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Concourse 2

Multi-word verbs (MWVs)

breaking in

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

If you are coming to this guide for the first time, you may want to work through it from top to bottom.  It is quite a long guide with a number of sections so, if you are returning for a second or third look, here's an index of the sections.

Types of analysis Tests for MWVs Warning: poor analysis Categorical indeterminacy Triple nature of MWVs
Phrasal or prepositional? Prepositional verbs Phrasal verbs Phrasal-prepositional verbs Passives with MWVs
The meaning of particles Polysemy Summary diagrams Pronunciation Word formation

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Definitions and types of analyses

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.  We will not follow this sort of analysis because, for teaching purposes, it is too vague a definition and disguises many differences in the ordering of the constituents of a clause which are important as well as leaving the nature of adverbs, adverb particles and prepositions unclear.
  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.
    We will not be using this analysis either because the distinction between an adverb particle and a prepositional particle is necessary for teaching purposes in order that the major patterns can be discerned and taught independently.
  3. A now slightly unfashionable analysis is to call all verb + particle structures phrasal verbs (whether the particle is an adverb or a preposition) and then to divide them into four types.  This is the approach taken in many course books and can be helpful in the classroom but we will not be using this analysis here because it overcomplicates the issues.  The four types, incidentally, are:
    1. Type 1: intransitive phrasal verbs consisting of a verb plus an adverb particle such as Come on!
    2. Type 2: transitive separable phrasal verbs consisting of a verb + a preposition or adverb such as Put it away!
    3. Type 3: transitive non-separable phrasal verbs consisting of verb + a preposition such as Look after the children!
    4. Type 4: verbs containing two or more particles, the first an adverb and the second a preposition such as Stick up for him!

There are sound reasons for using any of these three ways of classifying and analysing multi-word verbs and you should use the one that makes the most sense to you.  However, this analysis will use three categories of multi-word verbs and discuss them individually.  These categories are:

  1. Phrasal verbs which contain a verb plus an adverb such as cut up.  In this analysis, these verbs are separable, if they are transitive, so one can have
        I cut it up
        I cut up the tree
        I cut the tree up
    but not
        I cut up it
  2. Prepositional verbs which contain a verb plus a dependent preposition such as rely on and which are not separable, the object always following the preposition, so one can have
        I relied on her help
    but not
        *I relied her help on
  3. Phrasal-prepositional verbs which contain a verb followed by an adverb and a preposition are a subset of prepositional verbs.  These are also inseparable so we can have:
        He lived up to his name
    but not
        *He lived his name up to
        *He lived up his name to

This analysis leaves an indeterminate class of multi-word verbs: those which are inseparable but which are variably opaque in meaning and often quite idiomatic such as care for, look after or go without.  In this category we can have:
    He cared for his patients
    He cared for them
but not
    *He cared his patients for
    *He cared them for.
In what follows this we analyse these verbs in the same way that it we analyse prepositional verbs (category ii. above) because they follow the same patterns in terms of grammatical structure (i.e., they are not separable and the object follows the particle).  For teaching purposes, therefore, they can be dealt with in the same way and should not form a separate category (usually referred to as intransitive phrasal verbs) because that simply muddies the water and overloads learners.
The argument here is that they are simply another set of prepositional or phrasal verbs which often have slightly figurative or metaphorical uses of prepositions.  When the particle is an adverb, combining with the verb to form a distinctly new meaning, they will be referred to as phrasal verbs.

Here's a summary of the four main ways of analysing this area of English.  You will encounter all of them at some time, probably, so need to decide which to follow.  Mixing them up is a recipe for confusion.  What follows adheres to Analysis #4.

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Distinguishing between adverb particles 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.

take a complement (not, in this analysis, an object although that is a legitimate description).
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.
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., it will be a preposition and the meaning will alter.  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 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).

Please be careful

The title of this section includes the term 'adverb particles' rather than 'adverbs' for a good reason.
We should be careful to distinguish between an adverb particle as part of a phrasal verb and a one-word adverb functioning to modify the verb.  For example, the clause:
    He looked me up
contains the adverb particle up and is a phrasal verb because changing the particle to, say, down, away, in etc. creates nonsense.  It is also not possible to omit the particle and retain the verb's meaning.
However, in the clause:
    He rang me back
the situation is not so clear cut because a number of other one-word adverbs could be inserted instead of back, without altering the meaning of the verb at all so we can have
    He rang me soon
    He rang me again
    He rang me yesterday
    He rang me frequently

We can also have:
    He rang me
with no adverb and an unaltered sense of the verb.
With a phrasal verb proper, omitting the particle is usually not possible so, for example:
    He looked up the word in a dictionary
cannot be rendered as
    *He looked the word.

So, by this analysis, the phrase ring back (or call back) does not constitute a phrasal verb as such although it may be treated that way in many course books, internet-derived lists and classrooms.  Assuming always that single-word adverbs must be parts of phrasal verbs is unhelpful because it adds an additional learning load which is simply not necessary.  You do not need to learn
    call back
    text back
    ring back
    write back
    talk back
    shout back

and so on as phrasal verbs once the meaning of the adverb back has been learned.  They aren't phrasal verbs in this analysis at all because the sense of the verb is being modified but not fundamentally altered by the adverb.  In all cases, the particle can be omitted without creating nonsense.

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
    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.
So, in this example, up is an adverb and to is a preposition.
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
So, on is an adverb and to is a preposition.
(Incidentally, the confusion between onto (a single-word preposition) and on to (an adverb particle and a preposition is solved by this analysis.)
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.  The verb complain about is a prepositional, not phrasal, verb.
The service is the object of the verb because complain about can be both transitive, as here, and intransitive.  When used in the latter sense, the preposition is dropped.
We can change the preposition but the meaning of complain is unaltered, although in the following the verb is intransitive:
    They complained to the manager
    They complained at reception
and we can drop the prepositional phrase altogether and have:
    They complained loudly
or just:
    She complained
Even transitively, the preposition may change without altering the meaning of the verb:
    She complained of a pain in her back

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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


Other tests for MWVs

There are other tests, none decisive on its own:

Can you make a passive?
You can't say
    *The lane was turned down
but you can say
    The offer was turned down
You cannot make a passive with prepositional phrases but you can with many transitive phrasal verbs.
Can you stress the particle or use a weak form?
    He came to the meeting
    He came to after a while
In the first, to is often pronounced as /tə/, in the second, the particle is usually pronounced in its full form /tu/.
We can and often do pronounce adverb particles in their full form.
Can you move the phrase around?
You can say
    Down the lane he turned

but not
    *Down the offer he turned
Moving a prepositional phrase is possible for effect but moving an adverb particle usually results in nonsense.
Does the question ask what or who or where or when?
If it's answering what or who it's a true MWV.  For example:
    What did she knock down → She knocked down the old shed
    Who did she cut off? → She cut off the caller
are examples of a true MWVs.
Prepositional phrases refer to where and when:
    Where did he arrive? → He arrived at the hotel
    When did he arrive? He arrived at 6 o'clock
so, arrive at is not a MWV but the verb arrive followed by a prepositional phrase, at 6 o'clock, at the hotel, at a conclusion.
Can you insert an adverb?
You can say
    He turned immediately down the lane
but not
    *He turned immediately down the offer
Inserting an adverb before a prepositional phrase is commonplace.  Doing it to an adverb particle usually results in non- or questionable English.  You can, of course, put an adverb after the object of a phrasal verb as in
    He turned down the offer immediately
and you can put one before the verb as in
    He immediately turned down the offer
If you cannot split the particle from the verb with an adverb, you are dealing with a phrasal verb.
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Website warning

There are rather too many websites out here that cannot distinguish between a real MWV and a simple verb followed by a prepositional phrase or a modifying adverb.
Moreover, having decided that something is a multi-word verb, many describe them all as phrasal verbs, following Analysis #2 or #3 above which, as we have suggested, are not very helpful for teaching purposes.

