Afraid of Phrasal Verbs? Here’s How to Master Them

“Why do Phrasal Verbs have to be so difficult?” – If you’re an English learner, you’ve probably said that to yourself at some point in the past.

For many reasons phrasal verbs are a headache to English learners from all around the world. Some of these reasons are:

  • There are a lot them.
  • Many of them have multiple definitions.
  • Their meaning is unpredictable.
  • They are confusing.
  • You need to memorize not just the verb, but the two or three particles that come after the verb.

And most importantly you don’t use phrasal verbs in your language so your brain needs to work extra hard to constantly keep these elusive words from falling off your active vocabulary. Some languages like Italian, German and Dutch do have something similar to phrasal verbs, but they’re not nearly as abundant as they are in English.

By the end of this post, I want you to be better prepared to learn, understand and use phrasal verbs.

In order to achieve that, first, we’re going to analyze some important aspects of phrasal verbs and then we’re going to go through some common phrasal verbs that native speakers use in everyday English.

Knowing how phrasal verbs work will hopefully you make the whole idea and concept of phrasal verbs a lot clearer in your mind, and this together with being exposed to them will help you understand their meaning and make them a permanent part of your English… So, read on!

We’re going to start off below by taking a look at what phrasal verbs are made up of.

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Phrasal Verb Structure: Verb + Particle

Phrasal verbs are made up of a verb and one or two participles. These participles are either adverbs:

  • Make up a story.
  • Pay off the debt.
  • Give some tickets away.

Or prepositions.

  • Look into the subject.
  • Take after the kid.
  • Hit on someone.

Some phrasal verbs are composed of both adverbs and prepositions:

  • Brush up on your English.
  • I’m looking forward to seeing you.
  • He’s not cut out for the job.

In the first two types of phrasal verbs, the particles (that is adverbs or prepositions) work in conjunction with the verb to create a  meaning that is different from that of the verb alone.

  • Pay off is not the same as “to pay.”
  • Look into is different from “to look.”

When it’s a verb + adverb + preposition (ex: look forward to), the verb and the adverb (look forward) define the meaning of the phrase, while the preposition (to) is there just to link the verb+adverb (look forward) with the rest of the sentence (to seeing you).

In other words, the verb and adverb work in conjunction to create the meaning of the 3-word phrasal verb, and the preposition brings the grammar to it.

PVs are Like Idioms, you Can’t Deduce their Meaning

One of the major characteristics of phrasal verbs is that they’re non-compositional. This means that most of the times you can’t tell the meaning of a phrasal verb by its individual words.

For example, play out means “to develop” but “play” on its own has a different meaning from that of the phrasal verb. The same goes for “to pick on someone” or “to pull something off.” (We’ll see these verbs in more detail below).

A verb construction like “look up” as in “There’s something in the sky, look up” can be argued not to be a phrasal verb because “look” and “up” work as two different words with meanings of their own. However, “look up” as in “Look up  on the dictionary” will always be a considered a phrasal verb

Hanging out with friends.

Hanging out with friends.

because “look up” is a single unit of meaning. The same goes for, for example:

  • Hang out the clothes (HANG is the action, out answers WHERE)
  • Hang out with friends (HANG OUT is the action)

Regardless of what technically makes a phrasal verb, many times you will notice that the individual words don’t retain their original meanings in a phrasal verb. Instead, they form one singe unit with a specific meaning that’s different from the meanings of the isolated words.

Literal and Metaphoric Meanings

Although phrasal verbs are notoriously confusing for not making sense word by word, there are still some of them that are pretty transparent if you look at them as metaphors.

Take the phrasal verb to take off, which refers to an aircraft leaving the ground.

The plane took off at 3.

As many other PVs, take off can be used figuratively to mean “to become successful.”

After so much hard word, the project finally took off.

Below are a few examples of PVs used literally and metaphorically or figuratively.

Literal Metaphoric
Look up at: physical action of looking at what’s overhead.

Look up at the sky”

Look up to: to admire someone

I look up to my grandfather.”

 Walk away: to leave a place by walking.

“He walked away from the scene of the crime.”

Walk away: to abandon someone or quit your job.

“He walked away on his wife.”

Pick up: to lift something from the ground or from a lower position.

Pick up the pencil.

Pick up: to learn something from practice rather than from studying theory.

He picked up Thai when he travelled around Thailand.

Dive in/into water: jump into water.

“Paul dived into the pool.”

Dive in/into: to start doing something enthusiastically.

She dived into Netflix as soon as she got it on her computer.

