Do you avoid phrasal verbs at all costs?
If so, bad news: Phrasal verbs are unavoidable. You’re going to have to use them no matter how much you’d like to ignore them forever.
Sure, sometimes you can use a “normal” verb instead of a phrasal verb. For example, you could say “The game was cancelled” instead of “The game was called off,” and it wouldn’t really matter. Cancel and call off are interchangeable here, so either verb is just fine.
Other times, however, you absolutely have to use a phrasal verb. This is usually for one of three reasons:
1. Using a “normal” verb sounds too formal.
2. Using a “normal” verb sounds too direct/harsh.
3. There is simply no other way to say what you want to say.
Here are over 40 phrasal verbs that you absolutely need to use. Note that I’ve left out some common phrasal verbs that you are almost certainly using already (wake up, get up, check in/check out, put on, take off, etc.).
Interested in learning idioms? If so, check out the idioms and phrasal verb section of the site.
Phrasal verbs you have to use because a non-phrasal verb sounds too formal
Sometimes not using a phrasal verb can make you sound incredibly formal and awkward. So unless your life/job requires extremely formal communication, you should be using the phrasal verbs below.
walk up to/walk over to, go up to/go over to, come up to/come over to
I walked over to the fridge and got myself a drink.
I approached the fridge and got myself a drink.
We normally only use approach in formal contexts or when something important happens after the person “approaches.” So it’s fine to say “A strange man approached me and tried to sell me a gun,” but not “My friend approached my desk and said good morning.”
Did you find out when our next test is?
Did you discover when our next test is?
We use discover for important things. Marine biologists discover new species in the ocean. Frances Crick and James Watson discovered DNA. A company might discover that its employees are stealing money.
Enter the room.
If you want to give someone permission to enter a room, the only natural way to do it is with a phrasal verb.
get rid of
Look at this garage. It’s time to get rid of some stuff.
Look at this garage. It’s time to dispense with/discard some stuff.
I’m sorry for interrupting. Please go ahead.
I’m sorry for interrupting. Please continue.
Please continue is fine in formal contexts. It sounds unnatural in informal settings, though.
drop by, stop by, come over
Frank is going to stop by later tonight.
Frank is going to visit us later tonight.
For quick, casual visits, you need a phrasal verb. Your best friend doesn’t visit you on his way home from work, he drops by, stops by, or comes over. (We have a surprisingly large number of phrasal verbs for visit. You could also use call on, come around, come ’round, and swing by.)
hand out, give out, pass out
The teacher handed out the homework.
The teacher distributed the homework.
When you go camping, you have to remember to put out the fire before you go to sleep.
When you go camping, you have to remember to extinguish the fire before you go to sleep.
Extinguish is a word we’d expect to see in a news report about a serious fire. If you’re talking about a cigarette or small flames, go with put out instead. (With candles, the phrasal verb we use is to blow out.)
come up with
Melissa needs to come up with a plan for paying off her credit card.
Melissa needs to devise a plan for paying off her credit card.
If you don’t want to go to the party, why don’t you make up an excuse?
If you don’t want to go to the party, why don’t you invent an excuse?
We make up lies, stories, and excuses. Using invent or another non-phrasal verb sounds awkward.
I can’t figure out how to use this app.
I can’t decipher how to use this app.
Phrasal verbs you have to use because a “normal” verb might be considered rude
Sometimes we use phrasal verbs as euphemisms (indirect terms for communicating something unpleasant or embarrassing). In these situations, using a “normal” verb might offend our listener.
I was sorry to hear that your grandfather passed away.
I was sorry to hear that your grandfather died.
Died sounds far too direct here, especially if the person has just recently passed away.
Kevin had to put down his Golden Retriever.
Kevin had to kill his Golden Retriever.
Put to sleep would also be appropriate here.
Martin got laid off from his job at the plant.
Martin got fired from his job at the plant.
If you say fired, it suggests that the person lost their job due to poor performance, negligence, or bad behavior. Lay off has a more positive connotation. It suggests that the person lost their job because there was no longer a need for their services.
Euphemisms are an important topic. They help you be polite and diplomatic, which is often a huge challenge for non-native speakers. I recommend checking out this article on 100+ common euphemisms in English.
Phrasal verbs you have to use because there is no equivalent non-phrasal verb
Sometimes there really isn’t one single verb that communicates exactly what a phrasal verb communicates.
In these cases you can either use a phrasal verb (and sound natural), or use a long string of words (and sound awkward).
Here are the phrasal verbs you need to use because they don’t really have equivalents. I’ve also given examples of some awkward phrasing that doesn’t really work.
take care of
I have to take care of my son tonight.
I have to keep my son safe and provided for tonight.
pay back, call back, give back, etc.
Can I borrow five bucks? I’ll pay you back tomorrow.
Can I borrow five bucks? I’ll return the money to you tomorrow.
drop out of (school)
Mark dropped out of school last year.
Marked abandoned his studies last year and is not planning on continuing as a student.
get along with
I get along really well with my sister.
My sister and I have a harmonious and friendly relationship.
run into/bump into
Sometimes I run into my students at the mall.
Sometimes I unexpectedly encounter my students at the mall.
I looked up the word in a dictionary.
I consulted a dictionary to find the meaning of the word.
Did you have to fill out a bunch of forms before you saw the doctor?
Did you have to provide your personal information in blank spaces on forms before you saw the doctor?
My daughter is growing up so fast.
My daughter is maturing and becoming an adult so fast.
Do most people at your church dress up for Sunday service?
Do most people at your church wear formal clothes for Sunday service?
I’m afraid that running will wear out my knees.
I’m afraid that running will slowly deteriorate my knees over time.
My car broke down on the way to work.
My car suddenly stopped functioning on the way to work.
pick up, drop off
Could you please pick me up from work?
Could you please meet me at work in your car and drive me home?
run out of
Oh no! We ran out of coffee.
Oh no! We no longer have any coffee.
look forward to
Most people look forward to their vacations.
Most people eagerly await their vacations.
Adolescent boys often try to show off for their female classmates.
Adolescent boys often try to make a display of their abilities in front of their female classmates.
Besides these phrasal verbs, just about all the phrasal verbs for movements are mandatory; there is almost never a suitable non-phrasal verb you can use instead. Here is an excellent video which highlights some examples.
Hopefully you’re already using a lot of the phrasal verbs on this list. If not, you’re going to have to start.
For more on phrasal verbs, check out these articles: