Vocabulary in English

25 Phrasal Verbs and When Not to Use Them

25 Phrasal Verbs and When Not to Use Them

Today, you’re going to learn 25 phrasal verbs and their “normal” equivalents. For more English vocabulary, check out 59 Positive Personality Adjectives to Describe Your Favourite Friends.

Here’s a piece of information that will really annoy you:

Did you know that for (almost) every phrasal verb, there’s a “normal” verb you can use instead?

Annoying, right? I mean, why are you learning all these stupid phrasal verbs?

Why did you have to learn “take up,” when you could just as easily use “start”?

Why did you have to learn “give up,” when you could’ve just gone for “quit”?

Well, the answer is simple.

We don’t actually have to learn phrasal verbs to speak decent English.

But, like many other things in English, we need to use phrasal verbs (and other multi-word verbs) to sound like we’re human and not from the planet Weird Robot.

Phrasal verbs (like “give up”) make us sound more natural.

But what about “normal” verbs (like “quit”)?

These verbs are sometimes called “Latinate equivalents,” which doesn’t sound much fun. So I’m going to call them “brother verbs.” Much easier to deal with, right?

I’m going to put these “brother verbs” into three categories, ranging from not necessarily formal to extremely formal.

The Three Categories

In the first category, the phrasal verb and its “brother verb” have about the same level of formality.

I’m putting them on “zero” on this formality-o-meter that I just invented:

Phrasal verb formality-o-meter on 0

“I gave up smoking.” — fine in any situation

“I quit smoking.” — fine in any situation

Sometimes, the “brother verb” is the best choice in more formal situations, while the phrasal verb is less formal.

These fall at “one” on the formality-o-meter:

Phrasal verb formality-o-meter on 1

“Please come over sometime.” — fine with friends and family

“Please visit sometime.” — much more appropriate for when you want to invite the CEO of your company for dinner. Or the Queen of Sweden to watch the football.

And sometimes, the “brother verb” is so formal that it would just sound weird in almost any situation. This is when we almost always use the phrasal verb instead.

I’m putting these at “two” on the formality-o-meter:

Phrasal verb formality-o-meter on 2

“She told me off for throwing pancakes at the president. Then she laughed.” — fine with almost everyone. Except for the president, of course.

“She berated me for throwing pancakes at the president. Then she laughed.” — Too weird! This is far too formal.

So in short, “two” on the formality-o-meter represents the sort of “brother verbs” Charles Dickens’ schoolmaster would have used, and “zero” is Carmen hanging out with her friends.

Informal vs formal

So let’s look at 25 different phrasal verbs and their “brother verbs.”

Phrasal verbs with equally formal “brother verbs”

Phrasal verb formality-o-meter on 0

As I mentioned above, the phrasal verbs in this category are fine in any situation — that means that you can use either the phrasal verb or the “brother verb” whenever you like.

cut in | interrupt

Examples, please?

“Very sorry, Mr Codd. I realise you’re in the middle of a meeting, but can I cut in for a second, please?”

“I was telling my joke about giraffes — you know, the good one — when she just interrupted right in the middle! So rude!”

look up to | admire

Examples, please?

“I really admire her. She has almost nothing, but she still goes out and helps people.”

“When he was a kid, he didn’t really have anyone to look up to.”

set up | arrange/prepare

Examples, please?

You can set up events (or arrange them):

“Shall we set up an appointment for 9 o’clock?”

You can set up rooms (or arrange or prepare them):

“When we arrived, the meeting room wasn’t set up.”

talk over | discuss

Examples, please?

These are particularly useful when you have something you really need to talk about in detail.

Perhaps you’ve got a big decision to make:

“We really need to discuss the pros and cons of investing in a new elephant.”

Or maybe you’re having problems with a friend:

“Can we just meet up for a coffee and talk things over? I’m sure we can sort it all out.”

call off | cancel

Examples, please?

Anything you can cancel, you can also call off.

Maybe it’s a meeting:

“Sorry, we cancelled the meeting. Everyone’s off sick.”

Or a festival:

“They called it off because of the rain.”

