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Teaching multi-word verbs (MWVs)

multi-word verbs

If you have followed the language analysis guide to multi-word verbs you will be aware that it is not always easy to disentangle the 3 sorts of these:

  • phrasal verbs which can be intransitive (e.g., Look out!) or transitive and must be separated by the pronoun (e.g., look it up)
  • prepositional verbs which are not separable and can be transitive (e.g., account for) or transitive and intransitive, with or without the preposition (e.g., insist and insist on)
  • phrasal-prepositional verbs which work similarly (e.g., run out of, look forward to)

Before you go on, you should have the distinctions clear in your head.
You should also be clear why the verb in He turned down the lane is not a multi-word verb but the one in He turned down the offer is.
You have to understand this area before you can hope to teach it successfully.


Why are MWVs difficult for learners?

One obvious reason is that lots of languages don't have them.
Something like MWVs do exist in a number of Germanic languages (of which English is one) so learners with those languages will not be surprised by them.  Usually, in these languages, these sorts of verbs are simply called separable verbs.  There is some evidence of a few verb + particle combinations in Polish, Italian, Spanish and French but they are not of the type of complexity and commonness we find in English.
Other languages (Japanese and Hindi, for example) do exhibit something called compound verbs made up of two related words but they are a far cry from multi-word verbs in English.
In summary, most learners of English will find MWVs novel and taxing to learn.

Here is an example of MWVs in action, taken from the language analysis guide:

Pattern 1 verb phrase + particle + object noun
He pushed + up + the lever
Pattern 2 verb phrase + particle + object pronoun
He pushed + for + it
Pattern 3 verb phrase + object noun + particle
He pushed + the boat + away
Pattern 4 verb phrase + object pronoun + particle
He pushed + them + over

Think for a moment and come up with one problem relating to form and one to meaning which will make this sort of language difficult for learners.  If you can think of more than one problem in each section, that's good.
Click here when you are ready.


Teaching multi-word verbs

don't do it

Don't do it!

There's quite a strong argument in favour of not deliberately focusing on MWVs at all but treating them as and when they arise in the same way as any other lexeme.  This view is based on some underlying beliefs:

  1. that MWVs are so complex in form and meaning that any lesson which attempts to cover the ground is doomed to fail
  2. that learners will become disheartened and demoralised by the sheer number of form and meaning complexities
  3. that focusing on a single verb such as set and then adding particles to it (set off, set up, set by etc.) will actually encourage confusion
  4. that, equally, focusing on a particle and then on verbs that go with it (set down, bring down, put down, hold down etc.) will be confusing

What counter arguments can you develop for these four views?  Think for a moment and then click here.

Even if you take the first view, you are going to have to deal with MWVs in some way or other.  If you take the second view, i.e., that we should focus on this important and difficult area explicitly, then we need some strategies to help.  Here are some ideas.

plan anf focus

Plan and focus

There's little point in planning a lesson which includes separable, transitive, prepositional, phrasal and phrasal-prepositional verbs all in the same materials – that will confuse your learners.  So introduce verbs which share formal characteristics together.

