How to Use Phrasal Verbs Like Native English Speakers

Native English speakers use a phenomenon called phrasal verbs. These are a set of two or three words that come together to mean something unique and different.

How to Use Phrasal Verbs Like Native English Speakers

Ever seen the movie, Get Out? It's a great thriller, but what does "get out" mean? Why do we use it instead of just saying "run" or "leave"?

In English, we have a phenomenon called phrasal verbs. These are two (or sometimes even three!) words that, put together, become a set phrase and mean something different.

Think of it like mint and chocolate. On their own, they are their own unique flavor. Put them together and you get something totally different! (And maybe great or terrible, depending on how you feel.)

Phrasal verbs are extremely important to learn if you're studying English. Not only are they very specific, they're also incredibly common. Native speakers use them so often that, most of the time, we only use the phrasal verb instead of the more formal, textbook version.

For example, here is one: ask someone out.

What does that mean? Well, it means to invite someone on a date. Most native speakers wouldn't say "I invited her on a date!" You could, but it sounds far more natural to say "I asked her out!"

But these phrasal verbs can get tricky because they're often very similar-looking. Should you say break in or break up? Cut in, cut out or cut off?

Fear not! After reading this, you'll have phrasal verbs all figured out. See what I did there?

a picture of colorful gears

Let's Break Down Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are simply a verb plus another component, usually an adverb or preposition.

A quick review of the parts of speech:

Verbs are action words. It's what the subject does.
Example: Betty walks to the store.

Adverbs are words that modify the verb. It changes the verb's meaning.
Example: Betty slowly walks to the store.

Now our sentence is a little different. It shows how she did the action.

Prepositions are words that show relationships between nouns and other parts of speech. They express relationships of location, movement and time.
Example: After work, Betty walks to the store next to the school. She finds a worker of the store and asks him to reach above the shelf.

So with a phrasal verb, we're simply combining a regular verb and an adverb or preposition.

Here's an example:
Give + up
Give up = to stop trying

The verb here is to to give. The second word is a preposition, up. Together, they create a new meaning: to stop trying.

Got it so far? Don't give up!

Let's look at some more common examples of phrasal verbs.

a plane on a runway about to take off

The Most Common English Phrasal Verbs

This is a long list, but it's not nearly all of the common phrasal verbs you might hear in English. Don't worry, you don't need to memorize all of these. These are just good expressions to be familiar with!

Phrasal Verb What It Means Example Sentence
Ask somebody out to invite on a date I asked her out.
Ask around to ask many people the same question He asks around for his lost cat.
Add up to to sum, to equal The bank teller added up the bills.
Back out to leave or to quit She backed out of the play.
Back someone up to support someone My mom backed me up when the teacher accused me of cheating.
Blow up to explode; to get angry; to get very popular; to receive many messages I blew up when I heard the news. After the premiere, the actor will blow up and get more roles.
Break down to break apart; to stop working; to get very upset The car breaks down easily. She broke down after her test.
Break up to end a relationship They broke up last week.
Break out to leave, to escape; to have acne The prisoner breaks out of jail. The teenager had a major break out.
Bring someone down to make someone feel worse He always brings her down.
Bring someone up to make someone feel better; to raise a child My grandmother brought me up.
Bring something up to raise a topic in conversation I didn't want to bring it up.
Call something off to end or cancel something They called off the wedding.
Calm down to relax, to feel less upset She needs to calm down, it's not a big deal!
Not care for someone/something to dislike something (mild) I don't care for bananas.
Catch up to reach where someone or something is; to reconnect with someone after a long time I ran to catch up with the coach. We need to catch up over drinks!
Check in to register; to talk to someone I checked into the hotel early. He checked in with the widow after the funeral.
Check out to register leaving; to be absent The student was so bored and checked out.
Chip in to help; to pay for something I'll chip in to pay for the class.
Come across to discover; to give an impression The explorer came across a pile of gold. He came across as arrogant.
Come forward to confess The suspect came forward.
Count on to rely on someone or something You can count on me!
Cut back on to use less of something I'm cutting back on sugar.
Cut in to interrupt; to take the place in line The reporter cut in with breaking news. She cut me in line.
Cut someone/something off to stop providing; to stop talking to someone or using something The landlord cut off the water. She cut off her parents.
Do away with to discard Do away with any old clothes.
Dress up to wear nice clothing I want to dress up for dinner!
Drop in/off/by to visit someone briefly The parent dropped by to say hi.
Drop someone off to take someone somewhere and leave them there My coworker dropped me off at the office.
End up to eventually do or go somewhere They ended up renting a car.
Fall out (with someone) to have a disagreement with someone and stop talking They had a falling out and don't speak anymore.
Figure out to learn; to understand I figured out how he lost the wallet.
Get across to make something clear I'm not getting this across, am I?
Get along to like each other The kids don't get along.
Get away to go on vacation The family wants to get away for a week.
Get away with something to escape a crime or wrongdoing He can't keep getting away with it!
Get back to return I need to get back home.
Get back at to get revenge on someone or something You're getting back at me for what I said!
Get back into to rediscover an old interest She wants to get back into tennis.
Get over to forget or move on from someone or something The woman got over her ex quickly.
Get out to leave; to escape Get out of my house! You need to get out of here!
Give in to quit trying Don't give in now!
Go out to go to a social event; to date The couple goes out for drinks with their neighbors. Do you want to go out with me?
Grow apart to distance yourself from someone over time The girls grew apart as they got older.
Grow into to get bigger and fit something over time The boy will grow into his suit.
Grow up to get older The cousins grew up in the city.
Hang in to keep going Hang in there!
Hang out to socialize Want to hang out this weekend?
Hold on to wait; to keep going Hold on, don't leave just yet. Hold on!
Keep up to continue at the same rate I can't keep up with this workload.
Log in/out to access an online account He logged into his account.
Look down on to think negatively of someone or something She always looks down on me.
Look out for to watch; to be aware of Look out for spiders in the attic!
Make up to forgive; to get back together; cosmetics They made up after their fight. She wears make up.
Make something up to lie; to invent something The child always makes up a story when she's in trouble.
Meet up to meet They met up at the corner-store.
Pass away to die She passed away last night.
Pass out to faint It was so hot, I passed out.
Pass something out to give something to many people The clerk passed out the papers to everyone.
Pick out to choose something She picked out a blue dress.
Point something/someone out to call attention to someone or something The child pointed out the strange sign.
Put something off to procrastinate; to ignore The student put off his homework until the last day.
Put up with to tolerate someone or something She puts up with my mother.
Run into to accidentally find someone or something I ran into the landlord yesterday.
Run out to use all of something; to no longer have something She ran out of paint.
Set up to create; to plan; to betray someone I set up the fundraiser. He set me up!
Sort out to organize; to solve a problem Let's sort out our disagreements.
Take after to look like someone, usually a relative The girl takes after her father.
Take off to leave; to fly The plane took off without issue.
Take someone out to go on a date with someone; to kill or incapacitate He took her out on a date. Captain America took out the guards.
Turn someone/something down to say no to someone or something She turned him down.
Turn up to appear unexpectedly The lost dog turned up after all.
Try on to try clothing He tried on a new sweater.
Try out to test; to audition They tried out for the volleyball team.
Use up to finish all of something; to no longer have something He used up all the ketchup.
Wake up to stop sleeping She woke up early.
Wear off to disappear; to fade away over time This paint will wear off soon.
Work out to exercise; to be successful He works out every morning.