As a source of misinformation, the web has few equals.

For example, one site describes walk into a trap as a phrasal verb.  Another site describes run after the bus as a phrasal verb.
These are not examples of phrasal verbs 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, after the bus).  This may be a slightly metaphorical use of walk but that's another matter altogether.  In fact, here both into and after are prepositions, not adverbs, so cannot, by definition, form part of a phrasal verb.  Many particles can be either prepositions or adverbs and therein lies the source of much confusion.
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 over a hill
    run behind the bus
    run in front of the bus
    run alongside the bus
    run past the bus

Other examples from a website for learners which claims to explain 56 common phrasal verbs (some of which are not at all common and some of which are not phrasal verbs) are fall down, go ahead and log into.  The first and second of those are simply verbs being modified by adverbs and we can just as easily have:
    drop down
    climb down
    walk down
    stroll down
    run ahead
    drive ahead
    throw ahead
    look ahead

and so on where the adverb is not altering the meaning of the verb.  Even the expression:
    Go ahead!
meaning Please continue is simply a slightly figurative use of the adverb which needs no special treatment once the meaning of the adverb ahead has been grasped.
The third example, log into, is even worse because it is just a verb followed by a preposition which needs a complement such as the site.  Even when we make the preposition into an adverb and just have log in, it remains a simple verb plus adverb combination so we can also have log out without changing the meaning of the rather unusual verb.
None is a phrasal verb so the site's admonition to learners to remember these expressions as if they were phrasal verbs is unhelpful and confusing, not to say time wasting.
By the same token, something like
    John ran in
is not a phrasal verb, it is simply a verb modified by an adverb of place so we could equally well have:
    John ran out
    John ran over
    John ran by

all with simple adverb modifiers which do not affect the meaning of run at all.

However, when we encounter
    The police ran in John
    The police ran John in
it is clear that the meaning of run has been radically altered (to mean arrest and take into custody) by the adverb particle and we are, therefore, dealing with a phrasal verb because changing in or removing the particle will change the meaning of run.

Here are some other bits of misinformation from around the web.  You may encounter phrases such as these analysed, if that's the word, as phrasal verbs:

  • I tried to do the crossword but got stuck
    NoThat's the verb get used as a copular verb to connect the subject to the adjective stuck.  Compare, e.g.:
        We got lost.
        They got angry.
  • I'm trying to get rid of this cold
    No.  That's similar with the verb get again meaning become and the adjective rid.  The adjective is derived from the verb, incidentally.  Compare, e.g.:
        We have got free of debt.
        They are rid of visitors.
  • He is about to phone her now
    No.  This is the marginal modal verb be about which is followed by the to-infinitive.  Compare, e.g.:
        She means to see the doctor.
  • She got in touch with me
    No.  This is the verb get meaning become, move or achieve followed by a prepositional phrase.  Compare, e.g.:
        She got in contact with me.
        She got in the bath.
  • The party takes place on Thursday
    No.  This is a slightly trickier idiom but the word place is a noun, not an adverb or preposition.  Compare, e.g.:
        Let's swap places.
        The investigation is in place

They aren't phrasal or prepositional verbs, of course.  Only one, the fourth, even contains a prepositional phrase and none contains an adverb.

Poor analysis often results in inflating the category of multi-word verbs to the point where extremely long lists can be produced which contain some legitimate examples but many others which do not belong.  This means that students become overloaded and teachers become intimidated by the need (so it is perceived) to teach and learn an enormous number of language chunks which are much more easily handled by taking a more analytic approach and breaking things down logically.

If you tell your students that a verb + any prepositional phrase, any adverb or any particle (or, even, an adjective) 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 prepositional phrases or verbs modified by adverbs.  It's like teaching people that turn right and turn left are examples of two different verbs or eat butter and spread butter contain examples of two different nouns.
You will be denying the learners the opportunity properly to analyse what they are learning and notice how prepositional phrases and adverbs are used in English.
For a little more on this see the section below on the meaning of the particles.

English is hard enough to learn without people making it harder.

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Categorical indeterminacy or gradience

This nasty expression refers to the fact that it is sometimes quite difficult to pin down a word's word class.  We can rarely tell by looking at a word in isolation which word class it belongs to so, for example, bank is a verb in
    I bank in the High Street
and a noun in
    He went to the bank
and the same phenomenon is apparent with thousands of other words in most languages.

The phenomenon is particularly noticeable with particles in multi-word verbs and that leads to the difficulties looked at in the last section because many common adverbs are also prepositions in other environments and vice versa.
The eleven most common particles in multi-word verbs are:

around, at, away, down, in, off, on, out, over, round, up

and all bar the preposition at and the adverb away may be prepositions or adverbs depending on their grammatical function in a clause.  Like this:

particle as a preposition as an adverb
around He walked around the town They fell around laughing
at He complained at reception Not possible
away Not possible She's gone away
down He came slowly down the stairs They broke the figures down
in He left it in the suitcase She filled the form in
off He took it off the table The bomb went off
on She left it on the table She switched on the light
out They climbed out the window I must speak out
over The dog jumped over the wall Please turn the page over
round The man appeared round the corner They talked me round
up We drove up the road We finished the food up

A test to see which grammatical function a word is performing is to add a complement (or object, if you prefer) to the word.  If it's possible to do so, you have probably identified a preposition because adverbs do not take complements or objects.  So for example, we can have:
    He came over
and that's an adverb modifying the verb
    He came over the road
and that's a preposition with its complement the road telling us where he came.

Unfortunately, when it comes to phrasal verbs as we shall see, the picture is not so clear so while in, for example:
    He gave up the job
it looks as if we have a preposition, up, with a complement, the job, that is not the case because here the word is an adverb which combines with the verb give to form a new verb give up (meaning abandon) and the job is the object of the verb give up, not a complement of a preposition.
In our analysis, this is a key factor in assigning verbs to the categories of phrasal verbs (verbs combining with adverbs) and prepositional verbs (verbs followed by prepositions).

A key test is to try replacing the particle with a different one or removing the particle altogether to see if the sense of the verb has altered.  If it has, we are dealing with an adverb combining with the verb to form a phrasal verb.  If it hasn't, the particle is prepositional.  So, for example, changing the particle in:
    He walked slowly up the stairs
to make
    He walked slowly down the stairs
    He walked slowly along the stairs
    He walked slowly by the stairs

etc. has no effect at all on the meaning of walk.
However, changing the particle in:
    He put off the meeting
to make
    He put down the meeting
    He put into the meeting

    He put along the meeting
or leaving the particle out to make:
    He put the meeting
etc. either changes the meaning of the verb or makes nonsense.

There are times when two or more adverb particles are possible without a change in meaning so we can have, for example:
    They fell around laughing
    They fell about laughing
    They set off early
    They set out early
with little discernible difference in meaning although in both cases the particles are adverbs.
Fortunately, this is quite rare.

