I was reading Why is “rustle up” different from “rustle”? which I came across as I was looking for a duplicate for a question about "google up" meaning on ELL, and it made me realize how little I know about phrasal verbs even though I use them all the time.

Some of the answers and comments talk about phrasal verbs and the exact meaning of these phrases specifically, but I’m wondering about the limits on the formation of phrasal verbs. My understanding is that a phrasal verb is a verb combined with a preposition or adverb (or both) into one semantic unit.

Is there any limit on the types of verbs we can use or is it a science the shit out of it situation where almost anything goes?

I guess that there would be limits to what prepositions or adverbs would combine with different verbs and still “make sense” or not be awkward. I could “google up some answers” but I probably wouldn’t “grab some grapes and stomp up some wine”. That isn’t a very strong example, but I hope it’s good enough to figure out what I mean.

Are there any “structural” or other limits around what words can become part of a phrasal verb? I read over Topography of phrasal verbs but I’m not looking for a list; I’m asking if there might be some verbs that are excluded from being used in a phrasal verb for a particular reason.

I realize this may be a little broad due to my ignorance, and realize that not every verb that sidles up to a preposition is necessarily a “phrasal” verb. Maybe the answer is just “you can mash up whatever words you want to if you don’t mind the strange looks”. I’m hoping it’s more interesting than that though.

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    Pretty much any verb can take a particle, and most take several, so there are many many more phrasal verbs than non-phrasal verbs in English. They're extremely important, and they're extremely idiomatic. You hafta learn them individually, though there are some regularities with up. Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 20:37
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    I'm gonna vote up this question.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 20:48
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    To best explore this, a distinction should be made between a phrasal verb, which takes an adverb particle, and prepositional verb, which takes a preposition with an object. Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 20:56
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    I'm not convinced google up means anything except google. Commented Jul 15, 2021 at 2:28
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    "Google (it) up" is either a jokey construction to match "look it up" or a creation by someone who doesn't know "google" is a verb. It's not the only phrasal verb where you can drop the preposition. "Wake someone" and "wake someone up" mean essentially the same thing.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 15, 2021 at 11:17

1 Answer 1


The phrasal verb construction in English stems from its origin as a germanic language. Take a look at this list for example, under separable particles. For example the verb to give has a totally different meaning than to give up, so in German does geben distinguish itself completely from aufgeben.

In my opinion language belongs to the people who speak it more than it does to those who write its rules, but still as a native English speaker I think freedom of choice is greater when the word has a germanic origin, e.g. cook, rustle, because they have a more familiar feeling. I think this also applies to new words like google for the same reason, but that's really subjective.

As a (mediocre) example of the limits of using particles :

She backed up her colleague


She supported her colleague.

really can't have a particle that I can think of. Generally we modify words that come to English from French (or Latin) by using adverbs or adjectives.

Eat your dinner up.

Consume all your dinner.

I searched for a while to find an example of a phrasal verb that was just as familiar feeling as a Latin-origin word but struggled to identify one. Perhaps you can think of one yourself though. Most three-syllable words in English come have a Latin origin.

My dog slobbered me up


My dog salivated me up

could only be used in jest I believe.

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    There's probably a group of verbs that come from Latin (often via Middle French) that would work with up. I can think of pay up, suit up, fix up, and mess up. It's possible that shorter words are more likely to adopt up, though other principles at play, since (x)*harm up* doesn't work. Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 19:05
  • Yes! Pay up is a particularly good one. Etymologically though it is an extension of fill up. All good examples but I would say other than pay they are all very far removed from their latin meaning, i.e. fully anglicised words. Fix is more related to fastening, mess to eating, suit as a verb is an english adaptation. Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 11:41
  • Interesting, I'll have to ponder this a bit but have an upvote while I'm thinking :)
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 17:24
  • Hi @Colleen, just fyi, your question still has no accepted response. Is that still how you feel about it? Commented Feb 14 at 20:36

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