  1. Dealing with separability and intransitivity.
    Idea 1
    You could focus a lesson on transitive prepositional verbs such as abstain from, comment on, quarrel about, react to and talk about in a lesson on the topic of friends meeting and talking to plan an event or a formal meeting to discuss a local problem or whatever.  It's not difficult to develop a text containing them if the context is clear.  For example:
    They met to talk about the party they were planning for John's 50th but soon began quarrelling about whether it should be a surprise or not.  Mary, in particular reacted badly to the idea saying that John hated being surprised by events like this ... etc.
    All these prepositional verbs share a common structure: they are both transitive and inseparable.  Your learners will not be tempted into mistakes such as
        *They talked the problem about
    by analogy with a transitive separable verb such as in
        They tossed the ball about
  2. Dealing with separability and intransitivity.
    Idea 2
    Equally, you could plan a lesson which does focus on separability of transitive MWVs such as call off, think through, call up, count in, pass on, set up etc. and the same idea of planning a party for someone would work well as a topic to hang it on along the lines of:
    They decided not to
    give the party idea up but to set it up for the following Saturday.  Unfortunately, they had to call the event off when it was clear ... etc.
    All these phrasal verbs share a common structure: they are both transitive and separable.
  3. Dealing with noncompositionality.
    Idea 1
    Focus on a particle, such as the example of off above, and choose to introduce verbs which show the gradual transition from literal to metaphorical meaning.
    For example, for the idea of progress towards a target, you could select get on, then go on, then carry on, then keep on, then move on then hurry on.  The idea that on often has the sense of towards a goal (but some meanings are slightly metaphorical) is easy to grasp.
    Later, you could select another meaning of on, that of connection or joining, and introduce tie on, stick on, turn on, switch on, hold on etc.  If you look at the final table in the analysis guide, you'll find some more candidates.
    Although it looks nice, the following sort of presentation is flawed
    for two reasons:
    a) we actually have multiple meanings of the particle out (exit, emerge, clearness, disappearance) and
    b) there's no exemplification or context to help the learners.
    There's nothing wrong in principle with this kind of presentation or in getting your students to construct one but you have to maintain focus and contextualise with examples.  It would be better like this
    out 2
    because here we have one meaning only of out (the idea of making something disappear or go away) and there are examples to help the learners.
  4. Dealing with noncompositionality.
    Idea 2
    If you focus on a verb rather than a particle then you need to show the connected meanings of the particles in the same way.  You can, for example use the sense of break (as in destroy or interrupt) to show how the particles alter its meaning with, e.g.:
        break into a meeting
        break out of a meeting
        break up a meeting
    and then go on to try a different verb such as call with
        call someone up
        call on someone
        call someone in
    etc.  There are (in)separability issues with this approach with both verbs.
    You can use the same kind of presentation (or get your learners to construct one) as above but again, you need to keep the focus and exemplify.
  5. Dealing with polysemy
    Try to make sure that the materials you use don't confuse, especially at early stages.  It may be tempting to add, when explaining
        The car broke down
    "But understand that this verb can be used with an object to mean something completely different, you know."
    That's very rarely helpful.  Make sure you have context and co-text to help understanding.
  6. Dealing with collocation and style
    Not telling learners that MWVs are always informal is a good beginning (see above).
    When you do use the one-word equivalent to explain, e.g., the meaning of speed up as accelerate, make sure that you focus on the fact that you can't accelerate your speaking or reading but you can accelerate a car or an object in a physics lesson.
  7. Remembering the particles
    Intransitive phrasal verbs and transitive prepositional verbs are not separable.  In the first case, of course, because they have no object.  This means they can be taught, practised and remembered as single items.
    There's no need to teach people that
        I wake up at six every morning
    is an example of wake plus an adverb particle.  It, along with a host of other verbs can be taught as a single word with a space in the middle.
    Equally, rely on, account for, talk about etc. can be taught and practised as if they were single words.
    Doing this may help your learners not to separate the verbs with other adverbs and say things like
        *I get early up
        *She relies definitely on him
    and so on.
    It is possible to use adverbs in this way
        She talked loudly about ...
    but never necessary so why confuse people when they are acquiring the system?  Such subtleties can wait till advanced levels (or even longer).
  8. Finding the verb.
    Idea 1
    If you are dealing with a complex expression such as
        He dropped me off by the cinema
    get students to notice the difference between a preposition introducing a phrase such as by the cinema and get them to come up with alternatives (near, next to, opposite the cinema etc.).
    That will help them to understand that drop off is actually the verb they should learn.
  9. Finding the verb.
    Idea 2
    The problem of verbs being separated by lots of text from their adverb such as the example above
        They had to give their dream of saving up enough money to buy their first house in London up
    is not easy to tackle but once the learners are alerted to the fact that the meaning of the main verb is relinquish, they can begin to look for the MWV that they know.  Exposure to already known MWVs in this kind of environment is useful but if the MWV is not known it's far too challenging to find it.  Build up the challenge slowly and focus on simple ones that are already familiar in sentences such as
        He handed his essay and mine in
        He handed his essay and the ones that his classmates gave him in
        He gave all the sweets and chocolate away
        He gave all the sweets, the chocolate, the cakes and most of the rest of the food away
    An alternative is to start with a 'normal' ordering such as
        They had to give up their dream of saving up enough money to buy their first house in London
    and then focus on the fact that it is possible to move the particle to the end without changing the meaning.  Then get the students to do it with, e.g., a sentence or two like
        He pointed out the new buildings and many of the other surprising changes in the city to me.
    Practice of this sort will help learners to avoid panicking when they are reading texts that do this and to keep calm and look for the particle if the verb alone is making no sense.


Two cautions

  1. MWVs, despite what is said above under problems of style, are very common in spoken communication and it's tempting only to introduce and practise them that way.  Remember, however, that they are difficult, especially for learners whose languages don't use them (i.e., the majority) so it makes sense to introduce them and practise them in writing before asking people to produce them orally.
    Learners need space and time to absorb hard concepts and forms.
  2. Make sure that what you are dealing with actually is a MWV.  We started the analysis in the guide with the distinction between
        Turn down the lane
        Turn down the offer
    Look carefully at lexemes that come up in a text or in a lesson and ask yourself if it really is a MWV.
        She walked across the road
    is not an instance of a MWV; it is the verb walk followed by a prepositional phrase telling you where and could be replaced with through the park, down the street, up the hill, over the bridge and many other phrases.
    However, in
        She walked me through the procedure
    we are dealing with a MWV, meaning to show or guide, and if we substitute something else we change the meaning of the verb, e.g.:
        She walked me over the road
    / through the park
    meaning helped me or accompanied me.
    If you don't do this, you will actually be wasting your learners' time getting them to remember walk across as if it were a single lexeme rather than being able to deploy prepositional phrases to say what they mean.



Almost all course books at appropriate levels will have something (often quite a lot) on MWVs.  When assessing the value of materials think about:

  1. Is the material logically presented?
    Does it jumble up different forms and structures – transitive and intransitive, phrasal and prepositional verbs, separable and inseparable verbs and so on?
  2. If it focuses on a verb, does it make the meaning clear?
    Does it use the verb to cover many different meanings?
  3. If it focuses on particles, does it do so in a way which shows a single significance, such as connection or superior relationship etc. which will help learners to grasp its essential meaning?
    Does it jumble, say, up to mean 'higher' (bring up, hold up, look up to, sit up, set up etc.) with up meaning 'complete' as in clean up, blow up, cover up, finish up, clear up, lock up and wash up?

If the answer is yes to the second part of each of these three tests, don't use the material or, if you do use it, amend it in a way that makes it usable.

Related guide:
the first guide to MWVs for the background analysis
PDF for a list of multi-word verbs
polysemy and homonymy for more on extended meanings, metaphor and figurative uses of language
the essential guide to MWVs for a simpler guide to the area

If you have recently taught a successful lesson in this area or have other ideas to share, why not send the materials to ELT ConcourseClick here to see how.