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The triple nature of MWVs

  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.
    Nor, as we saw above do all adverbs.  Only adverb particles vary the meaning of the verb.  We saw above, and will see again, for example, that the adverb back does not always change the meaning of the verb it follows.  Nor, incidentally does an adverb like away which simply means to a distance from.  So, although:
        He walked away
    looks like a phrasal verb, it is not because the adverb is just telling us the direction in which he walked and not interfering with the meaning of walk at all.  By the same token, we can have:
        She ran away
        He drove away
        They strolled away
        It flew away

    and many more examples of a one-word adverb modifying but not changing the meaning of the verb.  If we call all these phrasal verb examples, we will be adding hundreds if not thousands of verbs to a list which is long enough to depress many learners and teachers already.
    Even a metaphorical use of the verb does not magically result in a phrasal verb so
        He walked away with first prize (won easily)
        He ran away with the game (became unbeatable)
    are not really phrasal verbs but are, as we shall see, metaphorical uses of a verb plus an adverb.
    However, when the meaning of the verb changes, we have encountered a real phrasal verb so, while, e.g.:
        He gave the money away
    is comprehensible by understanding the meaning of away as and adverb meaning movement to a more distant place, it is not possible to do that with
        He gave the secret away
    and that's a real phrasal verb.
  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)
        When he was promoted to the manager's job, the power turned him into a dictator (phrasal verb + object)
        The wicked witch turned him into a frog (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 a prepositional phrase)
    Later, some doubt will be cast on whether this is a real category or a phrasal verb followed by a strongly collocating preposition.

Here's a summary of that with some more examples (the preposition out of happens to be a two-part preposition, by the way):

summary of particle effects

Later, you will find slightly more sophisticated summary diagrams which deal with verb types, transitivity and separability, er, separately.

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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 main verb first in the clause, there are, in English, only 4 possible arrangements of particles and objects to finish the clause.
What are they?  Click here when you have an answer.


Prepositional verbs

look up the chimney  

Which of the following are acceptable English?

  1. He looked at the timetable
  2. He looked at it
  3. He looked the timetable at
  4. He looked it at

Sentences c. and d. are wrong.  Prepositional verbs (look at in this case) can only follow patterns 1 and 2.

Now take another prepositional verb look up (meaning direct your eyes upwards).
Which of these is acceptable in this sense?

  1. He looked up the chimney
  2. He looked up it
  3. He looked the chimney up
  4. He looked it up

Sentences iii. and iv. are wrong in this sense of the verb (i.e., physically moving your head and eyes).
(The fact that we have so often to describe the meaning of the verb in examples is a product of their polysemous nature, of which more later.)

However, there is a real phrasal verb look up, meaning refer to a reference source such as a dictionary and we'll consider that shortly to see what patterns it may follow.

Rule 1: Prepositional verbs cannot be separated from the preposition by the object so can't follow the patterns 3 and 4.

These verbs follow these patterns only:
Pattern 1 subject + verb + preposition + object noun
He looked + up + the chimney
Pattern 2 subject + verb + preposition + object pronoun
He looked + up + it

Other examples of prepositional verbs are:

rely on (meaning trust)
We can have:
Pattern 1: He relied his aging parents for money
Pattern 2: He relied on them for money
but not:
Pattern 3: *He relied his aging parents on
Pattern 4: *He relied them on
break into (meaning enter by force)
We can have:
She broke into the house
She broke into it

but not:
*She broke the house into
*She broke it into
keep at (meaning [more or less] persist)
We can have:
They kept at the work
They kept at it

but not:
*The kept the work at
*They kept it at

Are prepositional verbs really multi-word verbs at all?

There is actually quite a strong argument to made that what are called prepositional verbs should not be considered multi-word verbs at all because they do not exhibit any particular difficulties or specialised grammatical structures.  A better way to analyse them may be as strongly collocating verb + prepositional patterns and treat them as learnable chunks because they are never separable.

For example, a verb followed by (and modified by) a prepositional phrase such as:
    She looked at her paper
can be expressed as
    She looked at it
but not
    *She looked it at
    *She looked the paper at
but the prepositional phrase can be variously changed without changing the meaning of the verb but modifying the way the looking was done so we might have:
    She looked through her paper
    She looked over her paper
    She looked round her paper
    She looked in her paper

    She looked under her paper
and so and these all follow the same pattern of either verb + object noun or verb + object pronoun.

Equally, we can keep the prepositional phrase intact and use a range of different verbs for it to modify and have, e.g.:
    She glared at her paper
    She pointed at her paper
    She stared at her paper
    She slapped at her paper
    She spat at her paper
    She screamed at her paper

and so on and they all exhibit exactly the same two possible structures.

A whole host of other examples can be used to illustrate the same phenomenon:
    They talked about / over / through / around the problem
    We cut across / through / around the traffic
    She talked over / about / of the music

and so on.

In summary, the argument is that although certain verbs often have predictable associated prepositions (i.e., they strongly collocate), the preposition adheres to the verb and the combination is a learnable language chunk.

two kinds

Two kinds of prepositional verbs

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
admit to
amount to
bear on
conceive of
consist of
count on
long for
protect from
rely on
stick to
suspect of
thank for
vouch for
abstain from
approve of
argue about
ask for
care about
comment on
complain about
concentrate on
conform to
connive at
depend on
decide on
hang around
insist on
laugh at
look at
object to
participate in
plan on
quarrel about
row about
succeed in
suffer from
react to
refrain from
talk of
vote for
wish for


Phrasal verbs

look up the word  

There is a true phrasal verb look up which means refer to a reference source.  This verb, unlike the prepositional one, which means direct your eyes upwards, is always separable.
Which are acceptable?

  1. He looked up the word in the dictionary
  2. He looked up it in the dictionary
  3. He looked the word up in the dictionary
  4. He looked it up in the dictionary

Sentence F. is wrong because ...

Rule 2: Transitive phrasal verbs like look up cannot follow pattern 2.  These verbs insist that the pronoun is inserted between the verb and the particle.

These verbs follow these patterns only:

Pattern 1 subject + verb + adverb + object noun
He looked + up + the word
Pattern 3 subject + verb + object noun + adverb
He looked + the word + up
Pattern 4 subject + verb + object pronoun + adverb
He looked + it + up

Here are some more examples of separable phrasal rather than prepositional verbs:

push around (meaning bully)
We can have:
Pattern 1: He pushed around the smaller kids
Pattern 3: He pushed the smaller kids around
Pattern 4: He pushed them around
but not:
Pattern 2: *He pushed around them
get across (meaning communicate)
We can have:
She got across her meaning
She got her meaning across
She got it across
but not:
*She got across it
find out (meaning discover)
We can have:
I found out the reason
I found the reason out
I found it out
but not:
*I found out it

However, that not all transitive phrasal verbs are separable and not all the separable ones insist on the placement of the pronoun like this.  Most, however, are like this.  More below.

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.

put off

Transitive phrasal verbs

He put off the meeting  

Transitive phrasal verbs are usually separable (always in this analysis).

We can have

Pattern 1: verb + adverb + object noun
    I put off the party
    They broke up the fight
Pattern 3: verb + object noun + adverb
    I put the party off
    They broke the fight up
Pattern 4: verb + object pronoun + adverb
    I put it off
    They broke it up

But we cannot have Pattern 2: verb + adverb + object pronoun
    *I put off it.
    *They broke up it

Transitive, phrasal verbs are also very common.

