Phrasal verbs are a challenge and a mystery to so many English learners. It really is strange the way that a verb and preposition can be combined to make a meaning that’s nothing like meaning of the original verb or preposition.
But one of the other seemingly mysterious things about phrasal verbs is the fact that some phrasal verbs—but not all—are splittable. This means that some phrasal verbs can have a noun placed in between the verb and preposition in the phrasal. So for example, to “call off” means to cancel something. And if your boss cancels a meeting, you can say your boss called off the meeting, or you can say your boss called the meeting off.
“Call off” is a splittable phrasal verb. But some phrasal verbs cannot be split. Take “check in,” which means to formally enter a place such as a hotel. You can say you checked in to the hotel, but you can’t say that you checked to the hotel in or checked the hotel in. Similarly, “turn up,” which means to appear suddenly or to be found, simply can’t be split. You can say you thought you lost your car keys, but they turned up on your floor. But you can’t say the car keys turned on the floor up, nor can you say that on the floor turned the car keys up. “Check in,” “turn up,” and a number of other phrasal verbs simply can’t be split.
At a glance, the idea of splittable versus unsplittable phrasal verbs can seem like an additional layer of frustrating confusion. But ESL students can take heart. There is a very simple rule to determine whether a phrasal verb can be split or not: if a phrasal verb has a direct object, it can be split by its direct object. If it has no direct object, it can’t be split at all!
You can see this in the literal meaning of the normally unsplittable phrasal verb “turn up.” Literally, “turn up” means to turn an object upwards. This meaning of turn up has a direct object, the thing being turned upwards. So you can turn up the corners of your mouth when you smile, and you can also say that you turn the corners of your mouth up when you smile.
And now you have something to smile about, because the mystery of phrasal verb splitting is solved! Or rather, the most important part of the mystery of split phrasal verbs is solved.
There are still times when you can split a phrasal verb, based on the rules of English grammar… but you probably shouldn’t split it, based on other rules of English. In my next post on this subject we’ll look at these additional guidelines for phrasal verb splitting.
This post was written by David Recine, TOEFL expert at Magoosh. For more TOEFL help, check out Magoosh’s free eBooks and PDFs.