Are there any common rules for creating / figuring out the meaning of phrasal verbs, knowing the meaning of base verb?

Ex. 'out' particle can obviously refer to something outside.

  • leave OUT - omit something = leave something out of range
  • miss OUT - overlook something = not include something in considered range
  • move OUT - leave the area = move outside
  • rule OUT - separate = place some of items outside the area


sort OUT - resolve, neaten. Nothing to do with 'outside'?

  • I imagine the (somewhat metaphoric) "resolve" sense derives from sort 7 - to arrange according to sort, kind, or class; separate into sorts; classify: When you're sorting "out" a disorganised bunch of stuff, you separate out all the items of each different type (taking them out of the main pile). Jul 23, 2017 at 18:28
  • Even worse is "figure out"! And unfortunately, that's what you have to do for each phrasal. The prepositions in phrasals seem to be used in an entirely arbitrary fashion, and there is often no obvious reason for one to be used instead of another. Why not "figure in" or "figure up"? Jul 23, 2017 at 20:05

2 Answers 2


I'm afraid not. This Wikipedia article says "This semantic unit cannot be understood based upon the meanings of the individual parts, but must be taken as a whole. In other words, the meaning is non-compositional and thus unpredictable", and further points out in a footnote that "That unpredictability of meaning is the defining trait of phrasal verb constructions is widely assumed. See for instance Huddleston and Pullum (2002:273) and Allerton (2006:166)".

Having said that, the process by which the meaning has developed is often pretty clear: sort out is one of a family where "out" has a meaning something like "finish" or "complete": wash out, peg out (meaning "die"), turn out (in the sense of "result") run out. But as the quotation above says, this is unpredictable. Even if you can see how it developed, there is no way of telling in advance what meaning a particular phrasal verb will have.


Unpredictable as many phrasal verbs are, I think it would be wise to acknowledge that there has to be some underlying reason for the speakers of the language to have selected a certain preposition rather than another.

In his book "English Prepositions Explained" (Revised Edition), Hilderstone College, UK, Seth Lindstromberg carries out (notice by the way this use of "out" which I find to be related to the metaphorical use I will refer to below) an interesting analysis of some abstract notions expressed by prepositions, an enteprise he says was inspired by Dirven (1993). In his introduction to his Survey and Index of Important Abstract Notions Expressed by Prepositions, he states something I find to be of essence to really understand the matter:

The spatial meanings of English prepositions play a role in the expression and structuring of many key non-spatial notions.

Lindstromberg claims that the basic meanings of most prepositions are so substantial that speakers routinely use them metaphorically in order to make sense of non-physical experience.

On pages 39 to 42 of the mentioned book he explains the different abstract or metaphorical uses of "out", but the one that interests us appears at the very beginning, on page 39:

  • OUT for extension/expansion beyond former boundaries

The author says that the physical meaning of extension or expansion that appears in examples like: "Melting butter spreads out" or "Unroll the roll of paper until it is rolled out" underlies the metaphorical use of "out" in several phrasal verbs:

Abstract meaning of OUT

I just mentioned "carry out", and there's also "find out". There's definitely something in the meaning of "out" that made it the right choice in the process of creating these phrasals, "sort out" included.

Other metaphorical usages of OUT according to this author (both the definitions and the respective examples are quoted from the book) are the following:

  • Straighforward metaphorical usage of the basic meaning:

(39) Can any of your readers kindly help me out of a difficulty?

(40) I managed to talk Liz out of doing more housework.

  • From the beginning to the end:

(43) Jo Durie is hoping her dodgy knees hold out for an emotional Wimbledon farewell.

Other examples of this meaning are drag out (a meeting) and talk out a problem.

  • Better than:

(44) He's playing out of his skin to be honest and ... he's easily one of our most valuable players.

(This meaning of "out" also accounts for the existence of verbs like "outperform", "outdo", etc.)

  • Disappearance: be out (not in), go out, take out, die out, leave out, rule out

  • In the open, not hidden, understandable, available:

(50) People should learn to bring their differences out in the open.

(52) Figure/Puzzle/Work/Reason it out.

(53) My book is out -- sometimes good things happen...!

  • Loss of possession or supply:

(54) He cheated me out of money that I'd be glad to have now.

(55) We're running out of time.

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