logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Multi-word verbs (MWVs)

multi
breaking in

Note: if this area is fully new to you, you may like to work through the essential guide to MWVs first.


dictionary

Definitions

What follows is one way of analysing multi-word verbs.
There are other ways to do the analysis.

  1. One analysis recognises a word class called 'particles' which are neither adverbs nor prepositions (although they look like them).  Particles are function words, like conjunctions, prepositions etc., which have no lexical meaning in themselves and need to combine with other words to make any meaning.  For example, on standing alone means nothing but in a phrase such as get on the bus, it modifies how we understand the verb get.  It really doesn't matter too much for teaching purposes whether you use the term 'particle', 'preposition' or 'adverb'.  Here, we'll use the adverb-preposition distinction, reserving the term 'particle' for either of them.
  2. In other analyses of multi-word verbs, you will discover that all of them are lumped together as 'phrasal verbs'.  This is not the approach taken here but it makes some kind of sense – multi-word verbs are, by definition, phrases, so why not call them by that name?  Analyses which take this line may distinguish between particle verbs, prepositional verbs and particle-prepositional verbs.  Roughly speaking, these categories are similar to the ones used here.

distinguish

Distinguishing between adverbs and prepositions

This is the first thing we need to do because we can't begin to analyse multi-word verbs until the distinction between a particle as a preposition and a particle as an adverb is clear.
The immediate problem is that nearly all the words can function as both adverbs and prepositions, depending on the grammar.
There's a test.  To see it work, consider this sentence:

John is standing in for me

Prepositions in black, adverbs in red in what follows.

Prepositions
take a complement (not, incidentally, an object as some would have you believe).
The word for is a preposition because it has a complement, me, which can be altered without changing the sense of the verb.  So, we can have for Mary, for the moment, for the time being, for the boss of the company and so on.
Adverbs
do not take a complement.  In the clause above, in is an adverb, not a preposition.
If we give it a complement such as the house, the water, the garden etc., we will change it into a preposition and change the meaning.  For example, the sentence
    He is standing in the garden
clearly contains the preposition in.  It is not a phrasal verb.
If you change the particle when it really is an adverb, however, the verb meaning changes.  So we can have
    He is standing
up for her
meaning to support or back someone.  We can also use for as an adverb as in
    I won't stand for his behaviour
and that is a different phrasal verb with a completely different meaning (tolerate).

To see if you have understood this distinction, analyse the following examples, identifying the bits which are adverbs and which are prepositions.  Then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

He pulled off the trick
eye open
Here, off is an adverb.
If you change it, you change the meaning of the verb (*He pulled through the trick, *He pulled off the illness).
By our definition, this is a transitive phrasal verb with the object
the trick.
He opened up to her about what was worrying him
eye open
Here we have two bits to consider, up and to.
Changing up will alter the meaning of the verb or make it nonsense.
The word to takes a complement,
her, and the whole phrase can be substituted or even omitted.  So we can have, e.g.,
He opened up to the group about what was worrying him
or
He opened up with me because I'm his friend
in which we have changed the preposition but kept the adverb intact
We can also just say
He opened up finally
retaining the meaning of open up.
But, if we add a complement, up becomes a preposition in, for example,
He opened up the box.
So, in this example, up is an adverb and to is a preposition.
An important thing to recognise here is that phrasal verbs are often followed by prepositional phrases and it is important to identify where the verb stops and the prepositional phrase begins.
They moved on to the next item on the agenda
eye open
Here we also have two bits to consider, on and to.
You can't change on without changing the meaning, if only slightly
They moved along ...
They moved away
but you can change the prepositional phrase with to to something else such as
They moved on by considering the last item etc.
So on is an adverb and to is a preposition.
She's has difficulty getting up these days
eye open
Here there's only up to consider.
Change it and the meaning alters dramatically, e.g.
She has difficulty getting about these days.
So, up is an adverb and the verb itself is an intransitive phrasal verb.
They complained about the service
eye open
Here, again, we only have one item, about.
It's a preposition because it takes the complement
the service, and the whole prepositional phrase is the complement of the verb complain.
Notice that
the service is not the object of the verb because complain is an intransitive verb in English.
We can change the preposition but the meaning of
complain is unaltered:
They complained to the manager
They complained at reception
and we can drop the prepositional phrase altogether and have
They complained loudly


move on

Moving on ...

