'Phrasal Verbs' vs 'Verb Phrases': What's the Difference?

By Carly Forsaith, updated on March 14, 2023

Knowing the difference between phrasal verbs vs verb phrases can trip many people up because they have similar names, and they both identify verbs made up of several words. But there is a difference between the two, which we'll go over in this article.

In short:

  • A phrasal verb is a verb that combines with another word to create a new meaning. A verb phrase is a verb made up of several words.

Differentiating 'Phrasal verbs' vs 'Verb Phrases'

Let's look more in-depth at the difference between these two grammar concepts.

What Is A Phrasal Verb?

A phrasal verb comprises a traditional verb and another word - usually a preposition or adverb - to describe an action.

It functions as a regular verb, but the key difference is that its meaning is changed by the word it's combined with. Take the verb 'wrap,' for example. It means to cover something with paper or cloth like you would wrap a gift. But if you combine it with the preposition 'up,' you get the phrasal verb 'wrap up,' which means to complete something.

Here are some common phrasal verbs:

  • Stand by
  • Run out of
  • Get over
  • Back up
  • Break down
  • Come down with
  • Call for
  • Set up
  • Make it up to

Notice that phrasal verbs can comprise three words, sometimes even four.

Often, the thing with phrasal verbs is that their meaning can't be inferred from the words, which makes them idiomatic by nature. Take 'back up,' for instance. Neither word 'back' or 'up' has anything to do with the phrasal verb's meaning of supporting someone. You simply have to know what it means or look it up in the dictionary.

But that isn't always the case. Sometimes the meaning is quite obvious, like with the following phrasal verbs:

  • Take off
  • Look for
  • Turn on
  • Sit down

Phrasal Verbs: Transitive or Intransitive?

A transitive verb has a direct object, and an intransitive verb does not. So are phrasal verbs transitive or intransitive? The answer is they can be both.

Here's an example of a sentence with a transitive phrasal verb:

Sit down on that chair over there.

The phrasal verb is 'sit down,' and its object is 'chair.'

Here's an example of a sentence with an intransitive phrasal verb:

The plane is ready to take off.

The phrasal verb is 'take off,' and it has no object.

'Take off' is an example of a phrasal verb that can be both transitive and intransitive. It's also an example of a phrasal verb that can be split and the object inserted in the middle.

Let me illustrate:

Take your shoes off at the entrance.

The phrasal verb is 'take off,' and the object is 'shoes.' We've split the phrasal verb into two parts and inserted the object in between.

You could also say:

Take off your shoes at the entrance.

The phrasal verb is no longer split, but the sentence's meaning remains the same. This is an example of a phrasal verb that can be split. That's not the case for all of them: many phrasal verbs must stay together to retain their meaning.

What Is A Verb Phrase?

A verb phrase is a verb made up of several words. It consists of a main verb plus auxiliary and/or modal verbs.

For example:

I would have been happy to stay here longer.

Here, the verb phrase is 'would have been.' The main verb is always the last word of the verb phrase. So here, 'been,' the past participle of 'be.' 'Would' is a modal verb, and 'have' is an auxiliary verb.

The following is an example of a sentence that contains a modal verb ('could') and a main verb ('learn'):

You could easily learn French.

Notice the adverb 'easily' in between the two parts of the verb phrase. It is not a part of the verb phrase, but it's okay to put it there. You could also put it elsewhere:

You could learn French easily.

Examples of 'Phrasal Verbs' vs 'Verb Phrases' in a Sentence

Now let's take a look at some example sentences that contain both phrasal verbs and verb phrases, so you can see how they're used in context.

Examples of Phrasal Verbs

I'll underline the phrasal verbs in the examples below. Sometimes they're separated by a pronoun, which I won't underline since it's not part of the phrasal verb.

I just came by to check in on you.

I asked him what time he wanted to meet, but he hasn't gotten back to me.

Thanks, that really cheered me up.

Do you want me to drop you off at school this morning?

We need you to fill in this form before you can see the doctor.

Examples of Verb Phrases

I was thinking of dying my hair a different color.

Don't worry; I'm sure she will understand.

We would have been grateful for any donation, no matter how small.

You can't be serious!

She must have forgotten to let you know.

Concluding Thoughts on 'Phrasal Verbs' vs 'Verb Phrases'

So there you have it: phrasal verbs and verb phrases are two completely different concepts. I hope you feel more confident using each one.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • A phrasal verb is a main verb combined with a preposition or adverb to create a new meaning
  • A phrasal verb can be transitive or intransitive
  • A verb phrase comprises all the parts of a sentence's verb

If you found this article helpful and would like to learn about more grammatical concepts, visit our Grammar Rules blog.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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