Particles Add Emphasis or an Informal tone

Sometimes particles are used to add emphasis or a more conversational tone to the language. In these cases, particles don’t change the original meaning of the verb as we’ve seen above, but they still  function as a single unit of meaning with the verb.

Phrasal verbs that add emphasis:

  • finish off 
  • eat up
  • start out

If you omit the particles, the core of the message would still be expressed. The particles only intensify the meaning of the verb. We see these verbs in more detail below in the article.

Phrasal verbs that add a conversation tone to the verb:

  • help out
  • start off   
  • save up

Again, the particles “out,” “off,” and “up” don’t change the meaning of the verb, they add a tone of informality to the verb. Adding these particles to your way of speaking will make your speech be perceived more native-like.

Lastly, there’s another instance where a particle is added next to the verb:

Particles turn nouns into verbs:

  • team up
  • calm down
  • stand up

In this case, you need to add the particle next to the verb or else it wouldn’t sound complete. “Team” is a noun, and to make it a verb you need to add “up.” Saying “Let’s team” doesn’t sound natural. You either say “let’s team up” or use a completely different structure: “let’s make a team.

Avoiding Phrasal Verbs

Here’s a fact: when we speak a foreign language, we avoid using words or structures that are difficult, and instead we use simpler alternatives. So, many times instead of using a phrasal verb we use a regular verb to get our meaning across.

For example, we would say something like “Could you inform me on…” instead of “Could you fill me in on…” Or use “postpone,” “tolerate,” and “discover” instead of “put off,” “put up with,” and “find out” respectively.

This is known as the avoidance strategy, and numerous studies have been conducted on this topic. One particular study shows that

“97.75% of the EFL student avoided using some idioms and phrasal verbs in speaking and 85.50% in writing. Thus, a huge majority of the subjects, that is, more than 90% on average adopted avoidance behaviour in their learning of and performance in EFL.” [source]

The reason why you sometimes struggle to use and learn phrasal verbs is because they don’t fit with a pre-established linguistic concept in your brain (because, remember, they don’t exist in your native language).

Paraphrasing is indeed a linguistic survival skill that will help you produce your message. You do this when you aren’t fully confident using a specific phrasal verb (or any complex structure) and resort to using latinate verbs like “inform,” “postpone,” “tolerate,” etc. However, an even better skill is being able to learn and use phrasal verbs when the context calls for them.

The best way you can learn phrasal verbs and use them spontaneously in conversation is first getting a grasp on what they mean and on how they’re used, and then actually making them a part of your speech. You can speed this process up by setting aside some time to learn and practice just phrasal verbs.

That’s precisely what you’ll be doing as you keep reading.

By this point you have found out about some general ideas about phrasal verbs. Now it’s time to actually LEARN some phrasal verbs.

Phrasal Verbs Time: the Particles

Instead of grouping phrasal verbs by the verb, a more effective approach is grouping them by the particle because verbs are easier to remember than particles.

So, instead of looking at all the phrasal verbs with “give” or “take,” we’re going to learn a handful of phrasal verbs with the particles “off,” “away,” “up’ and so on.

The phrasal verbs below are labelled under 3 levels according to my perception of how much learners use them.

  • Level 1 – basic PVs; most intermediate speakers use them to some extent.
  • Level 2 – less frequent in intermediate speakers; barely present in advanced speakers. They’re many times avoided.
  • Level 3 – only few advanced speakers use these phrasal verbs. when they don’t they use an alternative that’s closer to their native language.
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Off Away — Up — Out — On — In — Around — Down — Over

OFF

 

Level 1

take off: to remove a piece of clothing. (2) (of an aircraft) to leave the ground.

I took my sweater off when it got warmer.
(2) “The plane takes off at 5 pm.”

show off: to behave in a way intended to attract admiration.

He was showing off how much money he makes.

kick off: to start something.

The game kicks off at 9pm.

Usage note about “show off”: this verb carries a negative connotation when is used to refer to someone’s attitude or behaviour, but it’s generally used in a complementary way when it refers to someone demonstrating their skills (pic).

He's showing off his BMX skills.

He’s showing off his BMX skills.

 

Level 2

pay off: to finally see the results of hard work.

All the years of hard work paid off when he got a promotion.

pull off: to succeed doing something that’s very difficult.

Robert was the only student who was able to pull off a perfect score in the exam.

rip off: to sell something at a much higher price that something is actually worth.

They ripped you off at that hotel.

