How to Use Phrasal Verbs in Sentences
Because phrasal verbs are difficult to master, many English learners tend to avoid them. But phrasal verbs are very common in spoken English, so without a good knowledge of them, it’ll be a challenge to understand conversations. It will also be difficult to express yourself naturally in English.
For instance, we say, “I put on my clothes every morning,” instead of “I dress myself every morning.” We say, “I just want to fit in” instead of saying, “I want to feel more accepted by my community.”
If you aren’t comfortable with using phrasal verbs yet, that doesn’t make you bad at English. People will still understand what you mean if you use a verb that has the same meaning. But keep in mind that when you avoid using phrasal verbs, and instead use one-word alternatives, you may sound more reserved or formal than you’d like to.
Now here’s the big reason why you might be afraid of using phrasal verbs: You’re scared to use the wrong one.
And that makes a lot of sense! It can be easy to confuse them sometimes. For example, if you say you “I threw the trash up” instead of “I threw the trash out” last night, you might get some interesting reactions from your English speaking friends.
When an English learner makes this kind of mistake and feels embarrassed about it, they usually take one of two paths: 1) They decide to forget trying to use phrasal verbs because they’re too complicated, or 2) They decide they need to practice using phrasal verbs in sentences, but they don’t know how.
How can you use phrasal verbs in sentences correctly and avoid making mistakes with them?
You can take it in five steps, one step at a time, which is what we’ll talk about today:
Start by Learning Phrasal Verbs the Right Way
Learn How to Phrasal Verbs in Statements
Learn How to Phrasal Verbs in Questions
Learn How to Phrasal Verbs in Commands
Learn How to Phrasal Verbs in the Passive Voice
TIPS ON USING PHRASAL VERBS IN SENTENCES
Start by Learning Phrasal Verbs the Right Way
We’ve written a lot about phrasal verbs because we know how important they are! So, we’ve talked a lot about the right way to learn them. There are lots of different strategies you can use to help you learn them, but here are a couple of quick suggestions:
1. Group them by the particle instead of the verb.
The particle is the second part of the phrasal verb such as out, up, in, or on. Grouping them by verbs such as “get” will confuse you because the verbs “get up” and “get into” may sound the same, but they have very different meanings, and it’s much harder to guess what they mean based on the verb. The particle, on the other hand, can give you some clue as to the meaning of the verb if you’re reading it or hearing it for the first time.
2. Group them by subject or theme.
Also, try to learn them in groups of five to seven. Putting phrasal verbs together by theme will help you to memorize them even better because of the associations this will create in your mind. And if that theme or subject means something to you emotionally, that’s even better!
Ask yourself: Is it Separable or Inseparable?
We say that a phrasal verb is separable when you can insert a word between the first and second parts of the verb. In an inseparable phrasal verb, we cannot insert a word between the first and second words.
Take the separable phrasal verb plug in, for example. We can say,
I forgot to plug in the toaster.
I forgot to plug the toaster in.
Did you notice how the structure of the sentence changed in both cases?
Sometimes you can figure out if a phrasal verb is separable or inseparable from memory and by trying out both options. But if you can’t, I suggest looking it up in a dictionary or on Phrasal Verb Demon.
How to use Phrasal Verbs in Declarative Sentences
I’ve mentioned in another grammar post that English is a S + V + O (Subject + Verb + Object) language. This means that in a basic statement in English - or a declarative sentence - we have to start with the subject, then the verb, then the object.
Well, phrasal verbs can complicate that structure, especially if they’re separable.
To illustrate this, let’s look at the separable phrasal verb heat up. We heat something up when we take something that has already been cooked out of the freezer or refrigerator and put it in the microwave or oven to make it hot again. So, we can say,
I heated up the leftovers for dinner last night.
We have the subject I, the verb heated up, and the object the leftovers. But what happens when the phrasal verb is separable?
I heated the leftovers up for dinner last night.
In this example, the object goes between the words heated and up. Both sentences are correct and possible, and in this case, you can use both.
Don’t forget this tip when using phrasal verbs with personal pronouns!
Now, here’s something essential that you need to remember about using a separable phrasal verb in a sentence. When the object of the verb is a personal pronoun (such as me, you, her, him, it, us, or them), we always insert them into a separable phrasal verb. For example
I’m picking him up after school.
I’m picking up him after school.
My dog wakes me up every morning.
My dog wakes up me every morning.
You can set it down over there.
You can set down it over there.
Watch out for prepositional phrases!
You’ll want to pay attention when you use a phrasal verb with a prepositional phrase talking about a place or location, such as on the wall or on the table. If you put them together in the same sentence, you’ll want to be really careful with your structure. So, take a look at this example,
I’ll hang the painting up on the wall.
