Meaning in Phrasal Verbs

Everyone knows that phrasal verbs are ‘difficult’, and this is partly because it is so hard to see any system in them. Phrasal verbs consist of a ‘base verb’ (such as go, put, or set) and a particle (a word such as down, back, or off). When a learner encounters an unfamiliar phrasal verb, s/he will often know what the base verb means and what the particle means – but put the two together and you get something completely different. Even beginners know what put means and what off means, but that won’t help them to guess the various meanings of put off. There is plenty of teaching material that has tried to address this problem, but it usually focuses more on explaininghow phrasal verbs work, rather than on why they behave in the way they do. The learner is still left with the feeling that it is all very arbitrary and random, and that – since there don’t appear to be any obvious rules – phrasal verbs just have to be individually learned and remembered.

Many phrasal verb dictionaries describe but they do not really explain. In the end, students are still left with a collection of different meaning areas which simply have to be memorised.

Is there a solution? If we believe – as I do – that the linguistic choices made by fluent speakers are not arbitrary, then it follows that we need to look harder at our corpus data in order to discover the ‘rules’ that underlie our choice of particles in phrasal verbs.

Conceptual metaphor is clearly a powerful tool for helping us to understand a great deal of idiomatic language, so it is reasonable to believe that it may also help us to unravel the mysteries of phrasal verbs and their particles. In her article on ‘Metaphor and Phrasal Verbs’ (in the Language Study section of Phrasal Verbs Plus), Rosamund Moon admits that the meanings of phrasal verbs often ‘seem to have no connection with the words that they consist of’. But she goes on to show that the way in which common particles combine with verbs to create new meanings can often be explained in terms of conceptual metaphors.

Most of the common phrasal verb particles are – in their basic meanings – words which describe positions in space: up, down, in, out, on and off all have literal uses that relate to ‘spatial orientation’. Many of these concepts also have figurative uses which are found in many languages: for example, the ideas of being ‘up’ or ‘down’ are often equated metaphorically with quantities and with power. If an amount goes up it becomes larger, if it goes down it becomes smaller. Similarly, people in powerful positions are thought of as being ‘high up’, whereas the weak and powerless are ‘down at the bottom’. As Moon explains, these progressions from literal to metaphorical are by no means arbitrary, but are rooted in our physical experiences in life:


The idea ‘up/high’ refers to large quantities because when more things are added to a pile, it becomes higher; and the idea ‘up/high’ refers to being powerful because if two people fight and one of them is physically on top of the other, that person usually wins.


We can see here the beginnings of a fairly systematic process, in which the basic, ‘spatial’ particles develop new and more abstract meanings. As these particles combine with common verbs to form phrasal verbs, the metaphorical meanings of the particles contribute to our understanding of the whole phrasal verb. Thus, when someone leaves a powerful position, we say they step down, or if a dictator is removed from office he is brought down. In each case, we can see that the choice of particle is not at all arbitrary: it is the particle down – with its association with loss of power – which gives us the best clue to the meanings of the phrasal verb.

Each of the following sections deals with one common metaphorical idea, and the adverbs and prepositions that express this idea when they form part of a phrasal verb.



1 Increasing and decreasing: down, out, up

Up expresses ideas of increases in size, strength, or importance, while down expresses ideas of something becoming smaller, weaker, or less important:

  • Fees have gone up again.
  • She’s doing some teaching in the evenings to bump up her income.
  • The search operation has been scaled down.
  • The government played down the threat to public health.

Out expresses ideas of something becoming wider or fuller, covering a greater extent, or lasting for a longer time:

  • Officers fanned out across the field.
  • Her stories flesh out the world in which these historical characters lived.
  • They had to string things out until the Duke arrived.

2 Excitement, interest, and happiness: down, up

Some phrasal verbs with up refer to things becoming more exciting, lively, or interesting, or to people becoming happier. Phrasal verbs with down refer to things becoming quieter or calmer, or to people becoming more unhappy. For example:

  • Things are looking up.
  • Cheer up!
  • Their opponents said that they sexed up the report.
  • This place needs livening up.
  • Calm down!
  • You need to tone down your argument.
  • The endless wet weather was getting me down.


3 Completeness: up

Up expresses an idea of completeness. For example, to burn up means to burn completely, and to wind something up means to bring it to a complete end.

  • They gobbled up their dinner.
  • Don’t use up all the paper.
  • The speaker had begun to sum up.
  • All the shops had closed up for the night.

4 Ending: away, down, off, out

When something ends, we can think of it as gradually going farther away until it completely disappears. In phrasal verbs, away, down, off, and out all express ideas of something gradually ending:

  • Her voice faded away.
  • I suddenly felt sorry for him and my anger melted away.
  • The wind died down during the night.
  • The meeting wound down.
  • The rain eased off.
  • The effects of the drug wore off.
  • The conversation soon petered out.
  • The custom has almost died out.

5 Time – past and future: ahead, back, behind, forward

Metaphors relating to time are often based on the idea that time is like a line that goes from the past to the future, with the past behind us and the future in front of us. Phrasal verbs with ahead and forward express ideas of the future, while phrasal verbs with back andbehind express ideas of the past.

