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Phrasal Verbs: To Split, or Not to Split?

Phrasal verbs are a challenge and a mystery to so many English learners. It really is strange the way that a verb and preposition can be combined to make a meaning that’s nothing like meaning of the original verb or preposition.

But one of the other seemingly mysterious things about phrasal verbs is the fact that some phrasal verbs—but not all—are splittable. This means that some phrasal verbs can have a noun placed in between the verb and preposition in the phrasal. So for example, to “call off” means to cancel something. And if your boss cancels a meeting, you can say your boss called off the meeting, or you can say your boss called the meeting off.

“Call off” is an easily splittable phrasal verb. But some phrasal verb cannot be split… at least not in their most common usage. Take “get over.” While it has a few other less commonly used definitions, “get over” usually means to reach a point in time where an emotional feeling or physical condition has ended. This sense of “get over” doesn’t split. You can say you got over a flu, but you can’t say that you got the flu over. Similarly, “take off,” when it is used to mean “depart” or “lift off the ground into flight”, simply can’t be split. You can say that the airplane took off from the airport, but “took the airplane off” from the airport doesn’t work.

At a glance, the idea of splittable versus unsplittable phrasal verbs can seem like an additional layer of frustrating confusion. But ESL students can take heart. There is a very simple rule to determine whether a phrasal verb can be split or not: if a phrasal verb has a direct object, it can be split by its direct object. If it has no direct object, it can’t be split at all!

You can see this in the literal meaning of the normally unsplittable phrasal verb “take off.” Literally, “take off” means to remove one thing from the surface of another thing. This meaning of take off has a direct object, the thing being removed. So can take off your rain coat when the sun comes out, and you can also say that you take your rain coat off when the sun comes out. And now you have something to feel “sunny” about, because the mystery of phrasal verb splitting is solved!

Or rather, the most important part of the mystery of split phrasal verbs is solved. There are still times when you can split a phrasal verb, based on the rules of English grammar… but you probably shouldn’t split it, based on other rules of English. In my next post on this subject we’ll look at these additional guidelines for phrasal verb splitting.