In this analysis, there are 3 sorts of multi-word verbs: phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs and phrasal-prepositional verbs.  Before we investigate the difference, we need to recognise a true multi-word verb.  Consider these two sentences and identify the true MWV.  Click here when you've done that.

  1. He turned down the lane
  2. He turned down the offer

Now we can recognise a true multi-word verb, we can get on with some analysis of them.


warning

Website warning

There are rather too many sites out here that cannot distinguish between a real MWV and a verb followed by a prepositional phrase.

For example, one site describes walk into a trap as a phrasal verb and another describes walk through (as in guide carefully) also as a phrasal verb.  Yet another site describes run after the bus as a phrasal verb.
None of these is an example of a phrasal verb by our analysis.  They aren't even prepositional verbs.  They are simply the verbs walk and run followed by a prepositional phrase (into a trap, through the procedure, after the bus).  Those may be slightly metaphorical uses of walk and run but that's another matter altogether.
We can change the prepositions without affecting the basic meaning of the verb in any way.  For example, we can have walk along the path, walk around the town, walk into a room, walk me by the idea, walk over a hill, run behind the bus, run in front of the bus, run alongside the bus, run past the bus etc.

If you tell your students that a verb + a prepositional phrase is a phrasal verb, they will think they have to learn it as a unit.  They will then be stuck with learning lots of 'verbs' which aren't verbs at all but simply combinations of verbs and prepositions.  It's like teaching people that turn right and turn left are two different verbs.  You will be denying the learners the opportunity properly to analyse what they are learning and notice how prepositional phrases are used in English.
English is hard enough to learn without people making it harder.


triple

The triple nature of MWVs

This is a summary of the effects of adding particles to verbs

  1. Phrasal verbs
    The adverb particle changes the meaning of the verb and the change is usually non-literal.  For example, adding the adverb down to the verb turn produces the new meaning of decline (an offer).  Prepositions do not do that.
  2. Prepositional verbs
    Prepositions link the verb to a noun phrase.  They do not change the meaning of the verb.  For example, adding the preposition about to the verb hear does not change the nature of the verb:
        He heard about the disaster
    and changing the preposition will leave the verb's meaning unchanged
        He heard of the disaster
        He heard from his parents
    If you change the preposition's complement into a real object of the verb, you often make a phrasal verb of some kind.  Compare, e.g.:
        When he arrived home, he turned into the driveway (verb + prepositional phrase)
    with
        When he was promoted to the manager's job, he turned into a dictator (phrasal verb + object)
  3. Phrasal-prepositional verbs
    The adverb particle changes the meaning of the verb and the preposition links the verb to a noun phrase.  For example, adding the adverb up and the preposition with to put changes the meaning of the verb and links it to the noun phrase:
        He couldn't put up with their noise any longer
    (verb + adverb, making a phrasal verb followed by prepositional phrase)

Here's a summary of that with some more examples:

summary 1


distinguish

Distinguishing phrasal from prepositional verbs

If the multi-word verb isn't a prepositional verb then it's either a phrasal verb or a phrasal-prepositional verb.  To know which it is, we need to look at how it's used.
In this area, we need to consider 5 elements of the clause:

  • The subject (either a pronoun or a noun phrase such as She or The old man)
  • Verb phrases such as pushed
  • The particle, which can be an adverb or a preposition, such as up, for, away, over etc.
  • Object nouns such as the lever, the boat etc.
  • Object pronouns such as it, them etc.

For our purposes, we can ignore the subject.
Given that we place the subject and the verb phrase first in the clause, there are only 4 possible arrangements in English to finish the clause.
What are they?  Click here when you have an answer.

Click here for a test to see if you have understood all this.
Hint: all you need to do is rephrase the object as a pronoun and see where it goes.  If it comes between the verb and the particle, it's a transitive phrasal verb.


two kinds

Two kinds of prepositional verbs

These are the simplest types to get out of the way, so we'll start with them.
This list is divided into two types.  Why?  It'll help you if you put them into sentences in your head.
Click here when you have an answer.

Type A Type B
account for
amount to
bear on
connive at
consist of
hang around
long for
rely on
stick to
abstain from
ask for
care about
comment on
complain about
conceive of
conform to
convince of
depend on
decide on
insist on
laugh about
object to
persuade to
quarrel about
react to
talk of
tell about

put off

Transitive phrasal verbs

He put off the meeting  

Transitive phrasal verbs are separable.

We can have
    I put the party off
or
    I put off the party
or
    I put it off
but NOT
    I put off it.

Transitive, phrasal verbs are also very common.

