The Excitement of Three-Part Phrasal Verbs

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29 September, 2016

Popular music can teach you a lot about the English language.

You may not realize it, but musicians are actually teaching you about English grammar in each song they perform.

Consider this song by the famous reggae artist Bob Marley. It tells about the need for equality and justice:

Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights

Get up, stand up. Don't give up the fight

This song is called "Get Up, Stand Up." It shows you how to use the three-part phrasal verb, "stand up for." "To stand up for" means "to defend (someone or something) with words."

Today, we explore three-part phrasal verbs – idiomatic expressions that can be difficult for students of English to understand.

What are phrasal verbs?

As you may remember from other Everyday Grammar programs, a phrasal verb is a verb with two or more words. Most phrasal verbs contain just two words: a verb and a preposition, such as "look up," which means "to research" or "to search for." "Look" is the verb and "up" is the preposition.

Note that "look" and "up" are words with literal meanings. In some situations, you would use the literal meaning of "look" and "up." For example, you can say, "When I looked up, I saw a beautiful bird." In that sentence, "look" means "to direct your eyes to a specific direction" and "up" means "toward the sky or top of the room."

But, when used as a phrasal verb, "look up" becomes idiomatic, which means you cannot understand their meaning from the individual meanings of the separate words. Instead, when the words are put together as phrasal verbs, they mean something else.

While many phrasal verbs consist of just two words, there are several that have three words. Three-part phrasal verbs have a verb and two particles. A particle is a word that must appear with another word to communicate meaning:

Three-part phrasal verb = verb + particle + particle

Three-part phrasal verb = stand + up + for

In Bob Marley's song, the main verb "stand" has two particles: "up" and "for." When these three words are combined, they become a three-part phrasal verb.

Here is an easy way to remember how to use three-part phrasal verbs: all three words always appear together, and the order of the three words never changes.

So, although using these verbs may seem daunting at first, do not fear! If you learn the most common ones, you will be able to recognize them and use them yourself.

Why do we use three-part phrasal verbs?

Three-part phrasal verbs are important if you want to express yourself in English in the most natural way possible.

You can use many of these verbs in both casual and formal English.

For example, "The meeting lasted three hours. Now, I need to catch up on my work." To "catch up on" is both casual and formal. It means "to do something you have not had time to do earlier."

But, some three-part phrasal verbs are more common in casual English than in formal, written English. Listen for a three-part phrasal verb in this song by the blues singer B.B. King:

Oh, I'm sorry for you baby

But you know I just can't put up with you

This song, called "Get These Blues Off Me," uses the verb "to put up with," which means "to tolerate or accept something unpleasant."

Three-part phrasal verb = verb + particle + particle

Three-part phrasal verb = put + up + with

In English, many songs about love, or love lost, use the verb "to put up with." But you probably would not use this verb in formal situations. For example, if you reported your noisy neighbors to police, you might want to avoid saying, "I have put up with the noise for a long time." Instead, you might say, "I have tolerated the noise for a long time."

How often do we use three-part phrasal verbs?

In social, personal, and professional communication, three-part phrasal verbs are often the most natural and least wordy choice. That is why we use these verbs every day.

For example, when we have not seen friends or family members for a long time, we want to "catch up with" them. We want to learn about the new things happening in their lives.

Note the similarity between "catch up with" and "catch up on." Yet the meanings are different. Changing any word of a three-part phrasal verb creates a new meaning.

A work situation where you might use a three-part phrasal verb is when you run out of time. In the workplace, you can also run out of ideas or supplies. "To run out of" means "to have used all of something."

Speaking of running out of time, we are almost out of time for this program. So here are three ideas to help you with three-part phrasal verbs.

Tip #1

The first thing to remember is that these verbs are inseparable, meaning that the three words cannot be separated by an object or any other part of speech. Bob Marley did not say, "Stand up your rights for" or "Stand your rights up for." And, as we noted earlier, the words will always appear in the same order: Bob Marley also did not say, "Stand for up your rights."

Tip #2

Changing any part of three-part phrasal verbs changes their meanings. Remember that the verbs "catch up with" and "catch up on" do not mean the same thing.

Tip #3

Now, a final point: The examples we have used today are from American English. Many of these verbs are the same in British English and other forms of English. But remember that some of them may have a different meaning or may not be used at all outside of the United States.

Three-part phrasal verbs can be difficult to understand, but learning and using them will make your speaking and writing sound realistic and natural.

I'm Alice Bryant. And I'm Pete Musto.

This program was written by Alice Bryant. George Grow was the editor. We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.

You can read more about phrasal verbs here. At the end of this page, you can find a list of common phrasal verbs along with their meanings.


Words in This Story

grammar – n. the set of rules that explain how words are used in a language

idiomatic adj. an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but has a separate meaning of its own

consist v. to have (something) as an essential or main part

literal n. involving the common or usual meaning of a word

daunting adj. making people frightened or less sure of themselves; very difficult to do or deal with

casual adj. designed for or permitting normal behavior or clothing; opposite of formal

formal adj. requiring or using serious and correct behavior or clothing

wordy adj. using or containing too many words

tolerate v. to let (something that is bad or unpleasant) to exist, happen, or be done