Or maybe something more informal:

“Sorry — I’m going to have to call off our dinner. Jasper’s ill, and I need to take him to the doctor.”

give up | stop/quit

Examples, please?

We all know this one, right?

Classic example:

“I’m thinking of quitting smoking.”

Weird example:

“I’ll never give up living in the garden shed. It’s my lifestyle, man!”

Phrasal verbs with slightly more formal “brother verbs”

Phrasal verb formality-o-meter on 1

OK. Most phrasal verbs fit into this category.

These “brother verbs” are still very common, but we usually use them when we want to “step up” our language a little — when we want to sound a little more formal and respectful.

Remember — you have to decide when to be formal and when to be more relaxed. This isn’t something I can teach you.

But I can tell you one thing.

Most English learners I’ve talked to tend to sound a little too formal.

This is probably because, as a learner, you prefer to “play it safe” and go for the “brother verb.”

That’s fine, but as you get more confident, take my advice: start experimenting with the phrasal verbs and see what kind of reaction you get.

When you use phrasal verbs, you sound more friendly, and you might be surprised by the positive reactions you get from people when you use them.

turn down | reject

Informal kind of example:

“He asked her to marry him 7 times. She turned him down each time!”

Formal kind of example:

“I’m afraid my application to the Rhino Football team was rejected. It says I’m too big-boned.”

bring up | raise (a topic)

Informal kind of example:

“I hate to bring it up, but you’re not wearing any trousers. Again.”

Formal kind of example:

“They said they would raise the issue in Parliament. They never did. Typical politicians.”

give back | return (an object)

Informal kind of example:

“Hey! That’s my dog! Give it back! Also — why would you take someone’s dog? Weirdo!”

Formal kind of example:

“If found, please return this wallet to Bob Dobbs, 71 Malcalypse Ave., Austin, Texas.”

look over | examine

Informal kind of example:

“Sorry, can’t come out tonight. I need to look over my visa application — make sure I haven’t made any mistakes. You know what they can be like.”

Formal kind of example:

“After examining the contract in detail, we’ve decided to accept your offer.”

put off | postpone

Informal kind of example:

“Sorry, but I’m going to have to put off the cinema trip till Friday. The babysitter’s cancelled again.”

Formal kind of example:

“Can’t we postpone the meeting till Monday? It’s already 6 p.m. and everyone would like to go home.”

get over | recover

Informal kind of example:

“I know it’s difficult now, but you’ll get over her. You were only in a relationship for a couple of weeks.”

Formal kind of example:

“She’s finally recovered from her illness. Thank God!”

look into | investigate

Informal kind of example:

“Tom’s been missing school again? OK — I’ll look into it.”

Formal kind of example:

“The police are investigating a series of recent giraffe sightings in the north of Scotland.”

put up with | tolerate

Informal kind of example:

“Can’t the neighbours shut up? I don’t know how much more I can put up with.”

Formal kind of example:

“I’m afraid these are the kinds of mistakes that, as a company, we just can’t tolerate. You’re fired!”

come over | visit

Informal kind of example:

“Yeah, my parents are away all weekend. Wanna come over?”

Formal kind of example:

“During her trip to Australia, the Queen will be visiting the largest kangaroo farm in the country.”

get by | survive

Informal kind of example:

“Sometimes I wonder how I get by on such a terrible income. But I do it somehow.”

Formal kind of example:

“Without enough water, these small desert animals will be unable to survive.”

go on | continue

Informal kind of example:

“Sorry — don’t worry about him. He always sings at around this time. Go on.”

Formal kind of example:

“Sorry, I interrupted. Please continue.”

pass out | lose consciousness/faint

Informal kind of example:

“As soon as he left the pub, he just passed out. Right there in the street.”

Formal kind of example:

“The media reported that the tennis star had lost consciousness for several minutes following the incident with the rhino.”

turn up | arrive (late or unexpectedly)

Informal kind of example:

“Then, as usual, Batman turned up at the last minute and saved the day. Batman’s awesome!”

Formal kind of example:

“The train is expected to arrive at the station 14 minutes late. We apologise for any inconvenience.”