Rules 3 and 4:
The pronoun object must be placed between the verb and its adverb particle.
The noun object may be placed between the verb and its 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
          *I picked up that
      The same applies to the use of this, those and these.
    2. Other pronouns and pro-forms 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 neither
          I dropped both off
          I dropped off both
          You can put either off
          You can put off either
    3. The some-, any-, every- series of pronouns generally prefer the mid-position but it is not obligatory:
          She is seeing somebody out
          Can you put anything off?
          I called everyone in

      but longer expressions may appear terminally (see the next point, b.):
          She threw out somebody disruptive and aggressive
          I put off anything non-urgent
          I welcomed in everyone who had managed to get to the meeting on time
    4. The pronoun one also prefers the mid-position as in, e.g.:
          I left one off
      but again, lengthening the noun phrase may result in end-positioning the object as in, e.g.:
          I left off one of the most important figures in the accounts I presented.
  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.
    Some verbs are conventionally separated by the object, whether it is a noun or pronoun, but as soon as the object phrase gets too long, it is shifted to final position so, while:
        He messed the meeting about
    is preferred to
        ?He messed about the meeting
    we would prefer:
        He messed about all the people who had come to the meeting expecting a decision
    and not:
        ?He messed all the people who had come to the meeting expecting a decision about
    and although:
        I can't tell the twins apart
    is preferred to
        ?I can't tell apart the twins
    we may prefer
        I can't tell apart John's twins daughters when they are wearing the same school uniform
    (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
    A few phrasal verbs must be separated and cannot be used any other way so any noun or pronoun object must be interposed between the verb and the adverb.  For example:
        She talked her mother into the idea
        She talked her into the idea
        She talked her into it
    are all acceptable but it is not possible to have:
        *She talked into her mother the idea
    This verb is unusual in that the word into is not normally used as an adverb, being confined to prepositional use only.  It is also an example of a ditransitive verb which cannot be monotransitive at all.  We cannot have, therefore:
        *She talked her into
    and this betrays the fact that the the construction can be analysed as the verb talk plus a simple prepositional phrase so not a phrasal verb at all.
    A related, approximately synonymous verb, talk round, works similarly although it can also be monotransitive :
        She talked her mother round
        She talked her round to the idea

    but not:
        *She talked round her mother to the idea
        She talked round her mother
    is probably acceptable.

    Most other examples are ones in which separating the verb and its adverb particle is strongly preferred but not fully obligatory.
    They include:
    The verb bring down (as in depress or discourage):
        Her criticisms really brought John down
        Her criticisms really brought him down

    is possible but
        ?Her criticisms really brought down John
    is probably not.
    The verbs ask over / round / back / out:
        Ask the neighbours over
    but not
        ?Ask over the neighbours
        She asked my brother out
    but not
        ?She asked out my brother

    The verbs help on and help off:
        I helped the lady on with her coat
        I helped my brother off with his coat

    The verbs call back and ring back:
        I'll call my brother back
        I'll ring the garage back

        ?I'll call back my brother
        ?I'll ring back the garage

    An argument, previewed above, with these two verbs is that they are not in fact phrasal verbs at all but verbs plus adverbial modifiers and we could equally have:
        I'll call / ring my brother soon / again / tomorrow / next week / presently

    It is true that the separated form is often more natural and more frequently encountered (according to a little corpus research) but not everyone would disallow the non-separated forms.
    One reason, not often noted, for the separated form of a phrasal verb to be preferred is the possible confusion with a parallel form which may have a different interpretation.  So, for example:
        He asked the neighbours round
    can only be interpreted as meaning
        He invited the neighbours to his home
        He asked round the neighbours
    could mean the same but could also mean
        He asked the same question of all his neighbours.

    Only a few phrasal verbs fall into this category (the examples above provide an almost complete list).

    You may also come across lists of these which include, for example:
        He left his money to his daughter
        He put the question to me
        He kept the truth from us

    but these are, in fact, not even multi-word verbs; they are simple verbs followed by prepositional phrases and we can change the preposition to have, e.g.:
        He left his money in trust
        He put the question before the meeting
        He kept the truth to himself

    Calling them multi-word verbs at all, simply confuses your learners.
  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.  In other words, the ostensible grammatical subject is semantically the object of the 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

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 when the object is a noun and separable when it is a pronoun will usually be acceptable unless it is one of the very rare and debatable cases which are always separated (as we saw in point c, above).


Ditransitive phrasal verbs

We saw above when looking at transitive and intransitive prepositional verbs that some may be used with two objects although doubt was cast there on whether the verbs qualify as a special form of multi-word verb or are simply verbs followed by prepositional phrases.

Slightly rarely, some phrasal verbs are ditransitive, i.e., they can take both a direct and an indirect object.  For example:
    She passed up the tools
is a simple phrasal verb (passed up) with a single direct object (the tools) and, in the normal way, it can be re-phrased as:
    She passed the tools up
    She passed them up

but not, of course:
    *She passed up them
because Pattern 2 (verb + adverb + pronoun object) is not allowed.

Right at the beginning of this guide, however, we had the example of:
    When he was promoted to the manager's job, the power turned him into a dictator
and in this case the verb turn into has two objects, him (indirect) and a dictator (direct).
Here's a simpler example:
    She passed John up the tools
Again, we have two objects: the direct object (the tools) and the indirect object (John).
The phrase ordering is:
verb + indirect object + adverb + direct object
The same sense can be expressed as:
verb + indirect object + direct object + adverb:
    She passed John the tools up
or, less naturally but possibly
    She passed John them up
The complications occur because either or both objects of the verb may be replaced by pronouns so we can have:
    She passed John them up
    She passed him them up.

The ordering cannot, however, be:
    *She passed the tools John up
    *She passed them John up
    *She passed them him up
    *She passed the tools him up

because, in English, the indirect object precedes the direct object.  Compare a non-phrasal verb such as:
    She told the children a story
in which the ordering of objects is the same and English disallows
    *She told a story the children.
It is possible to alter the ordering of objects by using the to- structure so we allow:
    She told a story to the children
and the same tactic may be used with phrasal verbs so we allow:
    She passed the tools up to John
    She passed them up to John
    She passed the tools up to him
    She passed them up to him.
but not, of course:
    *She passed up them to him

Other examples of ditransitive phrasal verbs include:
    They handed the teacher over their homework
    They handed him over their homework
    She talked her colleagues through the process
    She talked them through the process
    She gave the children out their test papers
    She gave them out their test papers
    She walked the old lady over the road
    She walked her over the road
    They made the man out a liar
    They made him out a liar

In none of these cases is it possible to insert the pronoun after the adverb, of course, whichever object it replaces.  They are separable transitive phrasal verbs and the rule applies as one would expect, so:
    *They handed over their homework him
    *They handed their homework over him
    *She talked through the process them
    *She talked the process through them
    *She gave out the children them
    *She gave the children out them
    *She walked over the road her
    *She walked the road over her
    *They made out a liar him

    *They made out him a liar
etc. are all disallowed.
It may be possible to use the to-formulation to produce, for example:
    They handed it over to him
    She talked through the process to them
    She gave them out to them

etc. but such formulations are often clumsy and, in fact:
    She walked her over to the road
has a significantly different meaning because the preposition to will be understood as meaning towards, i.e. direction to a destination.
No such reordering is possible with the last example at all except as:
    The made him out to be a liar
which is, in any case, probably the preferred expression of the meaning.

