other words (prepositions, usually) into a phrase that acts as one verb.

Some examples:

pick up
"Please pick up your pace."
take up with
"The man she took up with is a notorious gambler."

enter into
"This contract you've entered into has some hidden drawbacks."

walk on through
"The guards stepped to the side and let him walk on through."

throw out
"When you're done with these rags, just throw them out."

go up against
"Sometimes I am the fiercest competitor I go up against."

play out
"We let the argument play out before stepping in to break it up."

[There are two other phrasal verbs in this sentence.  What are they?]

If these terms feel to you somewhat clumsy and made-up, that's because they are. Technically speaking, phrasal verbs aren't "good" verbs.  They stand apart from the rules of grammar.  However, they're commonly used in everyday English, informal speech, character dialogue. Phrasal verbs help to make things sound like natural speech, not grammatically correct English, which makes them a potential concern about tone. 

Even though virtually all of the words added to base verb are prepositions, enough exceptions exist to warrant a less specific term like "Prepositional Verbs." (Visit "Unusual Prepositional: Prepositional Verbs" for an explanation of why such verbs are not legitimate.) Therefore, words combined with the base verbs are referred to as the "particle" (Yep, you spotted it: "referred to" is another example of a phrasal verb.)  Each of the underline words in the examples on this page is a particle in a phrasal verb.

Our boss called off the meeting.
She looked up her old boyfriend.
We all took up a collection for our friend's expensive surgery.

In the examples above, the phrasal verbs are transitive: they all take a direct object. Phrasal verbs, however, can also be intransitive:

The children were sitting around, doing nothing.
The witness broke down on the stand.

Phrasal Verbs and Tone

Phrasal verbs are considered to be informal, and in formal writing they should be strictly avoided:

We all contributed funds to a collection for our friend's expensive surgery.

Diagramming phrasal verbs is no different from diagramming any other verb: the base verb and its preposition are kept together:

The witness broke down on the stand.

Phrasal Verbs

Last Updated: 02/08/2015


Karl J Sherlock
Associate Professor, English
Phone: 619-644-7871

  • Grossmont
  • Cuyamaca
A Member of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District