Definition of term Phrasal Verbs

Prepositions can sit after certain verbs, and are known as Phrasal Verbs:

to sit through, to dig in, to dig around, to rifle through, to cough up, to drag down, to pile in, to sit out, to chip in, to make up, to buy out, to butter up

Phrasal verbs are usually conversational in tone and correlate more with speech than writing. Consider the register of

to do (someone) over, to do (someone) in, to kick off ‘to create a fuss, to fight’, to turn round and say ‘to respond’, to have it away with, to have it off with, to have it out with, to get on with, to get off with, to get off on, to put up with

Phrasal verbs are relatively new in the system, and new ones are being coined – the Oxford English Dictionary has no attestations as yet of to kick off ‘to fight, quarrel, start to make a fuss’. However ‘relatively new’ means, in this context, within the last six hundred years or so. Click here to see the history of doff, v. , which is a coalesced form of the phrasal verb to do off, first attested in a document dated before 1375, and click here to see don v.1 , a coalesced form of to do on. Doff and don sound archaic (contrast “Put on your coat” with “Don your coat”) but they are early examples of a construction which is gaining more and more members – linguists say a type which is gaining more and more tokens. A twenty-first century text is more likely to contain phrasal verbs than a fourteenth-century one.

Phrasal verbs can be divided into two groups, those which are transparent semantically (to speak out, to jump up), and those where the sum of the two (or more) elements does not add up to the meaning.

I can’t put up with this.

In this case, the semantics of put plus up plus with do not equal ‘tolerate’; the baby or foreign learner just has to learn this sequence off by heart. We have to commit the meaning of such sequences to memory, it can’t be worked out from the semantics of the elements.

Demonstration of Phrasal Verbs

The text below is some dialogue from a novel. Read through the text and try to identify the phrasal verbs, then click below to see the phrasal verbs made explicit:

In the text below, the phrasal verbs are shown in blue.

… I had the devils own job to get it out of him though I liked him for that it showed he could hold in and wasnt to be got for the asking he was on the pop of asking me too the night in the kitchen I was rolling the potato cake theres something I want to say to you only for I put him off letting on I was in a temper with my hands and arms full of pasty flour in any case I let out too much the night before talking of dreams so I didnt want to let him know more than was good for him she used to be always embracing me Josie whenever he was there meaning him of course glauming me over and when I said I washed up and down as far as possible asking me did you wash possible the women are always egging on to that putting it on thick when hes there they know by his sly eye blinking a bit putting on the indifferent when they come out with something …

Hide explicit phrasal verbs.

Click here to see the phrasal verbs in the above text made explicit.

In the context of this text, the thoughts of the character Molly Bloom, the phrasal verbs could be paraphrased as follows, with the base form of the verb in orange and the postposed prepositions in blue:

to get something out of someone: to force someone to reveal something

to hold in: to remain impervious, stand firm

to get for the asking: to be easily won

to be on the pop of: to be about to

to put someone off: to deter someone

to let on: to pretend

to let out: to reveal

to glaum someone over: to maul (Scots, Scots-Irish dialect)

to wash up/to wash down: to wash up and down the body

to egg on to: to incite, urge, encourage

to put it on thick: to exaggerate

to put on the indifferent: to assume, pretend, dissemble

to come out with: to say

We are listening to Molly’s memories at this point, and her tone is colloquial and informal. This is largely conveyed by the phrasal verbs.

Literary Exercise

Listen to Philip Larkin reading his poem Mr Bleaney here , and find the phrasal verbs.

Mr Bleaney

‘This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed

The whole time he was at the Bodies, till

They moved him.’ Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,

Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land,

Tussocky, littered. ‘Mr Bleaney took

My bit of garden properly in hand.’

Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags –

‘I'll take it.’ So it happens that I lie

Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags

On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown

The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.

I know his habits – what time he came down,

His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways –

Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk

Who put him up for summer holidays,

And Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind

Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed

Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,

And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,

And at his age having no more to show

Than one hired box should make him pretty sure

He warranted no better, I don’t know.

What is the effect of the phrasal verbs? Write your answer below:

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:

In the following the verbs are in red and the postposed prepositions are in blue.

The phrasal verbs are:

To be at: ‘he was at the Bodies’ (perhaps a car body repair workshop)

Paraphrase: ‘to work at, be employed at’

To fall to: ‘Flowered curtains, thin and frayed, / Fall to within five inches of the sill’

Paraphase: ‘reach to’

To take in hand: ‘Mr Bleaney took / My bit of garden properly in hand.’

Paraphrase: ‘to assume responsibility for’

To stub on: ‘stub my fags / On the same saucer-souvenir’

Paraphrase, ‘to put out, grind out’

To stuff with: ‘Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool’

Paraphrase, ‘to push in, force in’

To egg on: ‘he egged her on’ (in reference to a too-loud radio, called a wireless set at the time)

Paraphrase: ‘to encourage, exhort’

To come down: ‘what time he came down’

Paraphrase: ‘to present oneself to the rest of the household in the morning, dressed, washed and shaved, though probably not breakfasted’

To keep on: ‘He kept on plugging at the four aways –’

Paraphrase, ‘to continue’

To plug at: (in reference to playing the football pools, which he clearly never won much money at)

Paraphrase: ‘to repeatedly attempt in the face of failure’

To put up: ‘the Frinton folk / Who put him up for summer holidays’

Paraphrase: ‘to have as a guest’

To lie on: ‘lay on the fusty bed’

Here the addition of the preposition doesn’t change the core meaning – ‘to lie on, under, across, etc.’ all mean to lie supine, or prone. Compare to stuff with, to keep on, which also retain the primary sense of the verb, in contrast with to plug at, which has nothing to do with the primary sense of the word plug.  Plug at is a phrasal verb, whereas the other three are better described as [V + Prep] - though a cut-and-dried distinction is not always possible.


The poem has a conversation playing in the background, a conversation between the landlady showing the room and her prospective tenant viewing it. We hear snatches of the landlady’s voice but not the tenant’s responses to her, apart from “I’ll take it.”. However, indirectly, we hear her remarks about the habits of her former lodger, so we can infer not only the present conversation between them at the start of the poem, but also, in stanzas 4 and 5, subsequent conversations.

This poem was enormously popular at the time of publication, and has proved to be one of Larkin’s most famous works. It may have to do with the readership identifying with the tenant – most people after the war lived in lodgings rather than owned their own property. The non-attainment of youthful ambition becomes a concern in middle age.

Teaching Point

Being relatively new in the system, phrasal verbs will usually sound conversational and informal in register. They lend a casual, everyday tone to a discourse.