In brief, only the direct object, whether it is a noun or a pro-form, can separate the two parts of a phrasal verb.

The moral of this little story is to be wary of introducing a ditransitive phrasal verb until the learners are fully comfortable dealing with monotransitive verbs.  It's a topic to deal with only at advanced levels (and arguably avoidable even then).


(So called?) Inseparable transitive phrasal verbs

By some traditional analyses some transitive multi-word verbs are described as inseparable phrasal verbs.  That is a legitimate classification because of their idiomatic nature and opaqueness of meaning in many cases.  It is also legitimate because in many cases, the particle is an adverb, not a preposition, so including them in the category of phrasal verbs is consistent with the theory.
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)
get over (a shock)
get round (persuade)
go for (like)
*go with (match)
*go without (manage)
*hear of (learn)
hit on (discover)
*join in (an activity)
keep at / on (persist)
lay off (desist)
*lean on (threaten)
live on (exist)
*look after (care for)
*look into (investigate)
pick on (bully)
*run against (compete)
see about (attend to)
stand for (tolerate)
*stick to (persist)
strike up (start)
take after (resemble)
tell on (report)
*touch on (discuss briefly)
wait on (serve)

This is nearly a full list and such verbs are rarer than separable phrasal verbs.  They are classed in many analyses as phrasal verbs because the particle cannot always be replaced without altering the meaning of the verb and the meanings are not always derivable from an understanding of their constituents.  That is a fully acceptable analysis but leads to a certain looseness of categorisation.
Many of these verbs fall equally satisfactorily into the category of transitive prepositional verbs encountered above.  The verb count on is listed as prepositional, above, for example, but is also in this list.
All those verbs marked * in this list, about half of them, are arguably prepositional rather than phrasal in meaning because the meaning is transparent from an understanding of the particle and the particle is functioning grammatically as a preposition.
The remaining 16 verbs which are transitive, opaque in meaning and inseparable form an identifiable teaching unit.

Some of these verbs are undeniably phrasal verbs, and are also undeniably inseparable.  For example, in:
    I came across an old diary the other day
    I'll lay off trying to get him to see sense
    I came by this old book in the market
    She hit on just the solution
    I'll see about the problem you are having

etc. no alteration of word ordering is possible and the verb and its adverb cannot be split.
A few verbs are left rather in limbo so, although the verb strike up is in this list, not everyone would dismiss:
    She struck a conversation up
although the verb's inseparable use is more common.

There are gradations of opaqueness in meaning, too, from the rather obvious:
    They heard of the accident on the radio
    He got on the bus

via the slightly metaphorical:
    She touched briefly on the topic
    He kept at / stuck to his work

to the almost fully opaque
    I'm counting on you
    They came across an old man.

In this analysis, they aren't all really teachable as phrasal verbs at all, in fact, even though they consist of a verb combining with an adverb in many cases, because:

  1. Grammar
    1. They all work grammatically like prepositional verbs.  So we get, e.g.,:
          They joined in the party
          They joined in it
      but we cannot have
          *They joined the party in
          *They joined it in
      The verbs follow Patterns 1 and 2 only just as prepositional verbs do.
      Some can be used without the particle: join in the game / join the game.
    2. As we saw above, many of these verbs do not allow the formation of passive sentences as separable transitive phrasal verbs do, so while we can allow, e.g.:
          The patients were cared for
          The problem was got around
          A solution was hit on
          The child was picked on

      we do not naturally allow:
          *The issue was borne on
          *I was counted on
          *The work was kept at
          *The problem was seen about

          *The money was gone without
          *The accident was heard of
  2. Meaning
    1. In some cases the particles are just part of prepositional phrases following verbs.  So we have pairs such as
          get on the bus
          get off the bus
      which is simply the verb get (meaning move position) used with two prepositional phrases and not even a multi-word verb.  Compare, for example:
          get home
          get to school
          get over the wall

      In other cases, we do have legitimate adverbs combining with the verbs and replacing the adverb with anything else will change the verb's meaning or create nonsense.
    2. Something like run against is clearly a verb (meaning compete with) 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
          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.  By this definition, hear of and learn of are not phrasal verbs at all.
      Similar considerations apply to a verb such as join in where the preposition is determined by the meaning of join.
    3. 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.  It is arguably a phrasal verb because we cannot replace the particle without changing the meaning and
          He leant across his brother
      is simply a verb plus a prepositional phrase with a different meaning.
      However, whether and to what extent the meaning of the verb has been changed by the addition of on in the case of a metaphorical use of lean on is a debatable point.

      With break into a conversation we have a metaphorical use based on the idea of breaking into something physical like a house.  The verb often has the sense of interrupt and so we can replace the particle with a number of others:
          He broke up the fight
          The school broke up for the holidays
          They broke into song

      The verb touch is another 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.)
    4. 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.  Examples are:
      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, normally intransitive can be followed by an adverb and an object 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 particle, arguably a preposition, which determines the meaning of go.  If we compare:
          They left without breakfast
          She arrived without her family

      etc. the prepositional nature of the particle in go without becomes more apparent.
      (For more on delexicalised verbs, refer to the guide to the Lexical Approach linked in the list of related guides at the end.)
      Other verbs, not usually considered delexicalised, may also take their meaning from the adverb with which they collocate so, for example:
          They picked out the best student (selected)
          They picked on the best student (bullied)
          They lived on seafood and vegetables (ate)
          They lived by fishing (earned a living)
    5. Meaning may be almost fully opaque rather than obviously metaphorical.  For example:
          I ran into Mary yesterday
      is often described as an inseparable phrasal verb because the meaning is clearly metaphorical and does not mean physically contact necessarily.  The same phenomenon can be seen with, e.g.:
          I bumped into him quite by chance
          I looked after his children

      These verbs are also phrasal in our analysis because the particles cannot be replaced without an alteration in meaning so:
          I ran by Mary yesterday
          I looked for his children

      are clearly different meanings of the verbs run and look.  The verb bump can also be used with other prepositional phrases such as:
          I bumped the car into the wall
          I bumped the bicycle over the kerb

      However, the words into and after are usually prepositional in nature and not adverbial as they cannot stand alone.  We allow:
          I went afterwards (the adverb)
      but not
          I went after (the preposition which demands a complement)
          I walked in (adverbial)
      but not
          I walked into (prepositional requiring a complement)
      So a better analysis is that we have metaphorical uses of the verbs run and bump combining with prepositional phrases.  If that is the case, they are neither prepositional nor phrasal verbs proper.

It is possible to teach all these as if they were phrasal verbs, even when they aren't, but they don't share grammatical structures or semantic phenomena with real phrasal verbs (even if metaphorical meaning needs to be found).  They are better treated in the classroom along with prepositional verbs with which they share fundamental sentence structures or simply as verbs which happen to collocate with or are followed by a limited range of prepositions or adverbs.

By this analysis is it perfectly acceptable to classify all so-called inseparable transitive phrasal verbs as prepositional verbs and treat them that way in the classroom.

in to or into?

There is some confusion concerning the the distinction between the expression as two words and as a single word which can be treated here.

