How to use Phrasal Verbs in Declarative Sentences

I’ve mentioned in another grammar post that English is a S + V + O (Subject + Verb + Object) language. This means that in a basic statement in English – or a declarative sentence – we have to start with the subject, then the verb, then the object.

Well, phrasal verbs can complicate that structure, especially if they’re separable.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the separable phrasal verb heat up. We heat something up when we take something that has already been cooked out of the freezer or refrigerator and put it in the microwave or oven to make it hot again. So, we can say

I heated up the leftovers for dinner last night.

We have the subject I, the verb heated up, and the object the leftovers. But what happens when the phrasal verb is separable?

I heated the leftovers up for dinner last night.

In this example, the object goes between the words heated and up. Both sentences are correct and possible, and in this case, you can use both.

Don’t forget this tip when using phrasal verbs with personal pronouns!

Now, here’s something essential that you need to remember about using a separable phrasal verb in a sentence. When the object of the verb is a personal pronoun (such as me, you, her, him, it, us, or them), we always insert them into a separable phrasal verb. For example

I’m picking him up after school.

I’m picking up him after school.

My dog wakes me up every morning.

My dog wakes up me every morning.

You can set it down over there.

You can set down it over there.

Watch out for prepositional phrases!

You’ll want to pay attention when you use a phrasal verb with a prepositional phrase talking about a place or location, such as on the wall or on the table. If you put them together in the same sentence, you’ll want to be really careful with your structure. So, take a look at this example,

I’ll hang the painting up on the wall.

If you want to use the prepositional phrase on the wall, you should make sure that the word painting goes between hang and up. If you don’t, you’ll get a confusing sentence, like

I’ll hang up the painting on the wall.

It’s hard to figure out what this sentence means, right? Is the painting already on the wall? Are you going to hang it up again? To make it less confusing, you can also say,

I’ll hang the painting on the wall.

We can, but we don’t need to use up because we know exactly where the painting is going: on the wall.

Here are some other examples of what I mean:

Set the chairs up around the room.

Set the chairs around the room.

Set up the chairs around the room.

Put the clothes away in the drawer.

Put the clothes in the drawer.

Put away the clothes in the drawer.

A note about phrasal verbs in formal or academic writing

Part of the reason phrasal verbs can make you sound like a more natural speaker is that they are often (but not always!) considered more informal. This doesn’t mean that phrasal verbs have no place in academic writing, but that if you want to use a phrasal verb in academic or business writing, you should just be a bit more careful.

The truth is that we use phrasal verbs all the time in work and business contexts because they make communication more efficient. We use verbs like reach out, point out, fit in, and work out all the time.

So, here’s the important thing to keep in mind: Ending a sentence on a preposition is generally considered a bad practice in academic or formal writing. Make sure, then, that you know your audience, and that you can avoid using a phrasal verb without an object at the end of the sentence if possible.

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