The pronoun must be placed between the verb and its adverb particle.
There are four complications:

  1. Pronouns
    It is sometimes suggested that only pronouns such as it demand this placement but that's not the whole story:
    1. Any demonstrative pronoun must also be placed in this position:
          I picked that up
      not
          *I picked up that
    2. Other pronouns can be put in both positions:
          I dropped a few off
          I dropped off a few
          I picked some up
          I picked up some
          Did you snap any up?
          Did you snap up any?

      and determiners acting as pronouns also do this:
          I dropped neither off
          I dropped off both
          You can put off either
          You can put either off
  2. Long noun phrases
    The longer and more complex the noun phrase is, the less likely is separation.  We can have
        She put the meeting off
    but to many
        She put the meeting to decide the future of the museum and its curators off
    is not acceptable.
    (The reason is to do with endweighting in English and for more on that you can look at the guide to there and it on this site linked in the list of related guides at the end.)
  3. Always separable
    More rarely, we have phrasal verbs which must be separated and cannot be used any other way.  For example
        She talked her mother into the idea
    or
        She talked her into the idea
    It is not possible to have
        *She talked into her mother the idea
    or
        *She talked into her the idea.
  4. Ergative uses
    The ergative case applies to the times in which the direct object of a transitive verb has the same form as the subject of an intransitive verb.  For example:
        They wore the machine out
    is a transitive use of the phrasal verb and can be separable or not with the full object but must, as is the rule, be used separably with a pronoun object.  It can, however, also be used intransitively as in
        The machine wore out
wrong

so-called inseparable phrasal verbs

By some analyses some transitive multi-word verbs are described as inseparable phrasal verbs.
In this group, we get, for example:
bear on (be relevant to), break into (a house, a conversation), care for (nurse or like), come across (find), come by (obtain), count on (rely), do without (manage), fall behind (start to lose), get [a]round (avoid), get off (a bus), get on (a bus), go for (like), go with (match), go without (manage), hear of (learn), hit on (discover), join in (an activity), keep at (persist), lean on (threaten), live on (exist), pick on (bully), run against (compete), see about (attend), stand for (tolerate), stick to (persist), tell on (report), touch on (discuss briefly), wait on (serve)
This is nearly a full list and such verbs are much rarer than separable phrasal verbs.

In this analysis, they aren't really phrasal verbs at all, in fact, because:

  1. Grammar
    They all work grammatically like prepositional verbs.  So we get, e.g.,
        They joined in the party
    or
        They joined in it
    but we cannot have
        *They joined the party in
    or
        *They joined it in
    The verbs follow Patterns 1 and 2 only just as prepositional verbs should.
    Some can be used without the particle: join in the game / join the game.
  2. Meaning
    1. In many cases the particles are just prepositions following verbs.  So we have pairs such as get on the bus vs. get off the bus which is simply the verb used with two prepositional phrases and not even a multi-word verb.
      Something like run against is clearly a verb (meaning to compete) which determines the preposition and is a prepositional verb like complain about.  It also falls into the first category of such verbs (see above) and can be used intransitively:
          He decided not to run
      or transitively:
          She ran against me in the election

      It can be used with a prepositional phrase of some sort
          He didn't run in the election / for the position / in the race

      The issue is one of polysemy; many verbs can have two or more related meanings.  For example, hear can mean perceive with the ear or be told of / learn about.  In such cases, the preposition can be replaced by another with little change in meaning: hear of/about, learn of/about etc.  With proper phrasal verbs, that's not possible.
      Some are metaphorical extensions of either the verb's meaning or the locative use of the preposition.  For example, fall behind is a metaphorical use of the verb and preposition and so is lean on.  For example:
          He leant on the bar
      a simple prepositional phrase telling us where he leant
          He leant on his brother until he agreed
      a metaphorical use of the prepositional phrase meaning oppress or urge.
      With break into a conversation we have a metaphorical use based on the idea of breaking into something physical like a house.
      The verb touch is a good example of extending the sense of the verb (meet, contact, handle etc.) and using it metaphorically to mean briefly refer to.  A metaphorical use does not magically turn the verb into any kind of phrasal verb at all.
      (For more on metaphor and polysemy, refer to the guide to polysemy and homonymy linked in the list of related guides at the end.  There is also a brief section below which may explain a little more.)
    2. Many of the verbs in this category are, or can be described as, delexicalised verbs which take their meanings from the context in which they are used.
      do | have | get | go | make | put | set | take
      get, for example, can mean: receive, experience, contract, attain, fetch, prepare, find, travel by, obtain, contact, reach
      Many of them do form real phrasal verbs but many will also function with prepositions and take their meaning from the prepositional phrase which follows them.
      For example, the verb go can be followed by a prepositional phrase to change its meaning from depart as in, e.g.
          I must go now
      to manage as in
          She goes without breakfast
      and it is the prepositional phrase which determines the meaning of go.  It is not a phrasal verb.
      (For more on delexicalised verbs, refer to the guide to the Lexical Approach linked in the list of related guides at the end.)

