The term phrasal verb is commonly applied to two or three distinct but related constructions in English: a verb and a particle and/or a preposition co-occur forming a single semantic unit. This semantic unit cannot be understood based upon the meanings of the individual parts in isolation, but rather it must be taken as a whole. In other words, the meaning is non-compositional and thus unpredictable.[1] Phrasal verbs that include a preposition are known as prepositional verbs and phrasal verbs that include a particle are also known as particle verbs. Additional alternative terms for phrasal verb are compound verb, verb-adverb combination, verb-particle construction, two-part word/verb, and three-part word/verb (depending on the number of particles), and multi-word verb.[2]

The terminology of phrasal verbs is inconsistent. Modern theories of syntax tend to use the term phrasal verb to denote particle verbs only; they do not view prepositional verbs as phrasal verbs.[7] The ESL literature (English as a second language), in contrast, tends to employ the term phrasal verb to encompass both prepositional and particle verbs.[8] The terminology used to denote the particle is also inconsistent. Sometimes it is called an adverb, and at other times an intransitive prepositional phrase.[9] The inconsistent use of terminology in these areas is a source of confusion about what does and does not qualify as a phrasal verb and about the status of the particle. Concerning the history of the term phrasal verb, Tom McArthur writes: "...the term phrasal verb was first used by Logan Pearsall Smith, in Words and Idioms (1925), in which he states that the OED Editor Henry Bradley suggested the term to him." The value of this choice and its alternatives (including separable verb for Germanic languages) is debatable. In origin the concept is based on translation linguistics; as many single-word English and Latinate words are translatable by a phrasal verb complex in English, therefore the logic is that the phrasal verb complex must be a complete semantic unit in itself. One should consider in this regard that the actual term phrasal verb suggests that such constructions should form phrases. In most cases however, they clearly do NOT form phrases. Hence the very term phrasal verb is misleading and a source of confusion, which has motivated some to reject the term outright.[10] The term is nevertheless employed here because that is what the underlying constructions are commonly called in linguistics and language pedagogy in general. When a particle phrasal verb is transitive, it can look just like a prepositional phrasal verb. This similarity is another source of confusion, since it obscures the difference between prepositional and particle phrasal verbs. A simple diagnostic distinguishes between the two, however. When the object of a particle verb is a definite pronoun, it can and usually does precede the particle.[11] In contrast, the object of a preposition can never precede the preposition:[12] a. You can bank on Susan. - on is a preposition. b. *You can bank her on. - The object of the preposition cannot precede the preposition. a. You can take on Susan. - on is a particle. b. You can take her on. - The object of the particle verb can precede the particle. a. He is getting over the situation. - over is a preposition. b. *He is getting it over. - The object of a preposition cannot precede the preposition. a. He is thinking over the situation. - over is a particle. b. He is thinking it over. - The object of the particle verb can precede the particle. The object of a preposition must follow the preposition, whereas the object of the particle verb can precede the particle especially if it is a definite pronoun, since definite pronouns are very light.