Note about “rip off”: commonly used as “to get ripped off” The noun “a rip-off,” which has the same meaning as the phrasal verb, is also very common. This is a phrasal noun.

That's a total rip-off!

That’s a total rip-off!

 

Level 3

write (sb) off: to start to believe someone (or sth) won’t be able to achieve something.

I wouldn’t write him off just yet. He still has a chance to win.

cut (sb) off: to stop being so close to someone.

Her friends cut her off when she got engaged.

blow off: to not go somewhere you were planning to go, or to not show up at an arranged meeting with someone.

We were supposed to have a coffee, but he blew me off.

23

 

Used as an Intensifier or Conversational Element

start off – “They started the meeting off by addressing the most important issues first.

finish off – “I just need 10 more minutes to finish off this report.

As I said before, the “off”‘ here doesn’t change the meaning of these verbs. It adds a conversational tone to start and intensifies the meaning of the verb finish.

 

Expressions & Collocations

take time off: “He took a day off from work.” (didn’t go to work).

knock it off \ cut it off: used to tell someone to stop doing something that annoys you. “Knock it off, kids! You’re going to wake up the baby.”

knock your socks off: to completely surprise someone or make them feel very excited about something. “The new 2016 car is going to knock your socks off.”

ring off the hook: (of a telephone) to ring repeated times in a short period of times. “Her phone has been ringing off the hook ever since she was on TV

let of (some) steam: to release one’s anger or other strong emotions. “She was punching a boxing bag to let off some steam.

AWAY

 

Level 1

give away: to give something as a present or for free.

I have 5 tickets to give away.

throw away: to get rid of something.

This old fridge doesn’t work anymore, I’m going to throw it away

go away: to leave a place. (2) to disappear.

“Don’t go away, stay here til I’m back”
“The pain went away.”

 

Level 2

blow away: if something blows you away, you’re utterly surprised by it. Note: also commonly used as “to be blown away.”

I was blown away by her performance.

They were blown away by the trick the magitian pulled off

They were blown away by the trick the magician pulled off.

put away: to put something in the place it’s supposed to be stored into or placed.

Kids, put your toys away before going to bed.

walk away: to leave a situation or a place, especially because there’s something that’s hard to deal with. (2) “to walk away on someone” means to abandon them.

“A lot of investors walked away thinking the product wasn’t going to succeed.”
(2) “My girlfriend walked away on me.”

 

Level 3

take away from: to reduce the value of what someone did by getting involved it it and attracting the attention to you.

I don’t want take anything away from their win, but they had a little bit of luck.”

carry away: if something carries you away, you lose control of what you’re doing because it excites you very much. Note: usually said in the passive with the constructions “to be carried away” or “get carried away.”

“I got carried away by her speech and forgot I had a meeting at 4.”

shy away from: to avoid a situation because you don’t feel confident or you don’t like it.

Don’t shy away from the camera when I film what we’re doing.”
“Don’t shy away from doing what you love.

 

Expressions & Collocations

get away with murder: (figurative) used to say that someone did something bad and did not get punished for it.

“He got into a fight in the school hall, but because it was the last day of school, I think he’s gonna get away with murder.

far away: not close, at a distance. “The hospital is far away, maybe an hour by car.”

an apple a day keeps the doctor away: (saying) used to say that eating an apple a day will make you feel healthy.

UP

 

Level 1

give up: to stop trying to do something.

The rescue team didn’t give up and kept looking for survivors
Don’t give up! Hard work will pay off

make up: to invent something.

He made up a fake story.”

look up: to seek information in a book, dictionary, etc.

I don’t know this word, can you look it up on Google?

Note: If you add “to” to look up, it means to admire someone.

My mom is a superhero to me. I look up to her.

My mom is a superhero to me. I look up to her.

 

Level 2

end up: to result in a particular way.

I thought this game was going to be boring, but it ended up being pretty exciting.

set up: to start or organize something. (2) to make something like a system or piece of equipment ready to use.

We need to set up a meeting immediately.”
(2) “I need someone to help me set up a website for my business.

bring up: to start talking about a specific topic in a conversation.

I didn’t want to get into politics, but he brought it up.

 

Level 3

hold up: to continue to work properly, especially when you think it won’t.

When the world went into a recession, the economy of Canada held up pretty well.
It’s an old car but I think it can still hold up 10 more years.

wrap up: to bring to an end.

It’s time to wrap up the show.

back up: to show someone that what you said is right.

I said he was going win the race, and he backed it up.

 

3-word phrasal verbs (adverb + preposition)

sneak up on: to approach someone without them realizing it.

