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More Rules for Splitting Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are English language verbs that are created by combining a “root verb” with a preposition. Generally, the resulting verb has a completely different meaning from the definitions of the original, unjoined words.

To give an example, “work” is a verb that means to perform labor (she works in a factory) or to function correctly (my car is old, but it still works). And “out” is a preposition that describes a movement from the inside of a thing to the outside of a thing (let’s go out and play in the yard).  But put these words together, and you have “work out,” which means to be resolve (“let’s stop arguing and work out our problems”), or to exercise (“I lost weight because I’ve been working out”).

Now, as I mentioned in my last post, if a phrasal verb has a direct object, you can split the phrasal verb, placing the direct object between the root verb and root prepositions. So if you want to stop arguing with someone, you can tell them you’d like to work out your problems… or you can choose to split the phrasal verb and tell them you’d like to work your problems out.

But in the second meaning of work out—meaning to exercise—you can’t split the phrasal verb. “Exercise” is something you do for yourself, not something that’s done to a direct object. So you can say “I work out at the gym,” but you can’t split the phrasal verb and say “I work at the gym out” or “At the gym, work I out.” That’s simply incorrect, because again only a direct object can split a phrasal verb.

So that’s the basic grammar rule for splitting phrasal verbs—phrasals are splittable only if they have a direct object. Now that you know the rule for when you can split a phrasal verb, let’s look at when you should split a phrasal verb.

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First off, it’s best to only split phrasal verbs when the direct object is short, either one word long or a few words long. You can, for instance, split the phrasal verb “pick up” in the statement “I picked the cat up and petted it.” And it’s still pretty much OK to split “pick up” if you add just one more word to the short direct object by saying “I picked the old cat up and petted it.

But if you expand the description of the direct object a little more, splitting becomes more questionable. “I picked the old striped long-haired cat up and petted it” sounds a little awkward. And this would be simply unacceptable: “I picked the old, striped, long-haired, grey and orange cat that used to belong to my grandmother up and petted it.” You can’t split a phrasal verb with that many words. It causes the phrasal verb to get “lost.” The phrasal becomes difficult to understand because the two words in the phrase are so unnaturally far apart. Instead you’d have to say “I picked up the old, striped, long-haired grey and orange cat that used to belong to my grandmother, and petted it.”

Another factor that determines whether you should split a phrasal verb is the meaning and connotation of that phrasal verb. Some phrasal verbs suggest a strong effect on a direct object, so it’s preferable to put the direct object right in the middle of the phrasal verb for emphasis.

A typical example of this would be the phrasal verb “bring down,” meaning to make someone feel very sad. The strong emotional meaning behind this phrasal verb emphasizes the way the direct object of this phrasal—a very sad person—feels. A direct object seems more emphasized if it’s in the middle of the phrasal verb, because it interrupts the phrasal verb and can’t be ignored. So with “bring down,” you would emphasize a person’s sadness by saying “Her unkind words really brought him down.”Brought down him” wouldn’t sound right, because it doesn’t properly emphasize “him” and his emotional anguish.

Similarly, when you want to emphasize the verb and not the object, you should not split the phrasal verb. “Take over” is phrasal verb that can have a direct object but is usually not split because of its meaning. “Take over” means to take control of a thing away from a person, or to take complete control of something. The verb “take over” suggests force and dramatic change. This is a “strong” phrasal verb, so the emphasis should be on the verb itself and not its direct object.

If a direct object is placed in the middle of the phrasal verb “took over,” the verb itself and its suggested force will not be appropriately emphasized. So you’d be more likely to say “The new president took over the country,” and less likely to say “The new president took the country over.” The second example doesn’t emphasize the dramatic power a president has when he or she comes into office.


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7 Responses to More Rules for Splitting Phrasal Verbs

  1. Jacques Smith March 30, 2017 at 4:14 pm #

    I look for my keys. Why can’t I look my keys for?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 1, 2017 at 5:04 am #

      Hi Jacques,

      Interesting question! All the phrasal verbs with look (e.g. look for, look at, look into, look up, etc.) do not allow this type of rearrangement. You can “pick the child up” or “pick up the child” but if you use “look for” you can ONLY use “look for the child” and never “look the child for.” All the look phrasal verbs have this behavior.

    • Michael Yao January 24, 2019 at 8:26 pm #

      Or you can put it this way. “Look” is an intransitive verb so it can’t be followed by an object. In your sentence, the object “keys” is an object of the preposition “for”.

  2. Lesley Bergman January 25, 2019 at 11:04 pm #

    Ah. The “took over” example would explain why the phrase “step their game up” didn’t sit well with me. Or am I mistaken?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 1, 2019 at 8:27 am #

      Hi Lesley,

      Yes–“step their game up” doesn’t quite sound as good as “step up their game”.

  3. Philip Mintz May 15, 2019 at 2:37 pm #

    The issue for me is when the object equally fits either way. For instance, “He held up his hand” vs. “He held his hand up.” The first indicates that the direction is not in question, but that the body part is. In other words, “He held up his hand, not his foot.” The second indicates that the body part is not in question, but the direction is. Thus, “He held his hand up, not down.”

    My question is whether it is always true that whatever (adjective or object) follows the main stem is stated as a certainty, and the part which is remote from the verb clarifies an uncertainty?

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