Phrasal verbs with extremely formal “brother verbs”

Phrasal verb formality-o-meter on 2

OK. In this section, we’re going to look at phrasal verbs with “brother verbs” that are so formal that they just sound weird in almost any situation.

This is when using the phrasal verb is probably safer than using the “brother verb.”

So when would we use these verbs?

These verbs are so formal that we usually only use them in things like academic English and formal writing. You might also see these kinds of words on signs, and you might hear them from formal, institutionalised figures like police officers and judges.

What I’m saying here is that these are unusual verbs, but very occasionally, in certain formal situations, they are the right ones to use.

tell off | berate

Informal kind of example:

“She told her daughter off for throwing a milkshake at the dog.”

Very, very formal kind of example:

“When children are berated, they tend to show various forms of anxiety.” — academic essay

leave out | omit

Informal kind of example:

“How can you write about the holiday and leave out the bit with the dinosaur on the bus?”

Very, very formal kind of example:

“Your application was rejected because important information about your previous work experience was omitted.” — formal rejection letter

put out | extinguish

Informal kind of example:

“Hey — put out that cigarette! It’s no smoking here.”

Very, very formal kind of example:

“The number of fires extinguished in the downtown area has doubled since last year.” — newspaper article

cut down on | curtail

Informal kind of example:

“You’ve really got to cut down on those biscuits. What is it — 4 packets a day now?”

Very, very formal kind of example:

“The propaganda was chiefly used to curtail freedom of thought in the state.” — magazine article

make sure of | verify

Informal kind of example:

“I just need to make sure of your address. Can you write it down here, please?”

Very, very formal kind of example:

“Please verify your name and password before continuing.” — online instructions

go ahead | proceed

Informal kind of example:

“You wanna play first? OK — go ahead. I’m still going to beat you!”

Very, very formal kind of example:

“Before we proceed with the meeting, I’d like to make a small announcement.” — formal meeting


Are there any other phrasal verbs that have confused you in the past?

Let me know in the comments. I’d love to help you out — hey, that’s what I’m here for!

Meanwhile, if you found this post useful, BE AWESOME AND SHARE! It’ll make me happy and, more importantly, you’ll be spreading knowledge.

And that’s an awesome thing to do, right?


Want more? Get a free month of Gymglish, a daily English workout with a fun, engaging narrative and personalised corrections. Get it here.

14 thoughts on “25 Phrasal Verbs and When Not to Use Them

    1. Hi Inna.

      Good question. The short answer is, “yes.”

      The long answer is, “This is absolutely possible in pretty much every case. The phrasal verb “show up” has a more American feeling, but as American culture is taking over the world, it’s being used more and more in the UK.”

      Hope that helps! 🙂

  1. Oh, yeah! I know that game very well. You just take any of the most frequently used verbs — two or three letters at the most (in a pinch five) and then just append the preposition (or even two!) in an absolutely random fashion. In fact the more it’s illogical the better. The point is to mask a proper (clearly understandable without a context) verb.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean –neither more nor less.”
    That’s all. You will have won.
    For example: “put out” — what a heck does it mean?! Even the aborigines ask. But yes, of course, it’s very convenient to punch up the language (mostly for clarification) with “kick off” in the legal document. 🙂

    1. These are both excellent examples of phrasal verbs in context. Thanks Andrey!

      Also — I’d completely forgotten about that Humpty Dumpty quote. It gets right to the core of what language is — not what the words are supposed to mean by themselves, but what the person using them means. The technical term for this (if you’re interested) is “illocutionary force.”

        1. Yes, it is a bit.

          Although “illocutionary force” comes up with a red underline when I write it here — so spell-check doesn’t like it, either.

          I guess for the same reason — this is a very technical term isolated to the world of linguistics, so not particularly useful for non-linguists. Having said that, it is a great concept to be aware of for language learners…

          1. I couldn’t agree with you more. Almighty Google and Yandex use banal transliteration for this factoid. Grammarly for Chrome doesn’t underline it either… Oh, and I like technical terms, thank you, they save me the trouble of inventing monsters and being somewhat of an expert or like Isaac Newton put it “smatterer”. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.