(literally) “A little kid just snuck up on me and yelled ‘boo! I scared you!’
(figuratively) “I wish I would have finished the essay. The deadline snuck up on me.”

Note: to get a better grasp on this phrasal verb, you need to imagine how someone moves when they sneak.

The girl and the old lady are sneaking out of the hospital.

The girl and the old lady are sneaking out of the hospital.

put up with: to tolerate something or someone.

“I’m not going to keep putting up with this nonsense!”

suck up to: to do and say things that will please someone in order to get something from them, like approval or something else.

“He’s so fake. He’s always sucking up to the boss.”

make it up to: to compensate for something.

“I’m sorry but you can’t come. I promise I’ll make it up to you somehow.”

stick up for – stand up for: to defend someone or show support for a belief, plan, etc.

“My friend stuck up for me against the bullies.”

load up on: to get a large amount of something so that it’s available when you need it.

“Claudia loaded up on CDs for the road trip.”

come up with: to think of an idea, plan, etc.

“Have you come up with a plan B?”

catch up with: if something catches up with you, you start to see the negative influence it has on you now. (2) to meet someone and find out about what they’ve been doing after a long time without talking to them.

“So many years of smoking caught up with him when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.”
How have you been? We need to catch up with each other

live up to: to be as good as expected.

“The movie didn’t live up to my expectations.”

live up tp Expectations

beat (sb) up to: to manage to do something first than another person.

“I was willing to do the washing-up but you beat me up to it.”

hung up on/about: to think too much about something.

“She’s so hung up on what other people think about her.”
“He’s still hung up about breaking up with his girlfriend.

chalk up to: to give a reason or excuse for something bad that happened to you.

“He did badly in the exam and chalked it up to spending to much time playing video games.”

walk up to: to approach to someone.

walked up to me and asked me for directions.

gang up on (someone): to form a team to attack someone (verbally or physically).

gang up on phrasal verb

 

Slang – Very Informal “up” Phrasal Verbs

man up: to act as a man –to face a situation with courage and determination.

Come on, man! Man up, ask her out!

hook up: to make out (kiss) or have sex with someone.

Did you hook up with that girl last night?

knock up: to impregnate a woman.

knocked up phrasal verb

 

Used as an Intensifier or Conversational Element

team up: “The two families teamed up to organize the wedding.

save up: “I didn’t got to travel to Europe because I didn’t save up enough money.

open up: “Open up! I need to get in.

 

Expressions & Collocations

keep it up!: (also keep up the good work!) used to encourage someone to continue doing what they’re doing.

Congrats, you’ve made great progress. Keep it up!”

take (sb) up on an offer: (opposite of turn down) to accept someone’s offer.

All right, I’ll take you up on that. When do we start the GYM?

to be are up shit creek: to be in a difficult situation.

Having just lost his job and expecting a kid, he is up shit creek without a paddle.

Note: sometimes people say add “without a paddle” to intensify the meaning of the expression.

Up shit creek.

Up shit creek.

OUT

 

Level 1

check out: to take a look at something; to inspect something.

Check this series out. You might like it.

find out: to learn about a situation; to discover something, to realize about something..

“I just found out they neighbors are stealing our wifi.”

figure out: to be able to understand something; to discover how something works.

“It took me some time to figure out how to play this video game.”
“He couldn’t figure out what the problem was and neither could I.”

Albert Einstein figured out that time and space are relative.

Albert Einstein figured out that time and space are relative.

 

Level 2

hang out: to spend time with someone you like being around with. 

Wanna hang out tonight at the big store at the Solaris plaza?
“We just hung out.” 

kick out: to expel someone from a place.

“Security kicked him out of the museum because he got drunk.”

sort out: to find a solution to a problem. (2) to organize things into different categories or groups.

“No need to call the guy to fix the computer, I sorted out the problem myself.”
“First, sort the paperwork out by date.”

 

Level 3

rule out: to not consider something as an option anymore.

“He’s been ruled out of the main team due to an injury.”
“I haven’t ruled out the possibility of moving abroad, but I haven’t made a decision yet either.

play out: to develop.

“We’ll see how things play out, and when we have more information we’ll take a decision.”
“The trial played out favorably to him.”

max out: to reach the limit of something. (2) to use the full amount possible.

“This Chevrolet maxes out at about 250 km/h.”
“I maxed out my credit card on the trip to Las Vegas.”

 

3-word phrasal verbs (adverb + preposition)

call (sb) out on: to let somebody know that you know that they made a mistake or lied.

