English contains a bewildering number of so-called phrasal verbs: two- or three-word compounds that seem to consist of a verb and a preposition—things like bring up, fill in, give away, pay back, work out, and many more. The Oxford Phrasal Verbs Dictionary lists 6,000 of them in its 2016 edition.
Native speakers of English learn these naturally in the course of language acquisition, though the diversity and intricacy of phrasal verbs makes them difficult for English speakers to analyze and explain. What is the difference between cleaning an office and cleaning up an office? Or writing something and writing up something? If you clean an office, you are removing dirt, dust, and trash; if you clean up an office you are making it orderly. To write something often implies starting at the beginning, while to write up something suggests some result or organization is already evident.
Phrasal verbs are not only semantically idiosyncratic but grammatically complex as well. Grammatical descriptions of English can be helpful, but terminologically daunting: some sources say that phrasal verbs are made up of verbs plus prepositions. But other sources may refer to the second element as a particle—a somewhat vague grammatical term for a word which is uninflected and which forms a part of another word. And most prepositions can also be used as adverbs. Look up, call off, drop in: are these verb plus preposition, verb plus particle, or verb plus adverb? Before you give up, let me offer a few tips to navigate the complexity of phrasal verbs.
- Phrasal verbs are verbal idioms whose meanings are less predictable than their prepositional or adverbial counterparts. If we say that someone looked up the answer or dropped off a package, the meanings of up and off are not literal in the way that they are in looked up the hill or dropped off the cliff.
- Phrasal verbs often have formal synonyms: You can hand things out or distribute them, turn them in or submit them, set up or arrange, call off or cancel, go ahead or proceed, look into or investigate. If a two-word verb seems it have a more formal paraphrase, often from Latin or French, it may be a phrasal verb.
- Phrasal verbs have a unique syntax in that they allow the particle to shift away from the verb and hop over a direct object when one is present. You can hand out the exams or hand the exams out. The separability—the hoppiness—of the particle tells you that out the exams is not a prepositional phrase.
- Syntactic tests can be tricky though, since they are not completely exceptionless: if the direct object is a pronoun, then the particle must occur after it (the teacher handed out them is not fluent English, but the teacher handed them out is just fine).
- Another exception: if there is an indirect object, then a particle is not permitted unless the indirect object is preceded by a preposition. So The teacher handed the students out the exams is decidedly unEnglish, while The teacher handed the exams out to the students or The teacher handed out the exams to the students are both fine.
- Another good test test is to convert the sentence to the passive voice. If the predicate contains a phrasal verb, then the direct object can shift to the subject positon. We can say The house was fixed up by the new owners or The character was killed off by the writers. But oddness of The trail was walked up by the hikers or The horse was fallen off by the rider suggests that up and off are more closely connected to the trail and the horse than to the verbs walked and fallen.
You can double check this another way too. If you suspect something is a prepositional phrase rather than a particle plus noun, you may be able to shift the prepositional phrase to the front of the sentence: Up the trail, the hikers walked or Off the horse, the rider fell are okay. But Up the house, the new owners fixed or Off the character the writers killed don’t work at all.
Less predictable meanings, more formal synonyms, particle hoppiness, and openness to the passive voice—four tests that can help you to decide when you are dealing with a phrasal verb.
Try them out. Who knows what you will turn up.