Whew, that was a lot, wasn't it? You probably are familiar with many of these already.

Now that you've learned some phrasal verbs, let's look at how to use them in conversation.

two people having a conversation

How to Use Phrasal Verbs

There are so many phrasal verbs and they all mean something a little different. How are you supposed to learn them? It's too much!

Here's some tips on how to pick up phrasal verbs without stress.

First, practice listening to native speakers. This might seem obvious, but now that you know about phrasal verbs, they'll jump out at you even more. Try to notice each time you hear one. Make a mental note of it, and notice the context. Think about when and how people are using the set phrases. Are we at work or are we friends spending time together? Why is that native English speaker using a phrasal verb instead of the more literal textbook expression?

Next, try to remember words that are usually used in phrasal verb expressions. Did you notice any words in our list that seemed to be repeated many times?

That's right! Some words are more likely to be in phrasal verbs. For example, "get" is a very common word in phrasal verbs: get up, get out, get off, get way, get over, get on, get around (to), get into, get together, get back, get away, get along, get across...

Again, don't worry about memorizing all of these. Just notice these patterns and when you see a word like get + an adverb or preposition, you can assume it's probably a phrasal verb, which has a specific meaning and might even be a little different than the words' literal definition.

So why do native English speakers use phrasal verbs?

Phrasal verbs are so common not only because they're more specific, but because they are also slang. As Jasmin puts it, slang is "language that is not taught in a classroom." Phrasal verbs usually sound informal.

For example:

Let's hang out.
Let's meet.

Which one do you think sounds more formal? Definitely the second one!

Let's try another. How about this:

I want to figure out what happened.
I want to learn what happened.

Yep, you got it. The first one is informal. An English speaker would be more likely to say and hear it in casual, spoken English. Phrasal verbs are great to use when talking with friends and family.

But don't get it twisted! Phrasal verbs are so common, you'll likely hear them in the workplace too! Though they're more informal, not all phrasal verbs are inappropiate for professional settings.

Just keep in mind that in formal, written English, you'll be less likely to see them. So if you're writing that formal cover letter for a job you really want, it's better to instead stay away from phrasal verbs.

someone taking a test

Test Your English Skills

Phrasal verbs are tricky. An expression can look nearly identical but mean something totally different! Let's test your skills with a quiz.

  1. What does "wear off" mean?
    a. to disappear, to fade away
    b. to dress in very nice clothes
    c. to annoy someone

  2. Which one means "to quit"?
    a. Back up
    b. Back out
    c. Back in

  3. How do you invite someone on a date?
    a. ask around
    b. ask about
    c. ask out
    d. ask into

  4. Choose the right sentence.
    a. I grew out of that band years ago.
    b. I grew up of that band years ago.
    c. I grew away of that band years ago.

  5. What does it mean to "put something off"?
    a. to turn it off
    b. to delay, to procrastinate
    c. to hurt someone

Think you got it? Let's check!

Answers: 1: a, 2: b, 3: c, 4: a, 5: b

person helping another off the ground

Keep up With Your English Skills

Phrasal verbs are easy to understand, but there are so many that it can be overwhelming. As an English learner, you've probably heard many of them already--and maybe even use them yourself too! And now that you know how to spot them, you'll begin noticing so many more.

Keep looking for phrasal verbs. You'll figure out soon that they're everywhere. Don't give in, you'll get used to them and soon you'll be throwing around phrasal verbs like no one's business!

Best of luck!