“Jake, didn’t really graduate from Harvard. Yea! I’m calling you out.”
“She called them out on their lies.”

cut out for: to be suitable for a job or activity.

“They told me I’m not cut out for being a chef.”
“I like working and being out of the house. So, you guess, I’m not cut out for being a housewife.” 

I knew I wasn't cut out for this shit!

I knew I wasn’t cut out for this shit!

 

Used as an Intensifier or Conversational Element

stress out: “Being stressed out about money 24/7 is being detrimental for her health.”

hear out: “Wait a second, hear me out. What if we tell them a little white lie and avoid any problems?” (used to direct someone’s attention to what you’re about to say).

plan out: “They have everything planned out.”

 

Expressions & Collocations

hold out hope: to still hope for something. 

“I’m still holding out hope I’ll get a call from that company I sent my application to.” 

out loud: audibly; in a loud voice so that it can be heard.

Can you read the introduction out loud?

think out loud: to verbalize your thoughts, sometimes without realizing it.

Sorry, I wasn’t talking to you, I was just thinking out loud. 

ON

 

Level 1

turn on: to make a piece of equipment start working. 

“I just want to get home, kick my feet up and turn on the TV and watch my favorite show.”

go on: to continue. (2) to happen.

“Sorry someone called me, go on with what you were saying.”
“The party actually went on for two more hours.”
(2) “What’s going on over there?”

try on: to momentarily wear a piece of clothing in order to see how it looks on you and decide whether or not to buy it.

s

I tried on about 10 pairs of shoes but I wasn’t able to decide on any.

 

Level 2

move on to continue onto the next thing, whether it is a topic of conversation (1), a new thing, or new phase in your life (2).

“Let’s move on to the next topic on the agenda”
“I have made peace with the fact that she broke up with me, and I’ve moved on.

check on: to see or talk to someone to make sure they’re okay. 

“I am going to my grandma’s. I want to check on her.” 

pick on: to harass or unfairly criticize someone. 

“My sister loved picking on me when we were kids.”

 

Level 3

hit on: to talk to someone in a way that shows you’re attracted to them.

“Mark is hitting on me“.

drag on: to last for a long period of time. Commonly said more emphatically as “drag on and on.”

“The meeting dragged on more than I was expecting.”

hate on: to be criticize someone, especially because you’re jealous.

“All celebrities are constantly hated on on Twitter.”

Note: remember that as a phrasal verb, “hate on” doesn’t have the same meaning as “hate” on its own.

 

3-word phrasal verbs (adverb + preposition)

hold on to: to hold something tightly.

The robber tried snatching her purse, but she held on to it.

go on to: this expression is actually used in direct speech (when we say what someone else said using quotation marks) to connect two different ideas.

“He said “I didn’t do it”, and then he went on to say “I know who did it, but I’m not going to tell you.”

 

Used as an Intensifier or Conversational Element

keep on: to continue.

“He just keeps on failing the math exam.”

 

Expressions & Collocations

later on: sometime later.

“I can’t return his call now, I’ll do it later on today.” 

on and off: intermittently.

“He lived in Europe on and off during his childhood.

go on [activity]: this phrase is collocated with numerous words, meaning the activity mentioned has begun or is in effect. Some examples are “to go on vacation,” “go on strike,” “to go on a diet,” “go on sale.”

IN

 

Level 1

give in: to stop arguing or maintaining a position after someone or something has been insisting you do the opposite- opposite of to stay firm; to accept defeat.

“She gave in to her kids’s insistence and let them play outside.”
“I was determined not to download Pokemon Go, but I ended up giving in because that’s all my friends were doing.”

hand in: to submit.

I was the last one to hand in the exam.

log in: to enter your account details to gain access to a computer system.

“Something is wrong with the website, I can’t log in.”

Note: if you specify the computer system you are trying to get access into, then “in” becomes “into.”

“I can’t log into my Facebook account.”

 

Level 2

chip in: to contribute with money or assistance.

“Let’s all chip in for a taxi to downtown.”

break in: to make something more comfortable by using it a few times.

“I got a nice pair of Adidas shoes, but I need to break them in before the triathlon.”

I'm going to go for a run to break in these brand new shoes.

I’m going to go for a run to break in these brand new shoes.

fill (sb) in: to give someone essential or missing information.  

“What happened in the meeting? Fill me in.”
“He filled me in on the changes to the plan.

 

Level 3

rub it in: to emphasize something that will make someone feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. Often followed by “in someone’s face.”

