Transitive vs. intransitive phrasal verbs

What do transitive and intransitive mean?

Phrasal verbs can be transitive or intransitive:

transitive phrasal verbs have a direct object*;
intransitive phrasal verbs do not have a direct object.

*An object is a word or part of a sentence that is affected by the action of a verb.

Examples of transitive phrasal verbs with their objects:

  • give up (finish, stop a habit): 
    He gave up smoking two years ago.
    (give up = phrasal verb, object = ‘smoking’)
  • put off (postpone, move to a later time): 
    We’ve put off the meeting for a week.
    (put off = phrasal verb, object = ‘the meeting’)
  • set up (organise, configure): 
    I’ve set up a filter in my email inbox.
    (set up = phrasal verb, object = ‘my email’)

Both transitive AND intransitive

Some phrasal verbs can be both transitive and intransitive, as we can see here with the verb look up:

  • look up (‘get better, improve’) = intransitive:
    After a horrible year last year things are starting to look up.

The verb look up with the above meaning is intransitive, so it has no object.

When look up means ‘look for a word’ it is transitive – words is its object:

  • look up (‘look in the dictionary for a word’) = transitive:
    I often look up words in the dictionary.

For more examples, see our article Understanding transitive and intransitive verbs.

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