All about phrasal verbs and the particles ‘up’ and ‘down’

All about phrasal verbs and the particles ‘up’ and ‘down’

by Adriana Stein

Updated November 10, 2022

It’s important to learn how phrasal verbs work, as they are extremely common in the English language, and they make your spoken English much livelier and more fluent. To get you started in the right direction during the language learning process, I’ll go over phrasal verbs with the prepositions “up” and “down”. 

What are phrasal verbs?

A phrasal verb is made up of a verb followed by an adverb or a preposition. These particles can change the meaning of a verb to something completely different from the original one.

“Up” and “down” usually give the verb a sense of verticality, or of something that increases or decreases. The way they change their verbs is easier to understand in practice than in theory, so I’ll show you plenty of examples to explain them.

Phrasal verbs with up

“Up” can change the meaning of the verb it follows and is the most common way to talk about increasing something or moving it vertically. A few examples are:

  • Sarah picked up her toys from the floor. (the subject moves the object vertically from a lower point to a higher one)
  • I’m late, I will hurry up! (the subject is slow and has to increase speed if he wants to be on time)
  • Grandpa sat up in bed and smiled. (the subject moved vertically from a lying to a sitting position)
  • Can you please turn up the volume? (the subject is asked to increase the volume)

But “up” can change the verb’s meaning to something completely different. You must learn these by heart, but don’t worry, they’ll become second nature to you with more practice.

Using “up” with verbs about separation

When “up” accompanies a verb that indicates separation, it amplifies the verb’s meaning.

  • For example, you could tear a hole in your jeans, which would be a minor inconvenience, or you could tear up a letter you received, which is far more revealing about your feelings towards it.
  • When you crack up, it means you are laughing so hard you might break. Conversely, the ice on your patio might crack, which means it’s still there, but just with a crack.

“Up” meaning to improve

“Up” can change the meaning of the verb it follows into “improving”.

  • If you change from your pajamas to a formal gown, then you dress up, meaning to improve your style of clothing.
  • Imagine this: you had a rough night, you received terrible news. What if I brought you a gift to cheer you up? My action would improve your mood.

“Up” meaning to finish something

Here, “up” is used to describe the completion of an action.

  • When Mom told you to clean up your room she wasn’t satisfied until it was immaculate. Rightfully so.
  • After washing clothes you must wait for them to dry up, otherwise, you’d feel the water on your skin, which is uncomfortable. 

“Up” meaning to stop

The verb’s meaning can be changed when it’s followed by “up”.

  • You can give something a try, but if you fail too many times, you will give up, which means you stop trying.
  • You can hold a ball in your hands. But what if traffic holds you up? It means the traffic stopped you.

And yet, neither give nor hold mean stop. This is the power of “up”.

Phrasal verbs with down

“Down” acts similarly to “up”, in the sense that it changes the meaning of the verb it follows. 

Much like “up”, the most common meaning of “down” is that of moving things vertically, as well as moving downwards or decreasing. For example:

  • He put down the barbell after the workout. (the subject drops the barbell after using it)
  • My mom turned down the volume of the TV after I asked her. (the subject decreases the TV’s volume)
  • Please calm down. (the speaker asks the subject to reduce their anger)

In all the examples, the subject is moving or reducing something to a lower point. 

“Down” as an intensifier

The particle makes the action expressed by the verb stronger

  • You can hunt a wild boar. But you can also hunt down a criminal. “Hunt down” is a stronger form of “hunt”.  
  • You can burn a letter to dispose of it. But forests can burn down, which means they get completely destroyed by fire. 

“Down” can change the verb’s meaning

Just like “up”, “down” can change the meaning of its verb. But unlike “up”, we can’t easily categorise phrasal verbs with “down”. 

It’s easy to understand the meaning of the verb with practice. Let’s see some examples:

  • The government is trying to crack down on alcohol consumption. (the subject is taking severe measures against something)
  • John let me down yesterday. (the subject disappointed me)
  • Water can wear down a mountain. (the subject erodes/weakens the object)

Overall, phrasal verbs are a super essential element of becoming a fluent English speaker, so it’s best to start practising as much as you can!

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