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Phrasal Verbs vs. Idioms: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on March 11, 2024
Phrasal verbs are verbs paired with prepositions or adverbs to create new meanings, while idioms are fixed expressions with meanings not deducible from individual words.

Key Differences

Phrasal verbs consist of a verb and one or more particles, either prepositions or adverbs, that alter the verb's meaning, creating a phrase that is understood as a single verb. Idioms, in contrast, are expressions where the meaning cannot be inferred from the meanings of the individual words, often metaphorical and fixed in form.
Understanding phrasal verbs is crucial for language learners because the addition of a particle to a verb can completely change its meaning. For example, "to turn down" means to reject, which is not apparent from the words "turn" and "down" individually. Idioms such as "kick the bucket" meaning to die, also pose challenges for learners, as the phrase's meaning is not related to its literal words.
Phrasal verbs can be separable or inseparable, meaning the object can either come between the verb and the particle or must follow the particle. This syntactic flexibility does not apply to idioms, which are fixed expressions where word order and form cannot be altered without losing or changing the meaning.
The context can affect the interpretation of phrasal verbs, which might have multiple meanings depending on the situation. Idioms, however, usually retain the same figurative meaning in various contexts, making them more stable in their usage despite their often enigmatic nature.
Phrasal verbs are integral to fluency in English, adding nuance and depth to verbal communication. Idioms enrich the language further, imbuing it with cultural significance and color, and often reflect historical or cultural aspects that give insight into the idiomatic expressions' origins.

Comparison Chart


Verbs combined with prepositions or adverbs to create new meanings.
Fixed expressions with meanings not deducible from the individual words.


A verb and one or more particles.
A set phrase of two or more words.


Meaning changes with the addition of a particle.
Meaning is figurative, not related to the literal meaning of the words.


Can be separable or inseparable.
Fixed in structure; cannot be altered.


Meaning can vary with context.
Usually retains the same meaning in different contexts.

Phrasal Verbs and Idioms Definitions

Phrasal Verbs

Add nuanced meaning to verbs.
He finally gave in to the demands.


Fixed in form and cannot be modified without losing meaning.
He let the cat out of the bag, revealing the secret.

Phrasal Verbs

Can change meaning based on the particle used.
He turned off the TV.


Enrich language with colorful expressions.
He's been feeling under the weather lately.

Phrasal Verbs

Can be separable, allowing objects to be placed between the verb and particle.
She put the book down gently.


Expressions with meanings that cannot be inferred from the individual words.
Spilling the beans doesn't involve any actual beans.

Phrasal Verbs

A combination of a verb and a preposition or adverb.
She looked up the word in the dictionary.


Often reflect cultural or historical elements.
Biting the bullet has its roots in wartime surgery without anesthesia.

Phrasal Verbs

Often used in everyday English conversation.
They came across an old friend in the city.


Used to convey complex ideas succinctly.
When she got the promotion, she was over the moon.


A speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements, as in keep tabs on.


The specific grammatical, syntactic, and structural character of a given language.


Regional speech or dialect.


A specialized vocabulary used by a group of people; jargon
Legal idiom.


A style of artistic expression characteristic of a particular individual, school, period, or medium
The idiom of the French impressionists.
The punk rock idiom.


Plural of idiom


Can the meaning of a phrasal verb be guessed from its components?

Often, the meaning of a phrasal verb cannot be guessed from its individual components and must be learned as a whole.

What is an idiom?

An idiom is a fixed expression with a figurative meaning that is not directly related to the individual words.

What is a phrasal verb?

A phrasal verb is a verb paired with one or more prepositions or adverbs, changing the original verb's meaning.

What makes a phrasal verb separable or inseparable?

A phrasal verb is separable if the object can come between the verb and the particle, and inseparable if the object must follow the particle.

How are idioms used in communication?

Idioms are used to express complex ideas succinctly and add color or emotional depth to language.

Are idioms always metaphorical?

Most idioms are metaphorical, conveying meanings that cannot be understood by interpreting the literal meanings of the words.

How are phrasal verbs different from regular verbs?

Phrasal verbs combine with particles to create meanings different from the original verb, while regular verbs do not change meaning with the addition of prepositions or adverbs.

Can the particles in phrasal verbs be omitted?

The particles in phrasal verbs are essential to their meaning and cannot be omitted without changing or losing the meaning.

How can one learn phrasal verbs effectively?

Learning phrasal verbs in context and through practice in speaking and listening can be effective.

Can the context change the meaning of a phrasal verb?

Yes, the context can influence the meaning of a phrasal verb, as some phrasal verbs have multiple meanings.

Can idioms lose their figurative meaning over time?

Some idioms can become literal through common usage, but most retain their figurative meaning.

Can understanding idioms improve language proficiency?

Yes, understanding idioms can significantly improve language proficiency and cultural understanding.

Can idioms change form?

Idioms are fixed in form, and altering their structure can change or lose the intended meaning.

Why are idioms challenging for language learners?

Idioms can be challenging because their meanings are not deducible from the individual words, requiring learners to understand cultural or historical contexts.

Are all idiomatic expressions considered idioms?

Not all idiomatic expressions are considered idioms; some may be more flexible in form or not as fixed in meaning.

Is it possible to create new phrasal verbs?

New phrasal verbs can emerge in language use, often through colloquial speech.

Why are some idioms specific to certain cultures or languages?

Idioms often originate from historical, cultural, or linguistic contexts unique to a particular culture or language.

Are there dictionaries dedicated to phrasal verbs and idioms?

Yes, there are specialized dictionaries and resources dedicated to explaining the meanings and usage of phrasal verbs and idioms.

Do idioms exist in all languages?

Yes, idioms are a common feature in all languages, often reflecting cultural nuances and traditions.

Do phrasal verbs follow specific grammatical rules?

Phrasal verbs have their own grammatical patterns, including whether they are separable or inseparable.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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