The meanings of some phrasal verbs can be guessed sometimes; like go after, give back, find out, etc.

Some sentences:

1) Go after her quickly.

2) Give my wallet back.

3) Find out what I have lost.

The reason being (how I understand) from the context, it is clearly understandable what might these phrasal verbs mean. Sometimes they are same with the meaning of the verb itself, just a little addition/subtraction of the meaning, but the theme remains almost constant.

Again some phrasal verbs do not really mean what we guess it could be from the context; For example, put up with, bring up, chip in, etc.

Some sentences:

1) I can not put up with you.

2) She brought him up.

3) If everybody chips in I can complete the work by tomorrow .

It is hard to guess meanings of these phrasal verbs even from the contexts and usages. So in these cases how can we guess the meanings of those?

  • 1
    I think that there is actually not way how to figure out what a phrasal verb means but to learn it. As you mentioned, sometimes you can use your sense, but many times it is just not helpful as our non-native English sense is not adjusted to English.
    – MasterPJ
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 14:15
  • @MasterPJ, Let us wait if someone from native speakers can cast some light on it.
    – Mistu4u
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 14:17
  • Of course, I was just expressing my own experience. Also some of my teachers of English told me the same. Nevertheless, I did not put it as an answer since it is not actually much useful is it:) (but still can be the right answer theoretically)
    – MasterPJ
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 14:21
  • 1
    Note that a good dictionary will include phrasal verbs whose meanings are idiomatic (i.e. can't be put together from the meanings of the individual words). For example, Dictionary.com defines put up with as "to endure; tolerate; bear". Granted, it's meaning #42 under verb phrases, and you have to click the "expand" button to see it, but it's there.
    – Martha
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 15:08
  • Favourite examples: to put someone up; to put someone down; to put up with someone.
    – TRiG
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 21:18

1 Answer 1


Phrasal verbs are usually idiomatic expressions that cannot always be understood by analyzing the elements that comprise the verb. For example, with go after, an isolated sentence (one without a context) is ambiguous:

John went after Susan.

If it's not a phrasal verb, then it means that Susan went first and John went second. After is a preposition, and Susan is the object of the preposition.

If it is a phrasal verb, it may mean a number of things (it requires a context to understand what it means):

(a) John tried to attack Susan. Perhaps he wanted to hit her or kill her or rape her or mug her.
(b) John ran to capture Susan and arrest her. Perhaps he's a policeman and she's a shoplifter or a kidnapper.

These are two possibilities. There are others.

As with all idiomatic expressions, it's necessary to learn them before understanding them. Context, however, might suggest the meaning of the verb. E.g.:

Jim and Tim had just robbed a gas station and were running away. The police saw them and went after Jim because he was the slower runner. Tim was too far away for them to catch up to.

You can probably figure out what went after Jim means here without having to look it up in a dictionary.

  • Many languages have verbs with prefixes or other types of compound word, where you just have to learn (or look up) the meaning of different combinations. English phrasal verbs are the same as other languages' prefixed verbs.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 21:56

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