“When Real Madrid beat Barcelona, he rubbed it in my face every day for a month.”
“He was right, and he won’t stop rubbing it in.”

kick in: to take effect. 

“When the caffeine kicks in I feel much more energized.”
“The antidepressant take 2 months to kick in.

squeeze in: to manage to make some time in your busy day to do something else.

“He’s really busy but he always manages to squeeze in some exercise every day.” 

 

3-word phrasal verbs (adverb + preposition)

fill in for: substitute temporarily.

Sarah is going to fill in for me while I’m away for a few days.

be/let in on: exclusively involved with something or knowing secret information. If you let someone in on something, you reveal a secret to them.

Is she in on our plan?
I’m going to let you in on a secret.

weigh in on: to express an opinion.

“She weighed in on who she believes should be the next president.” 

 

Used as an Intensifier or Conversational Element

join in: “We’re going to the movies. You want to join in?

want in: “I created a Facebook group for the class. Whoever wants in let me know by sending me a private message.

fit in: “I don’t have anything personal against them, it’s just that I don’t fit in with your friends.

He tried to fit into the group.

He tried to fit into the group.

 

Expressions & Collocations

put in the work/the hours/practice/training: to work hard to achieve something.

 “I love working hard and I don’t mind putting in the hours, but at the end of the month I want to get paid well.”

call in sick: to inform your superior at work that you won’t be able to come to work because you’re ill.

“Mark just called in sick, he won’t work today.”

AROUND

 

Level 1

mess around: to behave in a silly way. (2) to be making jokes.

“Stop messing around and do your homework.”
(2) “I was just messing around with you.

Note: When people use it in a negation, like I don’t mess around, it means “I just take care of business” or “I get to the point.” If someone says “Don’t mess around with him” it means don’t annoy him because that could get you in trouble.

ask around: to ask a lot of people about something to get information.

“I didn’t know where the museum was, so I started to ask people around about directions.”

show around: to show someone different parts of a place or city.

“I you ever come to Moscow, I’ll show you around the city.”

 

Level 2

stick around: to stay at a place instead of going away.

“Don’t leave just yet guys, stick around for 30 more minutes.”

rush around: to do a lot of things very fast because you’re in a hurry. 

“Let’s make sure we arrange everything for the party before hand, so that we don’t need to rush around when it happens.”

lie around: to spend time lying down. (2) If something is lying around, it’s situated in a random place rather than on a specific and strategic place.

“I spent Sundays lying around and not doing anything.”
(2) “I’ve had this book lying around home for years, but I’ve now finally got around to reading it.” 

 

Level 3

come around: to change your opinion about something.

“It took me a long time to talk him into not quitting college, and it looks he’s little by little coming around.”  

get around: to travel frequently; to move from place to place. (2) (slang) to have sex with a lot of people.

It’s easy to get around this city because it’s quite small.

I get around Barcelona mainly by bike.

I get around Barcelona mainly by bike.

turn sth around: to improve significantly.

He was able to turn his life around with sheer willpower

 

3-word phrasal verbs (adverb + preposition)

got around to: to finally do something after procrastinating. 

“I finally got around to reading the final chapter of that book.”

 

Expressions & Collocations

know your way around: if you know you’re way around, it means you’re knowledgeable about something or are familiar with a place. “She knows her way around the kitchen. She’s a good chef.

what goes around comes around: used to say that one’s actions, either good or bad, will bring consequences.

get/wrap one’s head around: to finally understand a complex concept or idea. “I spent a whole year trying to wrap my head around the music business until I was able to make some money.”

do sth around the clock: without stopping; all the day long. “He works around the clock to provide for his family.”

DOWN

 

Level 1

write down: to write something quickly, often so that you do not forget. More informal alternative: jot down.

“Give me a sec, I’ll grab a pen to write down the address.”

Usage note: we use write down when we’re talking about a writing down a small piece of text. If it’s a longer text, we just say to write. Ex: “to write a book” vs “to write down an idea.”

break down: to stop functioning properly. (2) to separate something into smaller and more manageable areas.

“The car broke down in the middle of nowhere.”
“Let me break down the report into parts.”

My car broke down.

My car broke down.

turn down: to reduce the volume or intensity of something. (2) to not accept an offer; to reject.

Turn down the music”
“Someone offered me a good contract to work abroad but I turned it down because I’m happy with my current job.

 

Level 2

let down: to make someone feel disappointed because they expected something from you.

“He said he was sorry he let down his fans.”

go down: (informal) to take place.

“The boxing match went down in front of 20 thousand people.”

lie down: to put your back against the bed or the floor to rest, sleep, etc.; opposite of get up.

