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The possible syntactic patterns that accommodate phrasal verbs are varied, but the following five are considered basic:

1. Verb adverb
2. Verb adverb object
3. Verb object adverb
4. Verb preposition object
5. Verb adverb preposition object

Verb Adverb (VA)

This is the shortest and simplest pattern, consisting of only a verb (V) and a short adverb (A). The combination is abbreviated as VA. Here are some examples:

wash up
buckle up
take off
look out
break down

Verb Adverb Object (VAO)

If you add a direct object to the previous pattern, the result is a verb-adverb-object sequence, abbreviated as VAO.

wash out the pot
blow up the bridge
tear down the building
hang up your coat
put out the fire

Verb Object Adverb (VOA)

If you move the adverb to the right side of the direct object, the result is a verb-object-adverb sequence, abbreviated as VOA.

wash the pot out
blow the bridge up
tear the building down
hang your coat up
put the fire out

Patterns VAO and VOA are often considered variants of each other with the short adverb appearing either before the direct object (VAO) or after the direct object (VOA) with no discernible difference in meaning. Observe these two phrasal verb patterns with identical meanings:

Take off your hat. Take your hat off.
Put on your shoes. Put your shoes on.
Hand in your homework. Hand your homework in.

However, there are instances when the two patterns are not interchangeable. And here are some of them:

  • If the direct object is long or stressed, people tend to use pattern VAO:

wash out the aluminum, glass-topped coffee pot.
blow up the three-mile-long suspension bridge.

  • If the direct object is a gerund (VERB-ing), people use pattern VAO:

give up smoking
keep on talking
take up dancing
put off deciding

  • If the direct object is a pronoun, people use pattern VOA almost exclusively:

wash it out. (NOT: wash out it)
blow it up.
take it off
put them on
hand it in

  • A great many phrasal verbs tend to appear consistently in only one or the other pattern. A prime example is phrasal verbs that are contained within idiomatic expressions such as the following:

let off steam (VAO)
put up a good fight (VAO)
keep your shirt on (VOA)
cry your eyes out (VOA)
blow someone's head off (VOA)

None of these expressions would sound correct if the short adverb changed places.

  • Some phrasal verbs change their meanings when the short adverb is moved. For example, when the phrasal verb keep up means "to continue" or "to maintain," it takes pattern VAO:

Keep up the good work.

But when that same phrasal verb means to keep awake, it takes pattern VOA:

He kept the neighbors up with his loud music.

Verb Preposition Object (VPO)

The verb-preposition-object sequence, abbreviated VPO, is illustrated below:

work on the project
count on your friends
run into an old flame
head for home

The VPO pattern resembles the VAO pattern superficially and therefore can sometimes cause confusion. But since a preposition serves to connect the verb to a following noun phrase object, the pattern VPO can never become VOP. Nobody would ever say, "work your project on," "count your friends on," "run an old flame into," or "head home for."

Even with a pronoun object, the preposition cannot change places. Nobody would ever say "work it on," "count them on," "run her into," or "head it for."

Verb Adverb Preposition Object (VAPO)

Abbreviated as VAPO, this category combines pattern VA with VPO as in the following examples:

keep up with the news
make off with the money
brush up on your skills
come down with a cold
come up with a plan
do away with someone

Summary of Syntactic Patterns of Phrasal Verbs

Below is a summary of the material just covered. These five syntactic patterns are the most frequent to accommodate the English phrasal verb:

Verb adverb (VA): wash up
Verb adverb object (VAO): take off your hat
Verb object adverb (VOA): take your hat off
Verb preposition object (VPO): work on a project
Verb adverb preposition object (VAPO): come up with a plan