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.


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7 Responses to Phrasal Verbs: To Split, or Not to Split?

  1. Sam October 10, 2016 at 5:28 am #

    You may say “I checked her in.” or “Did you check me in?”

    • David Recine
      David Recine October 20, 2016 at 7:08 am #

      Yes, those two sentences are grammatically correct. And actually my editors have correctly pointed out that “check in” is actually a poor example of an unsplittable phrasal verb. You can’t check a hotel in, but you can check someone in to a hotel.

      I’ve edited this post accordingly, and have replaced “check in” with a more truly unsplittable phrasal verb example.

  2. John Lloyd September 27, 2017 at 3:51 am #

    What about phrasal verbs that have to be split? For example ‘he will pick me up on my use of English grammar’. No way of unsplitting that one. So, presumably, we could expand the sentence to ‘he will pick me, an English scholar, up on my use of English grammar’.

    • David Recine
      David Recine September 28, 2017 at 10:59 am #

      I’ll be honest, John, I’m not quite understanding your use of “pick up” here. Can you explain what you are trying to say by saying someone will pick you up on your English grammar? And can you possibly give me one or two other example sentences with phrasals that have to be split?

      • Shaun December 4, 2019 at 11:22 pm #

        It is more complicated than you write here.

        Take off your clothes 👌 V P DO
        Take your clothes off 👌V DO P

        Stack up the books ❌
        Stack the books up 👌

        Get it over with 👌 V DO P P
        Get over it 👌 V P DO
        Get over the flu 👌
        Get the flu over ❌

        • Joanne June 8, 2021 at 3:48 pm #

          I would say that you can “stack up the books” i.e. make them into a pile.
          Also, what about “get the flu over with”? In a similar manner to “let’s get this exam over with”…. No?

  3. SkR June 9, 2020 at 7:32 am #

    how about warm up the room vs warm the room up

    The ancient Romans piped hot water through the walls and under the floors so as to warm the rooms up.
    The ancient Romans piped hot water through the walls and under the floors so that they could warm up the rooms.

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