“They just want to lie down on the beach.”

The puppy loves lying down on the grass.

The puppy loves lying down on the grass.

 

Level 3

water down: to reduce something in force or effectiveness. (literal) to mix a drink with another liquid so as to lessen its original flavour.

“Don’t water down the message in order to not offend the wrong people. Say it like it is.”
(literally) “Water down the orange juice with some water.”

back down: to no longer want to do something because you’re afraid or something else is making you change your mind.

“They were supposed to get married but he backed down in the last minute.”

put (sb) down: to make someone feel stupid. (2) to kill an old animal; to euthanize.

“They kids are incredibly impolite. Today they tried to put down the cleaning lady.”
(2) “The lion was too sick, so the zoo staff had to put him down.

 

3-word phrasal verbs (adverb + preposition)

come down to: used to describe a situation by the most essential concept or thing. Also said as “to boil down to.

“To be successful it all comes down to doing what you love and letting other people love you.” 

come down with: to become ill with a disease.

He came down with the flu.” 

look down on: to think someone isn’t as important as you are; opposite to to look up to.

He looked down on her because she’s an immigrant.

narrow down to: to make a number of choices or options smaller.

“We’ve narrowed down the list of candidates to two people.”

 

Used as an Intensifier or Conversational Element

slow down“Their progressed slowed down when the recession hit.”

cool down: “It’s really hot today. I’ll take a cold shower to cool myself down.

calm down: “I always get nervous before taking important exams, I need to learn how to calm down.

 

Expressions & Collocations

lay down the rules: to establish the rules. “The coach laid down the rules, and said that if someone comes in to training more than 3 times, he’s out.” 

get down to business: to get serious about doing something you need to do. “Okay, enough dilly dallying, let’s get down to business and get started with the meeting.

break down in tears: to suddenly start crying. “She broke down in tears when she found out her puppy had died.”  

OVER

 

Level 1

go over: to examine or review. 

I need 10 more minutes to go over the speech script.”

take over: to take a position of power. (2) to become a predominant thing in your life.

“The new president is going to take over the government next month”
(2) “Partying and drugs took over his life.

get over: to start feeling well again. 

“I got a cold last week and I can’t get over it yet.”

 

Level 2

run (sb) over: to hit someone with a vehicle and drive over them.

“She got run over by a car”

knock over: to make something fall onto one side by push something it (especially accidentally).

The cat knocked the glass over.

That must have been the cat knocking stuff over again.

That must have been the cat knocking stuff over again.

stay over: to stay overnight at someone else’s house.

It’s too late for you to go back home. Don’t you want to stay over for the night?

 

Level 3

think (sth) over: to think carefully about something before making a decision.

“I’ll take some time to think over the idea . I’ll call you tomorrow.

screw over: to take advantage of someone’s trust in you.

They made us pay, but never sent us the product. They screwed us over.

Don't believe none of what that guys says. He'll screw you over.

Don’t believe none of what that guys says. He’ll screw you over.

pull over: (of a vehicle) to stop by the side of the road.

I pulled over to write a message on my phone.

Note: when the police pulls you over or when you get pulled over, the police makes you stop at the side of the road.

He got pulled over for speeding.

He got pulled over for speeding.

 

3-word phrasal verbs (adverb + preposition)

get it over with: to finish doing an unpleasant task or activity.

Can we get the class over with? I’m hungry and I want to go home.

head over to: to travel to some place.

I’m heading over to California this fall.”

 

Used as an Intensifier or Conversational Element

trip over: “He didn’t see the step on the floor and tripped over.

start over: “I overcooked the cake and had to start over.”

 

Expressions & Collocations

be/ go over someone’s heads: if something goes over your head, it is too complicated for you to understand.

All these tax regulations are way over my head.

over to you: used to say that now it’s your turn to do or say something.

over and over again: time and time again; yet another time. The phrase over and over gives more emphasis to the fact that something has been repeating itself several times.

“I’ve told her the same thing over and over again, but she just won’t pay attention.”

turn over a new leaf: to make a fresh start after a failure or unfortunate turn of events.

“He decided to put behind his history with drugs and turn over a new leaf.”

 

THROUGH

 

As far as I’m concerned, learners don’t tend to use many phrasal verbs with the particle “through.” That’s why I only listed just one phrasal verb under level 1, which if anything is more of a level 2 thant level 1 phrasal verb.

 

Level 1

flick through: to turn the pages of a book, magazine, etc. very quickly, only reading some headlines or a few sentences.