  • What lies ahead?
  • Let’s think ahead to next season.
  • I’m looking forward to seeing them again.
  • I’ve put my watch forward one hour.
  • The house dates back to the 16th century.
  • Never look back, never have regrets.
  • She was trying to leave behind a difficult adolescence.
  • Put the whole episode behind you.

6 Progress: ahead, along, behind, on, through

Making progress and achieving things is like being on a journey and moving towards your destination. Phrasal verbs with along describe the kind of progress that is being made, while phrasal verbs with ahead and behind express ideas of making good progress or poor progress.

  • The building work was coming along nicely.
  • They’re content to just muddle along.
  • He needs to get ahead.
  • They are pressing ahead with the reforms.
  • I’ve fallen behind with my work.
  • We’re lagging behind our competitors.

Phrasal verbs with through describe the process of achieving something or dealing with work.

  • He has no ability to carry through.
  • She sailed through her exams.
  • I ploughed through the work.

Phrasal verbs with on express the idea of continuing with an activity or task: on here has the same meaning as onwards.

  • I can’t carry on.
  • They kept on until it was finished.


7 Getting involved in an activity: away, in, into, out

We think of activities as if they have physical dimensions, like areas or spaces. In phrasal verbs, in and into express the idea of getting involved, while away and out express the idea of avoiding or ending an involvement.

  • We joined in the fun.
  • You’re always trying to muscle in.
  • I flung myself into my work.
  • They shied away from commitment.
  • You can’t walk away from the relationship.
  • The British forces pulled out.
  • He bowed out gracefully.

8 Problems: around, aside, off, over, round

We think of problems and difficulties as if they are physical objects that get in our way. Some phrasal verbs have meanings to do with ignoring problems or behaving as if they do not exist. The metaphorical idea is that we go around or over the things that are in our way, or we push them farther away.

  • They skirted around/round the issue.
  • We’ll work round the problem somehow.
  • He brushed aside my objections.
  • We need to put aside our differences.
  • I laughed off his criticisms.
  • He couldn’t shake off the allegations.
  • They glossed over the question of who was going to pay for it.
  • I tried to smooth things over between them.

9 Power and weakness: down, over, under, up
When one person has power and controls another, we think of the first person as being in a higher position than the second. Some phrasal verbs with over and up express ideas of someone being in control, or becoming more powerful than someone else.

Phrasal verbs with down and under express ideas of someone being forced into a weaker position, or of being controlled or restricted.

  • He was lording it over me.
  • The Emperor ruled over a vast area.
  • They have come up in the world.
  • She’s been moved up to a more responsible job.
  • The police clamped down on drinking in the streets.
  • The rebellion was swiftly put down.
  • Prisoners are kept under constant surveillance.
  • We had to knuckle under and do what we were told.

10 Relationships: apart, off, together, up

Relationships are like physical connections. Some phrasal verbs with together refer to a close relationship between two people or groups, while ones with apart refer to the ending of a relationship.

  • We got together in our first year at college.
  • The whole group clubbed together to buy him a present.
  • They drifted apart over the years.

Phrasal verbs with up refer to people forming a new relationship, or to a person joining a group.

  • Two students from each class pair up to produce a short play.
  • They feel that the international community is ganging up on them.
  • He has been accused of cosying up to the new US president.

However, some combinations with up and a verb meaning ‘break’ refer to the ending of a relationship.

  • He’s just broken up with his girlfriend.
  • Her parents split up a few months ago.

A few phrasal verbs with off refer to a new relationship between two people. The metaphorical idea is that the two people come together and become separate from a larger group.

  • All our friends seemed to be pairing off.
  • They tried to marry their daughter off to a wealthy businessman.

11 Communication: across, between, forth, in, into, out, over, through

We think of communication between two people as a connection between them, with information passing from one to the other, often across a large space.

  • I don’t know how to put it across.
  • I don’t seem to be able to get through to them.
  • The message came over clearly.
  • Something passed between them.

When one person says something, their words seem to leave them physically. When they are told something, the message or information seems to enter them.

  • She poured out her problems.
  • I blurted out his name.
  • Dave was holding forth on the subject of politics.
  • She had to repeat her words several times before they finally sank in.
  • My parents drummed its importance into us.


12 Information and knowledge: into, out, up

We think of things that are not yet known, or that other people may not want us to know, as if they are in a container, or covered or buried. Phrasal verbs with into describe the process of trying to find information from someone or something.

  • I wrote a letter of complaint, and the airline has promised to look into the matter.
  • She delved into his past.
  • You don’t want them nosing into your finances.

Some phrasal verbs with out and up express ideas of revealing secrets or finding information, as if they are uncovered or brought to the surface.

  • She tried not to tell them, but in the end she let it out.
  • I wormed the information out of him.
  • We dug up some interesting facts.
  • They raked up some scandal from his university days.


  1. Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Chicago University Press, 1980)
  2. Macmillan Phrasal Verbs Plus, published by Macmillan Publishers Limited. Text © Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2005.
  3. Macmillan English Dictionary, published by Macmillan Publishers Limited. Text © Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2002.

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