  • When they are two words, the first is often an adverb and the second part of a prepositional phrase as in, e.g.:
        I gave in to his demands
    in which we have the phrasal verb give in followed by the prepositional phrase to his demands, or
        The plane came in to Frankfurt an hour late
    in which we have the verb come followed by an adverb, in, and then a prepositional phrase, to Frankfurt, .  We can test this by considering the opposite as in:
        Then the plane flew out to London even later
    where out is clearly just the opposite of in not the opposite of in to.
    Here's another example:
        I was called in to the meeting for my opinion
    in which we have two possibilities:
    a) A phrasal verb, call in, meaning consult followed by the prepositional phrase to the meeting, or
    b) The verb call followed by an adverb, in, meaning in this case from outside the room or building followed by a prepositional phrase, to the meeting.
  • When used as one word, into is almost always prepositional and has a number of related meanings:
    • towards, concerning or entering:
          The road leads into London
          I fell into the water
          There is an investigation into the reasons
          Six goes into 18 three times
    • change of state:
          The witch turned him into a frog
          He made the caravan into a hen house
    • result:
          He was pushed into a decision
          He was persuaded into going

When into refers to movement, it is often replaceable by in (as a preposition):
    I put it in / into my pocket
However, when in means placed and not moving, it cannot be replaced with into:
    I left it in my pocket
    *I left it into my pocket

wake up

Intransitive phrasal verbs

Coffee helps me wake up  

This is the simplest pattern.  Here are some examples:

Look out!  It's falling!
I can’t get up early.
The plane’s taken off.
Something’ll turn up.
The car broke down.
He’s growing up.
My legs gave out.
How are you getting on?
School has broken up for the holidays
Don’t let on.
Never look back.
Has he woken up?
It’s worn off.
I dropped off at 10.
Hold on a second.
I give in.
My plans fell through.
I'm turning in.  Goodnight.

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
    ?He's growing slowly up
    *Has he woken yet up?
Interposing prepositional phrases as adverbials is never acceptable:
    *He won't get in the morning up
    *He dropped at ten o'clock by


All of the second parts (the particles) are adverbs not prepositions.  Changing any of them changes the meaning of the verb completely.  Compare:
    He dropped by at 10
    He dropped off at 10
(fell asleep)

These verbs are variously interpretable from understanding their constituent parts so while, e.g.:
    I got up early to catch the train
    After winning the scholarship, she didn't look back
are both easily comprehensible by understanding the meanings of up and back,
    I hope something will turn up to make it easier
    She didn't let on that she was in town
are not so easily comprehensible and are opaque idiomatic uses of the verbs.
It is for this reason that they are probably better learned and taught as chunks rather than word combinations.

- top -

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 and the object.  The adverb alters the meaning of the verb and the preposition links it to the object.
Just like simple prepositional verbs, these verbs can only follow Patterns 1 and 2 (slightly amended), like this:

Pattern 1 subject + verb + adverb + preposition  + object noun
He ran + out + of + time
Pattern 2 subject + verb + adverb + preposition  + object pronoun
He ran + out + of + it

Here are some examples:

We've run out of oil.
He got away with murder.
She gets on well with her mother.
He looks down on foreigners.
My time is taken up with it.
Face up to the truth.
You put up with too much.
We need to do away with the rule
She came out with a good joke
I must get down to some reading.
I can get by on very little.
The children came out in spots
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.
She listened out for the telephone
He looked out for her.
She dropped out of university.
She got out of doing the work.
I did it to keep in with the neighbours.
She went through with it.

These verbs are always transitive even when the preposition and the object are 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)
and often transitive, separable phrasal verbs, too:
    He worked hard to catch the class up
    He worked hard to catch them up
    He worked hard to catch up with the class
(transitive inseparable [of course] phrasal-prepositional verb).

The same considerations apply to these verbs as applied above to prepositional verbs concerning whether they truly form a set of identifiable multi-word verbs.
Arguably, they don't because they can with equal confidence be analysed as phrasal verb + prepositional phrase.  However, in these cases, teaching most of them as single lexemes pays off because the collocational strength of the phrasal verb + preposition is great.  That is not invariably the case because we can have, for example:
    My time is taken up with these questions
    My time is taken up by all these questions
Both those sentences are, by the way examples of how the passive works with phrasal-prepositional verbs and that will be dealt with in the next section.


Splitting phrasal-prepositional verbs

There are four related issues:

  1. It is possible to insert an adverb between the adverb and the preposition because the verb + adverb constitutes the core meaning.  This is, however, often better avoided:
        We have run completely out of milk
        I look forward greatly to helping
        She ran away immediately with the idea
        ?He looks down often on foreigners
        ?I'll catch up eventually with them
  2. It is also possible to insert an adverbial prepositional phrase in the same position, between the adverb and the preposition but sometimes results in questionably correct sentences, especially with place prepositional phrases:
        He fell out at the end of the year with his parents
        Her time was taken up right up to Christmas with her book
        ?They faced up at the meeting to the facts

        ?They ran out at the hotel of parking spaces
  3. Inserting adverbs between the verb and the adverb is occasionally acceptable but always avoidable and often wrong:
        *I can catch quickly up with them
        *I look greatly forward to helping
        ?He went immediately in for golf
        ?My time is taken wholly up with the work
    and inserting prepositional phrase adverbials in this position is always disallowed:
        *She can catch over the holidays up with the work
        *He looks at all times down on foreigners
        *They fell at the party out with her
  4. The prepositional-phrase part of the clause is mobile in a way that a true multi-word verb does not allow so, for special, i.e., marked emphasis, notably in cleft sentences, we can allow, e.g.:
        With her, I have fallen out
        On such poor grammar, he always looks down
        It's only on some foreigners that he looks down
        To the facts we have to face up
        It is to the lack of money that we have to face up
        It was with the a daftest ideas that they ran away
        It was only with me that she fell out

A trap for the unwary is to assume that if there are two particles, we must be dealing with a phrasal prepositional verb.  That is not always the case because some prepositions consist of two words and not a preposition plus an adverb so, for example:
     He ran ahead of the clock
is simply a verb (ran) plus a prepositional phrase (ahead of the clock) and the preposition is the compound ahead of.
However, in:
    He pulled away from the other runners
we have a true phrasal-prepositional verb consisting of the phrasal verb (pull away) and the prepositional phrase (from the other runners).
See also the example in the summary diagram above of:
    He pulled out of the garage
which is given as an example of a prepositional verb because the words out of constitute a compound preposition, not an adverb plus a preposition.  It is not an example of a phrasal-prepositional verb, in other words.

A further trap to avoid is mistaking a prepositional phrase for a prepositional verb.  So, for example, although
    They drove off up the hill
appears to be a phrasal verb (drove off) plus a preposition (up), that is a false analysis.  It is in fact an intransitive phrasal verb (drive off) followed by a prepositional phrase (up the hill).
The prepositional phrase can be moved around and it can be replaced by any number of other phrases such as in a hurry, down the road, towards the car park etc. without in any way affecting the meaning of the verb drive off.

It may be argued, in fact, as we saw above that all so-called phrasal-prepositional verbs can be analysed as a phrasal verb plus a prepositional phrase.  The fact that a separate category is usually identified for these expressions has more to do with the strong collocational aspect of the preposition with the phrasal verb than any systematic grammatical feature.