“He flicked through the magazine to kill some time.”

Note: “To skim through” is a similar expression but it means reading a text really quick to get an idea of what it’s about, to look for misspellings or to find specific information.

 

Level 2

see through: to perceive the hidden reason of someone’s behaviour. 

“He’s trying to be nice because he wants something from you, can’t you see through his intentions?”

go through: to analyze something, piece by piece. (2) to experience a difficult situation or period in one’s life.

“Let me go through the list of options until I make a final decision.”
(2) “He went through a lot of hardships in his childhood.”

get through: to manage to go through a difficult task or period with the help of something or someone. (2) To contact someone by phone. 

“We need to buy some warmer clothes to get us through the winter when we move to the north.”
I need some caffeine in the morning to help me get me through the day.
(2) “I called a hundred times but I couldn’t get through to him.

follow through: to continue doing something until it’s completed. 

“We need to follow through with the plan.”
“He promised the bank he was going to pay his debt but he didn’t follow through on it.”

come/shine through: if something like a talent or quality comes or shines through, it can be clearly seen. (2) to be sent or processed successfully.

“His skills shone through in the final match.”
“His years of hard work and dedication came through in the most important moment.
The wire transfer didn’t come through.”

 

Level 3

fall through: (of a plan, arrangement, deal, etc.) to fail, to not become what was expected. 

“We were holding out hope we would get to an agreement, but the contract negotiations fell through.”

power through: to do what you need to do to complete a task in a very determined and proactive way and in spite of all difficulties.

“We have a busy day ahead but we’re going to power through it as a team.” 

walk / take (sb) through (sth): to explain something to someone.

“Mark walked me through the process.”
“The trainer took us through all the surgical instruments.”

 

Expressions & Collocations

pass through one’s head: (also cross one’s mind) to think about something briefly.

Going back home never passed through his mind.

go/be through the roof: to increase to a very high level.

“Her blood pressure was through the roof.”
“Inflation has gone through the roof in this country.”

lie through one’s teeth: to tell a an outright lie.

“He lied through his teeth when he said he would follow through on his promise.”

pay through the nose: to pay a really high price for something.

“I paid through my nose last night at the restaurant.” 

 

Final Words: Make All These Phrasal Verbs Stick!

If you took your time to go through each one of the phrasal verbs above, your English is now 174 phrasal verbs richer! (minus the ones you already know).

However, we don’t have a computer hard drive in our heads in which we can save all the new information for us to use whenever we want. We have a brain, a muscle, and as such we need to train it if we want it to perform to the best of its ability.

As I wrote about in Master Vocabulary: How to Learn the Vocabulary that Native Speakers Use:

Any new piece of vocabulary you learn –or anything that you learn in life for that matter– is in the beginning a frail sprout that will only survive if you water it. In our case, the water is the practice of using your English regularly. This is the only way you can rest assured your English will take stronger roots and it will become better in all its different aspects.

Using your English regularly also means exposing yourself to it. If you make sure that every day you consume some kind of English content in the form of reading or listening (books, TV, podcast, music, video games) you’ll sooner or later come across these phrasal verbs. When you do, you’ll see that phrasal verb in another context and in another sentence and it will further consolidate in your brain.

For example, if you were first introduced to the PV “gang up on someone” in this article, you probably don’t have a firm grasp on its meaning and usage yet. However, it’ll register in your brain a lot better when you hear it in your favorite TV show, and then when you hear it one more time, you will start to own the concept of the verb. That’s how you master vocabulary.

Any question about phrasal verbs or the things I’ve explained in this article? Comment below!

About the Author Max

I'm the content creator and founder of Max English and the Master English Fluency Academy. As a professional ESL educator my mission is to help learners achieve their full potential by teaching them the skills they need to become a confident, successful and unstoppable English speaker.

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  • Birgit Häde

    Great- thanks! How can we print it without all the nice fotos/pictures?

    • Max Ahumada

      Glad it helps! You can do that by clicking on “more” next to the share buttons. One of the options you’ll see is “printFriendly.” Click on it and an editing box will pop up. Click on each one of the images you want to remove and then save it as a PDF.

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  • Emmanuel

    EXCELLENT article, Max!!! If only I had found it a month ago! Many of my advanced students still struggle with using phrasal verbs, and you really nailed it. I’m sharing it right away, this article will be a great resource for them – and me! It definitely deserves to be read, thanks for writing it! ; )

    • Max Ahumada

      Thank you Emmanuel! I hope your students find this guide useful.