It is possible to teach these as if they were phrasal verbs but they don't share grammatical structures or semantic phenomena with real phrasal verbs (even if metaphorical meaning needs to be found).  They are much better treated in the classroom as prepositional verbs, which is what they are, in fact.

A teaching clue:
It is not possible to know by looking at a verb whether it is separable or not.  However, treating them all as inseparable will usually be right unless it is one of the rare cases which are always separated (as we saw in point c, above, with the verb talk into).


wake up

Intransitive phrasal verbs

Coffee helps me wake up  

This is the simplest pattern.  Look at these examples:

Look out!
I can’t get up early.
The plane’s taken off.
Something’ll turn up.
The car broke down.
He’s growing up.
Don’t let on.
Never look back.
Has he woken up?
It’s worn off.
I dropped off at 10.
Hold on a second.

They are, of course always inseparable by virtue of the fact that they have no objects to do the separating.  Interposing adverbs is perilous but sometimes possible:
    It's worn completely off
but
    ?He's growing slowly up

All of the second parts (the particles) are adverbs.  Changing any of them changes the meaning of the verb completely.  Compare:
    He dropped by at 10 (visited)
with
    He dropped off at 10 (fell asleep)


hour glass

Phrasal-prepositional verbs

We have run out of time  

Phrasal-prepositional verbs are never separable by the object.  In this sense they are better considered a subset of prepositional verbs.
In these verbs, the adverb comes immediately after the verb and is followed by the preposition.  The adverb alters the meaning of the verb and the preposition links it to the object.
These verbs are always transitive even when the preposition and the object is elided:
    A: Is there any milk?
    B: No, we've run out [of milk].

There are, however, closely related intransitive phrasal verbs in many cases with the same meaning:
    He worked hard to catch up (intransitive phrasal verb)
vs.
    He worked hard to catch up with the class
(transitive phrasal-prepositional verb)

It is, again, possible to insert an adverb but often wrong to do so and better avoided:
    We have run completely out of milk
but
    *I can catch quickly up with them

and some other examples are, at best, questionable:
    ?He looks down often on foreigners
    ?I'll catch up eventually with them

Here are some examples:

We've run out of oil.
He got away with murder.
He looks down on foreigners.
My time is taken up with it.
Face up to the truth.
Put up with too much.
She went in for yoga.
I can catch up with them.
Stick up for yourself!
He fell out with all his friends.
I look forward to helping.
Don't run away with that idea.


meaning

The meanings of the particles

It is often asserted that the meanings of the particles are somehow random and that we can't teach them.  However, there are patterns if we look carefully enough.
It is also true that the fact that some prepositions also function as adverbs explains much about phrasal verb meaning.  For example, using up as a preposition in something straightforward such as:
    I passed the book up to him
leads quite naturally to unpacking the meaning of the adverb particle in
    I brought the subject of money up
Many other ostensibly opaque meanings of particles in phrasal verbs can be explained by reference to what the word means when it is used as a preposition and employing a little imagination to see how the meaning is extended, but not fundamentally altered.

Think about the meanings of in, out, off, on, up and down using the technique of thinking of the prepositional meaning and then extrapolating it to make reasonable assumptions about the adverb particle meaning and then click here for a list.



umbrellas

Polysemy

Polysemy (the phenomenon of a word have different but connected meanings) is a source of confusion and error with multi-word verbs because the uses of an item may, depending on their meanings, be variable.
For example, the verb go can be:

  1. A simple verb followed by a prepositional phrase (so not an example of a multi-word verb at all) as in, e.g.:
        She got on the bus
  2. A phrasal-prepositional verb as in, e.g.:
        Let me get on with my work
  3. An intransitive phrasal verb as in, e.g.:
        How is he getting on?