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Passive forms of prepositional and phrasal verbs

Transitivity implies the possibility of passive-voice use, of course.  The presence of the particle may make the forms difficult for learners to acquire, however, and many choose to avoid them altogether.  That is a pity because the form is simple and only one arrangement of verb and particle is possible.
Making a passive structure requires the verb and its particle to remain unseparated and the adverb particle follows the past participle directly so we allow, for example, with a phrasal verb:
    The house was cut off by the floods
but not:
    *The house was cut by the floods off
and, with a prepositional verb (which does not allow the separation in any case) we can only have:
    The woman was suspected of fraud
not, of course:
    *The woman was suspected fraud of
Because transitive phrasal verbs are real examples of a verb's meaning being significantly dependent on the adverb particle, all separable transitive phrasal verbs can be framed in the passive voice.  We can have, therefore:
    The meeting was put off
    The flowers were picked up
    The wedding was called off
    The fool was thrown out

and so on.
Even the rare examples of phrasal verbs which are always separated function in the same way:
    The neighbours were asked over
    Her mother was talked into it

and so on.

Some multi-word verbs resist any use of the passive at all.  In particular, we cannot have:
    *Her mother was taken after by her daughter
    *The tie was gone with the suit

and only the active forms are allowable:
    The daughter took after her mother
    The tie went with the suit

With ditransitive phrasal verbs, two passive structures are possible but, again, the adverb particle must follow the past participle directly so we can have with a phrasal verb:
    The delegates were given out their badges at the beginning
However, with ditransitive verbs the to- structure for the indirect object is all that is usually allowed:
    The badges were given out to the delegates at the beginning
    *The badges were given out the delegates at the beginning

Rarely, the for-structure for the indirect object, which denotes that something is the beneficiary rather then the target of the action, is possible so we can encounter:
    The badges were given out for the delegates
    She brought the food in for me.

Ditransitive prepositional verbs only allow a passive with the direct object.  We can have:
    She was thanked for her efforts
but we can't have
    *Her efforts were thanked to her for

Prepositional verbs as we saw above can often be transitive or intransitive and function grammatically slightly differently in the two forms.  Because the preposition is not separable from the verb, the structure is simpler for learners to understand and produce.  However, only some of these verbs naturally make passive structures in the normal way so we can allow, for example:
    The service was complained about
    The children were protected from the weather
    The rain was longed for

and many others but we do not usually allow:
    *£100 was amounted to
    *The cake was consisted of
    *The shopping mall was hung around
    *?The rules were conformed to

and more.

Phrasal-prepositional verbs are analysed above.  Here it is enough to note that they suffer from the same inconsistencies as those affecting prepositional verbs (of which they form a subset).  We allow, for example:
    His time was taken up with it
    The law was done away with
    She was looked down on
and possibly a few more.
For many, the existence of two particles in these verbs means that the verbs are disallowed in the passive so most speakers do not allow:
    ?Murder was got away with
    ?The concert was looked forward to
    ?The truth was faced up to

and almost nobody would allow:
    *They were caught up with
    *Golf was gone in for
    *The idea was run away with
    *The rudeness was put up with

One of the tests, as we saw above, to determine whether we are dealing with a multi-word verb at all is the ability to make a passive from the active form.  Many verbs which are often described as multi-word verbs (or even, perilously, as inseparable phrasal verbs) fail the test so we do not allow:
    *The bus was got on
    *The train was got off
    *The food was managed without
    *The book was come across

and many other examples including those given above in the section on inseparable phrasal verbs.

When a prepositional verb is formed by a slightly metaphorical use of the preposition, the passive is allowed so we can have:
    The matter was gone into thoroughly
    The problems can be lived with
However, literal use of the verb + a prepositional phrase cannot be used in the passive voice so:
    *The house was gone into
    *I am lived with by her
are not allowable.

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The meanings of the particles

Reference has been made quite frequently in this guide to the fact that the meanings of prepositional and (especially) phrasal verbs cannot be extracted by understanding their constituent parts.  The phenomenon is known as non-compositionality.  So, for example:
    He fell out with his family
    She came through the operation
    The project ran into problems

are either wholly opaque in meaning or require a leap of imagination to see how the verbs and associated adverbs or prepositions are being used in an extended or metaphorical sense.
This will lead some to class the third example above as a phrasal verb when, in fact, it is simply a figurative use of a prepositional verb or a verb followed by a prepositional phrase.
Many other examples are transparent in meaning and require no particular effort of imagination or guesswork to arrive at their meanings especially when there are co-textual clues, so, for example:
    She talked us carefully through the process
    He touched on the topic briefly
    They ran over the safety regulations again

are all comprehensible with a little thought.
The problem for learners is that this does not work in the other direction.  Although a prepositional or phrasal verb may have a meaning which is transparent, it is difficult to guess which adverb or which preposition one should use to express the meaning one intends.

It is often asserted for these reasons 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.  If we do not consider patterns of meanings carefully, we will inflate the list of phrasal verbs in English to the point at which learners will be wholly bewildered and discouraged.
Here is an example of what is meant.
The verb clean off is a transitive phrasal verb insofar as we can have:
    I cleaned it off
    I cleaned the mud off
    I cleaned off the mud

but not
    *I cleaned off it
The sense of off here combines with the verb to form the meaning of remove.
That's fine so far but to teach all such forms as individual phrasal verbs which have to be learned separately is a waste of your and your learners' time because we can equally well have:

brush off
chip off
chop off
cut off
dust off
hack off
knock off
polish off
rub off
scour off
scrape off
scratch off
scrub off
slice off
sponge off
sweep off
wash off
wipe off

and the sense of the particle combines with the verb to produce exactly the same sort of meaning.  The adverb here follows its prepositional counterpart in, for example:
    He took the mud off the object.
Once a learner is familiar with the sense of the verb take off meaning remove as in, e.g.:
    I took the mud off
the rest will follow.
It will also allow learners to comprehend and produce intransitive phrasal verbs such as
    He walked off with my money
    She ran off immediately
    They hurried off
    She raced off

    They sauntered off casually
etc. because the sense here is of removing oneself and unchanged.
With some imagination, this may even allow learners to comprehend (although probably not produce) figurative uses of the verbs such as
    He walked off his headache
    She ran off her cramp
because the sense of remove is still apparent.

The same kind of exercise can be undertaken with many other common adverbs such as: (a)round, away, down, in, off, on, out, over and up.

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 the table
leads quite naturally to unpacking the meaning of the adverb particle in
    I brought up the subject of money
    He wrote his address in the box at the top
allows one very readily to understand
    He filled in the form.
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 more or less the same or slightly 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 or the extended meaning of the preposition in, for example:

  • He broke in to ask a question
  • I can't make out the number
  • Turn off the heat
  • Shall we move on?
  • I want to take up the point he made
  • They shouted down the speaker

and then click here for a list.

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Polysemy and the meaning of the verb

Polysemy (the phenomenon of a word having 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.  You will have seen above that it has often been necessary to define the sense in which a verb is being used in the examples.

