English Phrasal Verb Behavior
Hi Language Aficionados! Today’s post on English phrasal verbs is for learners of English as a Second Language. The term “phrasal verbs” refers to a complex type of verb that:
consists of a verb stem plus a preposition or particle (un-inflected word, like “up”, ), or one of each; and
has a meaning that is non-compositional — that is, it means something other than what one would expect knowing just the meaning of its individual parts.
For example, the phrase “to put up with something” means ‘to tolerate something’. Even if learners know the basic meanings of the words “put”, “up”, and “with”, they still won’t have enough information to piece together the meaning of the whole phrase! An expression of this type has to be learned together, as if it were a vocabulary word on its own.
Below I discuss several examples of this type of expression, in alphabetical order. We can only begin to examine a tiny portion of what’s out there in this first post. English is very rich in these expressions. In the discussions of usage, I will mention several ill-formed sentences, marked with a bold x. This indicates that the following sentence will sound bad to the ears of a native speaker—they are things you must not say if your aim is to produce idiomatic English!
These terms can be very deceptive, and sometimes the meanings are very unexpected. My suspicion is that many ESL teachers don’t pay special attention to them, as they often go unnoticed by native speakers. So I dedicate this post to all of you who have been left scratching your heads after multiple fruitless trips to the dictionary. I hope you find it informative and enjoyable!
Be fed up (with something)
This is an expression we can use when we’re disgusted by something or have had enough of something unpleasant, for example:
I’m fed up with my roommate’s laziness!
It occurs only in the passive voice (xIt feeds me up; xHe has fed me up with it). The particle “up” has the sense of completion or reaching the maximum, as in “used up”, “eat up”, “drink up”, and many others.
The verb “to chill” primarily means ‘to lower the temperature’ (it is related to the words “cool” and “cold”), but that literal meaning is not present in this expression, which means something like ‘relax, calm down’. For example:
Will you chill out? It’s not like I invited the whole football team over, it’s just a few friends.
This phrase is also very commonly abbreviated to just “chill”.
Come up with
This phrase is close in meaning to ‘produce’, and generally can take two types of things as the object of “with”:
money or other resource
For (a), ‘thought of’ is a synonym, and an example is:
This is the solution we came up with.
For (b), ‘find’ and ‘provide’ are synonyms. An example of its usage is:
We were only able to come up with 57 cents.
This phrase sounds a bit odd in the passive voice:
xThis is what was come up with by us.
Feel up to doing something
The expression “up to” here means ‘capable of doing’ (mentally or physically) and can occur with other verbs, like “be” or “seem”. It is most commonly heard in the Negative or in a question:
Is that something you’d feel up to?
No, I don’t quite feel up to it today.
Do you feel up to trying that?
Figure something out
This expression refers to finding the solution to how something works, as in:
Thomas Edison figured out how to record sounds.
I finally figured out how to use email!
If the thing figured out is expressed as a clause (as in the examples above), it must follow the word “out” (xHe figured how to record sounds out), but the grammatical object should come before the particle “out” if it is a noun or pronoun:
We’ve figured it out!
(And not: xWe’ve figured out it).
Get over something
This phrase means ‘to stop feeling the unpleasant effects’ of something, such as grief or rejection. We can also say “to be over something”. For example:
He never got over the untimely death of his goldfish Lucky.
This means that the subject never fully recovered from his loss.
Get something over with
Commonly heard in sentences like:
Let’s just get it over with quickly.
This means ‘to finish as fast as possible’, particularly something that is unpleasant. The phrase sounds odd when put in the passive voice (xIt has been gotten over with), and note that the object has to come before the words “over with” (xLet’s get over with it).
Give a crap (about something)
This expression is impolite, so it should not be used in a professional or formal setting. It means ‘to care, to be concerned’. It is mainly used in the Negative or in a question (I don’t give a crap), but can occur in the affirmative. If someone said,
He really gives a crap.
I would suspect the person saying it was using irony, and was implying the subject really did not care.
This intransitive phrase has nothing to do with suspending things, but is a colloquial expression meaning ‘to spend time with friends in a relaxed manner’. For example:
I don’t wanna get all dressed up, so let’s just hang out at my place.
We never get a chance to just hang out anymore!
It sounds a bit odd in the imperative without any further complement (xHang out! xDon’t hang out!) — but if one specifies the person or people with whom, or the place where, it works much better:
Come hang out with me!
Don’t hang out with that guy!
Don't hang out there.
Don't hang out at that bar after hours!
Has nothing to do with the dictionary meaning of “to kick”: ‘forcefully strike with the foot or leg’, and the “it” in this expression does not refer to anything — It would be meaningless to ask, “What were you kicking?” This phrasal verb means the same as “to hang out”: ‘to pass the time in a relaxed, enjoyable way, especially with friends’ and can be modified using a with phrase:
I was just kickin’ it with my homies.
I don’t feel there are any tense or aspect restrictions, but it sounds odd in the imperative (xKick it! xDon’t kick it!) as well as the passive (xIt is being kicked by us.), since the “it” doesn’t refer to anything.
Make up for something
This phrase means ‘to compensate for, to make redress.’ (Be careful not to confuse it with “to make up”, which can mean ‘to invent’ or ‘to compose [a group]’). For example:
It’s good that you’re able to say you’re sorry, but that doesn’t make up for what you did.
The order of the three words in this phrase cannot be altered, so we cannot move the “for” phrase to the beginning of the sentence (xFor this you should make up).
Own up to something
This one means ‘to take responsibility for’ or ‘admit wrongdoing’, as in:
Everyone makes mistakes, so why can’t you just own up to it?
The “to” phrase cannot be moved to the front of the sentence (xTo this I will own up, but not to that), nor can the word “up” be shifted in such a way (xUp to this I will own).
Put up with something
As mentioned in the introduction, this phrasal verb is a synonym of the word “tolerate”. One important point about this expression is that the verb “put”, the particle “up”, and the preposition “with” have to stay in this linear order: we cannot rearrange these elements without losing the meaning. So we cannot say
xIt was something up with which I could not put.
Nor does it sound good to say
xIt was something with which I could not put up.
Instead we would have to say:
It was something (which) I could not put up with.
(By the way, this disproves the often repeated but bogus rule that it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition! In this case we have to end it with the word “with”. The rule is correct for writing Latin, but does not apply to Modern English.)
What’s up (with someone/something)
This one is related to the common, especially North American greeting “what’s up?”, which means “what is going on? what’s new?” To say that something is up in this context means that it is ‘going on’ or ‘the matter’ — it doesn’t mean ‘up in the sky’ or anything like that.
This expression has some interesting usage restrictions: the grammatical subject can only be in the third person (one can’t say xI am what’s up with her lately, or xI am what’s up with her). Also, the verb “to be” here must be finite (inflected), meaning it cannot appear as an infinitive (xThis is what is felt to be up; xTo be up or not to be up) or a participle or gerund (xIt’s interesting without being up). In tenses other than the simple present it sounds fine:
That’s what was up at the time.
But the progressive aspect is no good: xIt is being up.
The phrasal verbs we have examined all fit into a common template: (1) the verb stem; (2) a particle; (3) a preposition. Other elements can occur in some expressions right after the verb stem, as shown in the following chart:
That concludes our English language post for this week. Please leave a comment if you have questions or further examples, especially if you ran into any English phrasal verbs that gave you a lot of trouble when you first encountered them!
Remember not to get discouraged by the hundreds of phrasal verbs in English—just treat them as single vocab words. If dictionaries aren’t helpful, it’s probably best to ask a native speaker. You can always ask us language-related questions at: