B. Phrasal verbs: form and meaning


A phrasal verb is a verb combined with an adverb or preposition, and occasionally with an adverb and preposition.

  • The price of petrol may go up (= increase) again next week.
  • He fell over (= fell to the ground) when he was running for the bus.
  • She’s promised to find out (= learn/discover) the name of that new hotel.
  • Who is going to look after (= take care of) the children when she goes into hospital?
  • If you don’t understand the meaning, you can look it up (= find the meaning in a book – in this case a dictionary).
  • He doesn’t get on with (= have a good relationship with) his parents, (verb + adv + prep)


Sometimes the meaning of a phrasal verb is very similar to the base verb, and the adverb just emphasises the meaning of the base verb,

  • stand up
  • wake up
  • save up
  • hurry up
  • sit down
  • lie down
  • send off (e.g. a letter).

On other occasions, the adverb adds the idea of completing the action of the verb

  • drink up (= finish your drink)
  • eat up (= finish eating)
  • finish off.

But more often, the meaning of a phrasal verb is very different from the base verb

  • go up doesn’t mean the same as go
  • look after is different from look; and look after is also quite different from look up.

An adverb or preposition can therefore change the meaning of a verb a great deal.

Here are some more examples of this type of phrasal verb.

  • It took her a long time to get over (= get better / recover from) her illness.
  • He told me to carry on (= continue) as far as the traffic lights.
  • I persuaded my wife to give up (= stop ) smoking.
  • I can’t make any sandwiches because we’ve run out of bread. (= the bread is finished / all used, so we have no bread)
  • In the end my next-door neighbour had to come and put out (= extinguish/stop) the fire.

Multiple meaning

Many phrasal verbs have more than one meaning, so you must be careful when you see a phrasal verb you think you know, or look up the meaning in a dictionary.

In the examples marked *, the phrasal verb is much more natural than the explanation in brackets.

  • It was hot so I decided to *take off (= remove) my jacket.
  • I am always nervous when the plane * takes off (= leaves the ground).
  • I don’t think I’ll get through (= finish) this report before five o’clock. I think she’ll get through (= pass) the exam.
  • I “picked up the rubbish (= took it from the ground or a low place) and put it in the bin.
  • I had to go to the shop to pick up (= collect) my photos.
  • My alarm clock didn’t go off (= ring) this morning.
  • The bomb could go off (= explode) at any minute.
  • The fish will *go off (= go bad) if you don’t put it in the fridge.