An allied issue is that people will often disagree concerning whether one use of a verb is in fact a distinct meaning from another.  For example, some will suggest that there are two meanings of go down in:
    The submarine went down
    The price went down
despite the fact that in both cases, the verb just means move lower.
Whether this is an example of polysemy or hyponymy is debatable.  If it's polysemy, we need to teach two separate meanings but if it's hyponymy, it's a single meaning with the second example being a slightly figurative but transparently similar use of the verb.
It is pointed out in the guide to polysemy, linked below, that:

the problem of distinguishing between homonymy and polysemy is, in principle, insoluble.
Lyons, cited in Laufer, in Schmitt and McCarthy (1997:152)

When we have cases of undeniable polysemy, the effect is fourfold:

  1. A verb may change category (from prepositional to phrasal and vice versa).  For example:
    1. She got off the boat (a prepositional verb meaning embark which does not allow:
          She got it off)
      She got off the paint (a phrasal verb meaning remove which does allow:
          She got it off)
    2. He looked up the tree (a prepositional verb meaning look upwards which does not allow:
          He looked it up)
      He looked up the tree on Google (a phrasal verb meaning find in a reference source which does allow:
          He looked it up on Google)
  2. A verb may remain in the same category but have multiple senses.  For example:
    1. She took off the stamp carefully (a phrasal verb meaning remove)
      She took off her boss (a phrasal verb meaning ridicule by imitation)
    2. He won't stand for her interference (a prepositional verb meaning tolerate)
      He won't stand for chairman (a prepositional verb meaning present oneself for election)
  3. A verb may be transitive in one meaning and intransitive in another (i.e., the verb colligates differently in different senses).  For example:
    1. They carried on with the meeting (a transitive or intransitive prepositional verb meaning continue)
      They are carrying on (an always intransitive phrasal verb meaning have an affair)
    2. The sandpaper wore off the paint (a transitive phrasal verb meaning erode)
      The anaesthetic wore off (an intransitive phrasal verb meaning diminish in strength)
    3. The plane took off (an intransitive phrasal verb meaning begin to fly but also used figuratively to mean leave quickly)
      I took the label off (a transitive phrasal verb meaning remove which has a range of near synonyms including scrape off, wash off, clean off, cut off and so on)
  4. A phrasal verb may be separable in one sense and inseparable in another.  For example:
    1. The company laid the workers off (a transitive, separable phrasal verb meaning made redundant)
      I decided to lay off cigarettes for a week (a transitive, inseparable phrasal verb meaning desist from or stop)

Certain verbs (often referred to as delexicalised) exhibit a good deal of confusing polysemy.  For example, the verb get can be:

  1. A simple verb followed by a prepositional phrase meaning move into a large vehicle (so not an example of a multi-word verb at all) as in, e.g.:
        She got on the bus
  2. A phrasal-prepositional transitive verb meaning continue as in, e.g.:
        Let me get on with my work
  3. An intransitive prepositional verb with a similar meaning, e.g.:
        I need to get on
  4. An intransitive prepositional verb meaning make progress as in, e.g.:
        How is he getting on?

Polysemy naturally 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 up and call over are phrasal verbs, the first intransitive, the second transitive.
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!

We saw above that the adverb particles can represent a range of meanings (although the assertion was that meaning is not random, often being inferable from the meaning of the preposition).  This adds to the issue of polysemy, of course.
The following makes no claims to be complete but exemplification usually helps.  Below are some of the most troublesome phrasal verbs which have more than two common meanings.
All of these are transitive and separable except those marked as follows:
* intransitive
transitive but inseparable

Verb Meaning 1 Meaning 2 Meaning 3
take off remove
I took off the label
He took off the Prime Minister perfectly
leave rapidly
*They took off in a hurry
set up establish
They have set up a working group
make better
The fresh air and exercise set me up
implicate dishonestly
They police set him up as the robber but he was innocent
set off begin a journey
*We set off very early
cause activity
They set the bomb off
make attractive
The flowers set off the table decorations very well
take on begin to have
The hills take on a purple colour in the evenings
compete or fight
The soldiers took on the enemy
be upset
*Don't take on so!
take to begin to like
†I have really taken to the neighbour's dog
begin a habit
†I've taken to playing golf at the weekends
go / escape to
†They took to the streets
put off postpone
They put off their holiday
Raw fish puts me off
Can you put the light off?
put out extinguish
I put the fire out
Will it put you out if I am a bit late?
He put his hand out to stop the bus
go on continue
*He went on speaking
*What's going on?
†Going on the figures, it seems we are broke
do up seal
Do up your jacket
I'm doing up the spare room
She did up the presents beautifully
work out succeed
*The plan worked out
calculate or design
We need to work out a better way to do this
*He works out at the gym every day

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We can summarise MWVs in three ways: by type, by separability and by transitivity.
If you would like these summaries as a PDF document, click here.

Summary 1: by type: for the big picture

summary by type

It is as well to treat phrasal-prepositional verbs as a subset of prepositional verbs because the structural characteristics are parallel.
Intransitive phrasal verbs are very simple in structure and can be taught at low levels because they are often common and useful.
The problem, as we have seen is that transitive but inseparable phrasal verbs appear in a different section of the analysis but structurally behave like prepositional verbs.
By the same token, however, this factor complicates the following two summaries because phrasal verbs make multiple appearances.

Summary 2: by separability:

summary by separability 

By our analysis only phrasal verbs are separable.  It is one of the tests for adverb vs. prepositional particles.  A few verbs are always separable but the vast majority are optionally separable by a noun phrase, obligatorily by a pronoun.

Summary 3: by transitivity

summary by transitivity

All prepositional and phrasal-prepositional verbs are transitive by definition although a range of prepositional verbs can be used intransitively.  When that happens, the preposition is dropped and they cease to be prepositional verbs.
Only phrasal verbs can be intransitive multi-word verbs in our analysis.  When it appears that a prepositional verb is intransitive, the solution lies in the fact that it is a verb + a prepositional phrase, not a multi-word verb.

The guide to teaching MWVs, linked in the list of related guides at the end, contains lists of the core verbs that learners need to know.  Go there if you need a summary of the most important verbs and want to select what to teach.

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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 always a 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 may be realised as unstressed or weak forms but adverbs rarely are.
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 falls 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, is produced as a weak form with 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.
Weak forms
One of the tests for a phrasal rather than prepositional verb or verb followed by a prepositional phrase is the avoidance of weak forms on adverb particles but their frequent use when the particle is prepositional.  We have therefore, for example:
    He came to the house
as verb + prepositional phrase pronounced as:
but as an intransitive phrasal verb in, for example:
    He came to after the operation
the pronunciation of to is usually the full form and it may be stressed:
and in a phrasal-prepositional verb, for example:
    He faced up to the issue
the weak form of to is again in evidence and is not stressed:
This is not a fully reliable rule and will not work with two-syllable particles such as about, away or across in which the first vowel is almost always /ə/.
It is also the case that many particles such as down, by and off do not have weakened forms.

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, linked in the related guides list at the end.

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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 verb:
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 usually fall on the particle as in:
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/
Very informally, a few multi-word verbs can form adjectives with the -able suffix, e.g., unputdownable to mean gripping, getatable to mean accessible or lockupable to mean securable.

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Related guides
teaching multi-word verbs the obvious next place to go which contains lists of the verbs which are central and important to know
a categorised list of MWVs for a PDF document
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 passive voice for a guide which has a little more concerning how prepositions are dealt with in the passive
word stress for a little more on how MWVs derived adjectives and nouns are stressed
lesson a short lesson in phrasal and prepositional verbs for low-level learners
the essential guide to MWVs for a simpler guide to the area

A useful reference list of multi-word verbs is described in: Garnier, M and Schmitt, N, 2015, The PHaVE List: a pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses, Language Teaching Research, 19 (6). pp. 645-666. ISSN 1477-0954
The PHaVE list seems to be freely available at
The PHaVE users' manual is also available at:
Schmitt, N and McCarthy, M, 1997, Vocabulary - Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press