If you want to use the prepositional phrase on the wall, you should make sure that the word painting goes between hang and up. If you don’t, you’ll get a confusing sentence, like
I’ll hang up the painting on the wall.
It’s hard to figure out what this sentence means, right? Is the painting already on the wall? Are you going to hang it up again? To make it less confusing, you can also say,
I’ll hang the painting on the wall.
We can, but we don’t need to use up because we know exactly where the painting is going: on the wall.
Here are some other examples of what I mean:
Set the chairs up around the room.
Set the chairs around the room.
Set up the chairs around the room.
Put the clothes away in the drawer.
Put the clothes in the drawer.
Put away the clothes in the drawer.
A note about phrasal verbs in formal or academic writing
Part of the reason phrasal verbs can make you sound more natural is that they are often (but not always!) considered more informal. This doesn’t mean that phrasal verbs have no place in academic writing, but if you want to use a phrasal verb in academic or business writing, you should just be a bit more careful.
The truth is that we use phrasal verbs all the time in work and business contexts because they make communication more efficient. We use verbs like reach out, point out, fit in, and work out all the time.
So, here’s the important thing to keep in mind: Ending a sentence on a preposition is generally considered a bad practice in academic or formal writing. Make sure, then, that you know your audience, and that you can avoid using a phrasal verb without an object at the end of the sentence if possible.
How to Use Phrasal Verbs in Questions
Questions follow a different structure from declarative sentences, and it’s important to know how phrasal verbs fit into that structure. And, because there are four different types of questions in English, we’re going to look at the three most important question structures and how separable and inseparable phrasal verbs fit into each of those structures.
Yes or no questions
We call them yes or no questions because they only have two answers, of course: yes or no. Depending on the tense of the question - whether it’s in the present, future, present perfect, or present continuous, for example - these types of questions often start with a linking verb, like are, will, or, did, do, or have. In the examples below, you’ll see two different options for questions using a separable phrasal verb:
Did you turn off the lamp? OR Did you turn the lamp off?
Have you turned in your report yet? OR Have you turned your report in yet?
Are you meeting up with him this afternoon?
Can I catch up with you later?
Wh- questions begin with words like who, what, where, when, why, and how, and then, like yes or no questions they are followed by a linking verb:
Why didn’t you point out my mistake? OR Why didn’t you point my mistake out?
When did you run into him?
Where did you come across this information?
How did the party turn out?
Choice questions, which are also called either/or questions, ask the responder - the person answering the question - to make a choice. We often start these questions with a linking verb like do or a modal verb like should if we’re asking for a suggestion.
With a choice question, we can offer two completely different options, like doing one thing or doing another. But we can also offer the choice between doing something or not doing something, and in this case, we usually end the question with or not? So, how do phrasal verbs fit in to these kinds of questions?
Should I turn on this lamp or switch on the overhead lights? OR Should I turn this lamp on or switch the overhead lights on?
Should I look up the answer online or figure it out on my own? OR Should I look the answer up online or figure it out on my own?
Do you want to order in or go out for dinner?
Should we reach out to him or not?
How to Use Phrasal Verbs in Commands
Remember what I said earlier about using personal pronouns with phrasal verbs? Well, it definitely applies to commands.
When we structure a command, the subject is implied, so we don’t have to mention it. The subject is always you or you all. So, that just leaves us with the verb and the object, as in,
Clean up this mess! OR Clean this mess up!
But, when we use commands, we often use them with personal pronouns:
Pick it up!
Wake me up before you leave.
Leave me out of this argument.
Look it up for yourself!
How to Phrasal Verbs in the Passive Voice
If you need a little review about the passive voice, remember that in this structure, the object of the sentence becomes the subject:
Active voice: They arrested the suspect at midnight last night.
Passive voice: The suspect was arrested at midnight last night.
You should definitely check out our post about the passive voice if you need a list of phrasal verbs that we often use in this structure.
And, unlike the other sentence forms we mentioned, you’ll find that we don’t separate phrasal verbs in the passive voice because we always put the object at the beginning. So, we can say,
She was held up by traffic on the highway.
They were fired up about the news on TV.
We were ripped off by the travel agency that planned our trip.
Put the words in the right order.
pick up / we’ll / them / after / work.
I / hung up / the laundry / in the closet.
you / did / turn off / it / ?
he / ripped off / has / been / never / before.
try on / just / it.
About the writer
Marta is an online ESL teacher who works with students from around the world. As a writer, language nerd, and content contributor for In English With Love, her mission is to empower English learners with knowledge and positivity.