Phrasal verbs: You can look them up, but you can't look up them

Can you back your hard drive up? Or must you back up your hard drive? Can you calm yourself down? Or must you calm down yourself? Can you blow balloons up? Or must you blow up balloons? Can you hang the phone up? Or must you hang up the phone? Can you keep the shenanigans up? Or do you keep up the shenanigans? Can you look the contract over? Or must you look over the contract?

And what if we replace all those nouns with pronouns? Like, for your hard drive: back it up or back up it? For balloons: blow them up or blow up them? For the phone: hang it up or hang up it? For the contract: look it over or look over it?

Like so many other aspects of English, phrasal verbs are easy to use but hard to understand. To use them, a native speaker can just follow their gut. You already know that if you’re helping a friend cope with a divorce, you’d say, “You’ll get over him” and not “You’ll get him over.” Yet, remarkably, you’d probably pick a different spot for the pronoun when suggesting she “think it over.”

A phrasal verb isn’t just a verb that teams up with a preposition. Instead, a phrasal verb is a two- or three-word combo that has at its head a verb and has a different meaning from the verb alone. For example, when you run out of a building, you’re not using a phrasal verb. You’re using “run” to mean “to move on your feet faster than walking.” So it has the same meaning with “out” as it does standing alone.

But “run out” is a phrasal verb when it means to exhaust a supply of something. When you say you run out of milk, you’re no longer talking about breaking into a jog. The meaning is different.
Learn more in my recent column.

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