All You Need to Know about Phrasal Verbs! (Plus a Bonus Exercise for FB Messenger!)

By Josh Evans, Head of Instruction at Spoken

I have taught English in many different settings -- all across China, at a university in the US, and now with the Spoken language learning platform. There is one topic that English learners always ask about time and time again: phrasal verbs. These strange little verbs are a real challenge for learners!

Phrasal verbs get their name from the fact that, unlike other verbs, they consist of more than one word. Here are a few examples:

1. "I'm afraid I must turn down your offer."

2. "I'd like to think over the plan before making a decision."

3. "You can use the dictionary to look up unfamiliar words."

Why Phrasal Verbs Are So Difficult

I think that there are three reasons why English phrasal verbs are such a challenge. The first reason is that they seem so frustratingly familiar! Let's take the phrasal verb from sentence #1 as an example: turn down. Both words are pretty basic. Even beginners will know the meaning of turn and the meaning of down. But when we put these two words together, it creates an entirely different meaning of reject.

So why do we say turn down in English to mean reject? You can see how down has a slightly negative meaning. But why don't we instead say turn off or turn away? Actually those are both different phrasal verbs with their own special meanings! And to make things even worse, we can use turn down in other contexts to mean decrease. Argh!

“Please turn down the radio. It’s too loud!” (decrease the volume)

Remembering Phrasal Verbs

This brings us to the second challenge of phrasal verbs: you just have to memorize them like vocabulary. And there are thousands of phrasal verbs in English, many of which are used very frequently in everyday speaking. Of course, we can't cover even a small fraction of all of these phrasal verbs in one blog post. However, there are some techniques that can make the learning process easier! At the bottom of this post, you will find a Facebook Messenger Exercise where you can try out a free Spoken Sparks exercise for learning phrasal verbs.

Tricky Grammar

But phrasal verbs aren't just vocabulary for you to memorize! The third main challenge is that phrasal verbs involve some strange grammar. For one thing, phrasal verbs can be split into two parts with other words in between. Let's take another look at sentences 1, 2, and 3:

1. "I'm afraid I must turn down your offer."

2. "I'd like to think over the plan before making a decision."

3. "You can use the dictionary to look up unfamiliar words."

Sentence #1 could also be...

"I'm afraid I must turn your offer down."

In this sentence, the direct object phrase your offer comes between the first and second parts of the phrasal verb.

Exercise #1

Try converting sentences 2 and 3. Write your answers in a comment at the end of the blog post. I'll provide the answers in a couple of days!

But that's not all! It gets even trickier, because there are some additional constraints on splitting phrasal verbs up. For one thing, it is best not to split the phrasal verb if the direct object phrase is very long. Compare the following two sentences:

4. "I'm afraid I must turn down your very generous and appealing business offer" (GOOD!)

5. "I'm afraid I must turn your very generous and appealing business offer down" (Meh...)

Sentence 5 may not be totally ungrammatical, but it certainly would be difficult to say and even harder to understand! If the direct object phrase is longer than a couple of words, it is best to put it at the end of the sentence.

But wait, there's more!

Here is one last grammar point that throws learners for a loop. Splitting the phrasal verb is usually optional. However, if the direct object phrase is a pronoun (him, her, them, it, etc.), then it must split the phrasal verb. Let's have a look:

6. GOOD: "I appreciate the offer, but I'm afraid I must turn it down."

7. BAD: "I appreciate the offer, but I'm afraid I must turn down it."

Exercise #2

Tricky, right? To finish things up, you can have a try. Try fixing the following sentences. Include  your answers in the comment with your answers for Exercise 1!

A. "I'd like to think over it before making a decision."

B. "You can use the dictionary to look up them."


Phrasal verbs are one of the biggest challenges for English learners at all levels. Phrasal verbs seem like they should be easy because they are usually composed of basic words. However, the meanings of phrasal verbs are different from the meanings of their parts. Sometimes these differences can be pretty subtle too! At the end of the day, you will have to put in some hard work to memorize them, just like other vocabulary. Fortunately there are many good tools to help you out with this! Try out the Facebook Messenger Exercise below to practice a Spoken Sparks phrasal verbs session!

Facebook Messenger Phrasal Verb Exercise! (Click the link below to try!)


(Just message “Go!” in Messenger to begin!)