phrasal verb

Definition

General English

Idiom of “phrasal verb”

Phrasal verbs are often highly idiomatic. They are made up of a simple verb followed by a preposition or an adverb such as across, by, of, to, etc. These often combine to give a single meaning not easily guessable from the meaning of the separate components.

Look at these pairs. Note that only the second example in each pair is an idiomatic phrasal verb. The first example is a simple verb plus prepositional phrase.

1. They ran / up the street.
2. They ran up an enormous bill. [ran up = incurred]

1. She looked / up the chimney.
2. She looked up the dictionary. [looked up = consulted]

1. She came / across the street to tell us her news.
2. She came across an old, locked trunk in her attic. [came across = discovered]

1. He sent the parcel up to me by courier.
2. In their act, they send up various prominent politicians. [send up = satirise]

Phrasal verbs are a feature of colloquial and spoken English rather than of formal or written language. There are thousands of phrasal verbs in English, and to list them would double the length of this dictionary. The main coverage of phrasal verbs in this dictionary is where they feature as elements in a larger idiom. See for example the entries for get away with murder, get/ put someone’s back/dander up, get on like a house on fire, get up (a good head of) steam, knock it off, lash out on something, rip someone off, etc.

Recent – and with luck temporary – additions to the lexicon include phrasal verbs like sex up (= embellish data), dumb up (= confuse with science), big up (= enlarge), fess up (= admit), listen up (= listen very carefully). The ‘up’ part of these phrases is often superfluous: but ‘up’ is going through a hyper-productive phase.
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