Common meanings of back in phrasal verbs

Back = backwards

The literal meaning of 'back' is 'in the opposite direction'. For example:

After walking for three hours, we stopped and looked back at the mountains.

The lion came closer and he stepped back.

I pulled him back from the edge of the cliff.

I think we're lost - let's turn back. (= go in the opposite direction)

Back = return

One common meaning of 'back' is 'to return' (to a place, an owner, an activity or a conversation topic).

He forgot his keys, so he went back to the office to get them. (return to a place, go)

When did you get back from your holiday? (return to a place, arrive)

I gave back all the letters he'd sent me. (return something to its owner)

Can we just go/come/get back to what you were saying before? (return to a conversation topic)

I need to get back to work. (return to an activity)

Back = the past

A more idiomatic meaning can be 'back in time', or 'return to the past'.

This photograph takes me back to when I was a little girl. (it makes me remember)

When I look back, university was the best time of my life. (think about the past)

Back = prevent

'Hold back' has the meaning to stop (prevent) something from happening.

Tell me what you think - don't hold back. (try not to say what you think)

If you want to ... I won't hold you back (stop someone from doing or achieving something)

The police held back the crowd of football supporters. (stop someone from moving forwards)


Flashcards for phrasal verbs with back

Practice 1: literal meanings for phrasal verbs with back (A2 level)

The phrasal verbs below all have the meaning 'in the opposite direction' or 'return to a place / owner'). These examples are all separable (e.g. I take it back, I put it back, not I take back it) or have no object (e.g. I went back, I looked back, I moved back). Look at the question and choose the best verb to complete the sentence. If it's easy, remove it from the flashcards. If it's difficult, click needs more practice and you can try it again later.


Phrasal verbs with 'back' (A2 level)





Practice 2: learn the idiomatic meanings (B2 level and above)

Here are some examples of idiomatic phrasal verbs with back. First, use these flashcards to check you understand the meaning. If it's easy, remove it from the flashcards. If it's difficult, click needs more practice and you can try it again.

Note: sth = something, sb = somebody


Example ↔ definition:





Practice 3: remember the idiomatic phrasal verbs

How many phrasal verbs can you remember from the examples? Click on the question to see the answer. If it was easy, you can remove it from the set of cards, otherwise click needs more practice to save it and see the next question. Keep going until there are no questions left.






You'll probably remember these better in the long term if you have a break now or study something different. Come back tomorrow and repeat these, or try the next set of flashcard questions for these words below.

Practice 4: test yourself - same verbs, different examples

Now try these flashcards - they use the same phrasal verbs, but different example sentences.






 *These phrasal verbs and questions are adapted from the PHaVE list, from research by Garnier, M. & Schmitt, N. (2014). The PHaVE List: A pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses. Language Teaching Research, 19(6), 645–666. DOI: 10.1177/1362168814559798