How to Write with Idioms or Phrasal Verbs

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  • 0:05 Idioms
  • 1:44 Phrasal Verbs
  • 2:47 Separable Phrasal Verbs
  • 4:30 Inseparable Phrasal Verbs
  • 5:40 Intransitive Phrasal Verbs
  • 6:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Curley
In this lesson, you will learn how to identify idioms and phrasal verbs. Once you can recognize these parts of speech, you will be able to use them yourself in your writing.


An idiom in English, or in any other language, is simply another term for a turn of phrase. Idioms often don't make sense when you read them literally, but have very important contextual cultural meanings. What do I mean by that?

For instance, to 'sound off' on someone means to yell at them for some perceived slight, but literally, it appears to mean something like 'to turn the sound off,' which is pretty close to the opposite of its idiomatic meaning. There are many more. 'Killing two birds with one stone', for instance, means to accomplish several goals in a single effort, while 'take with a pinch of salt', far from literally adding seasoning to something, means to hold some doubt in your mind about what someone or something is claiming.

These expressions you simply have to learn, and thus the title of this lesson is a little bit of a misnomer. I am going to teach you about idioms and will describe for you how they're put together and some of the more common ones, but the fact is that all of the idioms in English are too numerous to list in any 10-minute lesson. Think of this lesson, instead, as a primer for further exploration.

The other thing that you should be aware of is that loose idiomatic expressions, like the ones I've just described, are not usually appropriate for academic writing. A scholarly essay demands that you be precise, and too many idioms can get in the way of expressing yourself clearly. That said, idioms in looser work - like a personal essay or a memoir piece - can lend great character to your work. Let's look at a few of the different types of idioms that you see in everyday usage.

Phrasal Verbs

A phrasal verb is a kind of idiomatic expression that usually consists of a verb and a preposition or adverb, often followed by a direct object. Because it combines more than one word, it's sometimes also called a multi-word verb (as weird as that sounds).

Like more whimsical idioms, it's not always clear from the expression's literal meaning what the figurative meaning of a phrasal verb is. It may be clear, for instance, that 'eat out' means to eat outside of the home, but the phrasal verb 'pans out' does not mean you're suddenly flashing your cookware for the world to see. It means that something ended up being successful. As in: 'Since the stove broke at home, going out to dinner really panned out.'

There are more than 3,000 phrasal verbs in the English language, so it would be impossible to list them all, but I hope that by showing you how they're constructed - and the different types of phrasal verbs there are - you can recognize them in the wild and use them correctly yourself.

Separable Phrasal Verbs

A separable phrasal verb is called separable because the object can be separated from the phrasal verb (or not) depending on how it's written, but the general meaning remains intact no matter how you write it. One such phrasal verb is the expression 'hold up,' which means to delay. This can be expressed as one complete expression, as in, 'I had to hold up the meeting, because the office had disappeared' (in this case 'the meeting' is the object), or separated with the object between the verb (hold) and preposition (up), as in 'I had to hold the meeting up because the office had disappeared.' In both cases, the phrasal verb's meaning remains the same. If the meaning changes when you change the position of the object, the phrasal verb is not separable.

The one slight exception to this rule is when the direct object is a pronoun (I, you, me, we, he, she, it, they, et cetera). In this case, the pronoun that is the object must come between the verb and the preposition. There's no option of putting it anywhere else. As in, 'I've been meaning to look you up.' where 'look up' is the separable phrasal verb, and 'you' is the pronoun/object. 'You' must appear in between the two parts of the phrasal verb because it wouldn't make sense to say 'I've been meaning to look up you.'

Other separable phrasal verbs include expressions like 'back up' (to save a duplicate in case the original is lost or damaged), 'pay off' (to bribe), and 'throw away' (to waste something), among others.

Inseparable Phrasal Verbs

By contrast, inseparable phrasal verbs follow a similar format to separable phrasal verbs, but cannot be split up. Here are a couple of examples with the phrasal verbs in bold.

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