Polysemy also affects transparency of meaning so, for example, the verb drive is transparent in meaning when followed by a prepositional phrase (so not functioning as a multi-word verb at all) as in, e.g.:
    They drove up the hill
but is less transparent in meaning when it functions as part of a phrasal verb as in, for example:
    A car drove up and the driver called me over
in which both drive and call are intransitive phrasal verbs.
Similarly, the verb take on can be a separable, transitive phrasal verb as in, e.g.:
    She agreed to take on the work
in which the meaning is quite easily guessed or an intransitive phrasal verb with an obscure meaning as in, e.g.:
    Don't take on so!


Summary

Here is a final cut-out-and-keep summary:

summary


pronunciation

The pronunciation of multi-word verbs

It is sometimes averred that the pronunciation of phrasal and prepositional verbs is stable and straightforward.  The rule of thumb is that the second element receives the stress.
It's a workable rule of thumb but unfortunately not an always reliable one.

Prepositional verbs
Because these are simply verbs with prepositions, we can use the familiar rule and leave the preposition unstressed and, often, as a weak form realisation of the word.  For example:
    He cared for his aging parents → /hi ˈkeəd fə ɪz ˈeɪdʒ.ɪŋ ˈpeə.rənts/
in which the preposition for is pronounced /fə/ and the stress falls on the verb.
    He looked at the moon → /hi ˈlʊkt ət ðə ˈmuːn/
in which the preposition at is pronounced /ət/ and the stress again falls on the verb.
In fact, one test of whether we are dealing with a preposition or an adverb is the fact that prepositions are usually realised as unstressed or weak forms.
Phrasal verbs
Here the rule of thumb is more reliable.  The main stress will usually fall on the adverb particle and the verb will receive a secondary stress.  For example:
    I found out the reason → /ˈaɪ ˌfaʊnd ˈaʊt ðə ˈriː.zən/
where the main stress falls on the particle out and a secondary stress on the verb.
Even when the particle is separated from the verb, the rule applies:
    I found the reason out → /ˈaɪ ˌfaʊnd ðə ˈriː.zən ˈaʊt/
    I found it out → /ˈaɪ ˌfaʊnd ɪt ˈaʊt/
Phrasal-prepositional verbs
Here the rule still applies and the adverb is stressed while the preposition is unstressed.  For example:
    She'll make up for it → /ʃil ˌmeɪk ˈʌp fər ɪt/
with the stress on the adverb up and the preposition, for, as a weak form and a secondary stress on the verb.
Multi-word verbs with noun-phrase objects
When the verb is followed by a noun phrase as its object, the rule can break down because the speaker often wants to emphasise the object phrase.  For example, although put off is a phrasal verb, in a sentence such as :
    You can't put off the meeting
the pronunciation may well be
    /ju kɑːnt ˈpʊt ɒf ðə ˈmiːt.ɪŋ/
with the stress back on the verb and its object rather than on the particle.

There is a little more on the quite complicated way that nouns and adjectives derived from multi-word verbs are stressed in English in the guide to word stress.


formation

Word formation with multi-word verbs

Making nouns
Phrasal verbs, in particular, are a rich source of nouns.  For example:
    The car broke down on the motorway → I had a breakdown on the motorway
    Disease broke out → There was an outbreak of disease

When we make the nouns, the normal stress pattern is disturbed and the stress usually falls on the first element, regardless of whether it is the particle or the noun:
/ˈbreɪk.daʊn/
/ˈaʊt.breɪk/
Making adjectives
This is a similarly rich source.  For example:
    He cheered her up → She was cheered up
    They closed the site down → The site was closed down

In both these cases, the use of the verb is not adjectival but passive, quite arguably, so the usual rule of stress on the particle is followed.  Even when the word is used more certainly as a predicative adjective, the rule applies, so, in
    She appeared a bit cheered up
    The kid seemed very mixed up

    The colour was washed out
the stress will fall on the particle.
When the adjective is used attributively (before the noun), stress tends to be more even:
    It was a burnt-out house in a run-down area.
in which the verb and the particle carry even stresses:
/ɪt wəz ə ˈbɜːnt ˈaʊt ˈhaʊs ɪn ə ˈrʌn.ˈdaʊn ˈeə.riə/


Related guides
teaching multi-word verbs the obvious next place to go
a categorised list of MWVs for a PDF document
semantics for more on meaning
the Lexical Approach for more about delexicalised verbs
polysemy and homonymy for more on extended meanings, metaphor and figurative uses of language
anticipatory there and it for more about endweighting in English
the essential guide to MWVs for a simpler guide to the area