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Concourse 2

Multi-word verbs: the essentials


Suggestion: If you are unsure about your ability to identify a preposition or an adverb, you should follow the guides to those two areas before you start.

This is an essential guide and will not cover the complications of some multi-word verbs or what are called phrasal-prepositional verbs but we will distinguish between a phrasal verb and a prepositional verb because that is the essential point to take away.
If you want more, go to the more advanced guide to multi-word verbs in the in-service section of the site which is linked at the end.



Multi-word verbs (hereafter MWVs) are verbs which consist of more than one word.  For example, we can say
    I postponed the meeting
or we can say
    I put off the meeting
    I put the meeting off
with pretty much the same meaning.
The verb, in this case, is not just put – it is put off.
In this guide, words like off, on, about etc. will often be referred to as particles but you should know that there is a bit more to it than that.

See if you can identify the multi-word verbs in this paragraph:

He got off the train walked over to the taxi rank.  Getting into the first cab he found, he told the driver to take him to the hotel and to hurry up because he was already running late.  The trip to the city centre took up less than twenty minutes and he was dropped off at his hotel before noon.  He complained about the cost of the taxi but the driver simply handed over an official list of airport fares and pointed at it.  He paid up and carried his luggage into reception.  The receptionist looked up his name in the register, gave him his key and pointed out where the lifts were.  He was delighted to find out that they had put him in a room with a view of the Acropolis but he only had time to look at it for a few minutes before he went down to the meeting.
Click here when you have done that.

That was not an easy task and you will be forgiven for not having the same answers.  There are a number of possible reasons why your answers may differ.

  1. Why isn't walk over in red?
    Compare these two sentences:
    1. He walked off his headache
    2. He walked through the park
    In sentence a., we have a real multi-word verb, to walk off, which means something like to make something better by walking.  If you replace the particle off with another word, you will change the meaning of the verb walk.  For example, we can't say
        *He walked over his headache
    Only off will work.
    In sentence b., we have a verb, walk, followed by a prepositional phrase through the park and we can change it in lots of ways but retain the meaning of walk:
        He walked over the road
        He walked across the park
        He walked out of the meeting
    This is the basic test of a multi-word verb: does the meaning change if we change the particle?
  2. Why isn't Getting into in red?
    For the same reason.  This is simply the verb get followed by a preposition, into.  We can get, for example:
        get over an obstacle
        get out of a train
        get between two people

    and so on.  It is the verb get in its meaning of move to a place or position.
    Compare these two sentences:
    1. I got over my headache
    2. I got over the river
    In sentence a., we have a real multi-word verb, to get over, which means to recover from.  If you replace the particle over with another word, you will change the meaning of the verb.  You can't have:
        I got by / across / between / into / out of my headache
    etc. without changing the meaning of the verb.
    In sentence b., we have a verb, get, followed by a prepositional phrase over the river and we can change the preposition to make new meanings but keep the meaning of get the same.  We can have, e.g.:
        I got across the river / into the river / out of the river
    etc. and still get means the same thing.
  3. Why isn't look at in red?
    For the same reason again but you will often find the combination look at described as a multi-word verb or even as a phrasal verb.  It is neither because all we have is the verb look (meaning use one's eyes) and the preposition at which signals the direction.
    This also explains why got off, take to, pointed at, carried into and went down are all left in black.  They are simply verbs followed by prepositions.
  4. Why isn't running late in red?
    It is a metaphorical meaning of run in the sense of make progress but that doesn't make it a MWV.  Here, the word late is an adverb and it can be replaced by something like on time, early, quickly, onwards, behind etc. without changing the meaning of the verb run.

Website alert: There are rather too many sites out here that cannot distinguish between a real MWV and a simple verb followed by a preposition.  For example, one site describes walk into a trap as a phrasal verb.  It isn't.  It isn't even a prepositional verb.  It is simply the verb walk followed by a prepositional phrase (into a trap).  It may be a slightly metaphorical use of walk but that's another matter altogether.
Another describes run after the bus as a phrasal verb.  No, it isn't.  It's the use of a verb (run) with a prepositional phrase (after the bus).  We can change after for any number of other words without changing the meaning of run:
    run behind the bus
    run in front of the bus
    run alongside the bus
    run past the bus
There are lots more examples of lousy analysis on the web in the in-service guide to this area.


Ordering the words

There's something else to note here:
Try moving the word in black around in these sentences and see what happens if you replace it with it:

  1. He handed over the list.
  2. He found out my name.
  3. I got onto the train.
  4. She looked up the word.

Click here when you have tried that.

You will have noticed:

  1. With some of these verbs you must put it (or any other pronoun) between the verb and the particle.  These verbs are hand over, find out and look up.  They are all true MWVs.
  2. With a verb followed by a prepositional phrase the only possible word order is Subject (I) + Verb (got) + prepositional phrase (into the train / into it).  The reason is that we are not dealing with a true MWV here.


Separable and inseparable

As you saw, some verbs are separable and some cannot be separated.  Here's a short list of verbs.  By making a sentence like the ones above in your head, you should be able to see which ones are separable and which ones are inseparable.
Click on the table when you have identified the two sorts.

separability 2

There are reasons for this.

  1. The verbs with are inseparable (on the left) are examples of prepositional verbs and that means that the verb governs the preposition which is allowed but all the prepositions are just parts of prepositional phrases.
    We can allow, therefore:
        She called for the children
        She called for them

    but not:
        *She called the children for
        *She called them for
    In other words, the only word order we allow is:
    Verb + Preposition + Object (noun or pronoun) and the same restriction applies to all of the examples right down to the end where we get:
        She cared for the children
        She cared for them

    but not
        *She cared the children for
        *She cared them for.
  2. The verbs which are separable (on the right) are phrasal verbs and the vast majority of them must be separated if we use a pronoun and can be separated if we use a noun.  So we allow:
        He added the figures up
        He added them up
        He added up the figures

    but not:
        *He added up them
    The only word ordering we allow with these verbs is:
        Verb + Adverb + Noun
        Verb + Noun + Adverb
        Verb + Pronoun + Adverb
    If you work down the list on the right, you will find the same restrictions apply to all of them until you get to:
        He wore his pajamas out
        he wore them out
        He wore out his pajamas

    but not:
        *He wore out them.

The distinction is that

+ or -

With and without an object

Some MWVs never take an object, some always do and some can do both.  For example:

  1. She pulled off the trick.
    A Phrasal Verb which must have an object and is (of course) separable.
    1. We can have
          She pulled off the trick
          She pulled the trick off
          She pulled it off
    2. We can't have
          *She pulled off it
          *She pulled off
  2. It amounted to €300.
    A Prepositional Verb which must have an object (a complement is a better term, but no matter) and is (of course) inseparable.
    1. We can have
          It amounted to €300
    2. We can't have
          *It amounted €300 to
          *It amounted
  3. He complained about the service.
    A Prepositional Verb which may or may not have an object complement and the preposition, of course, is only present when there is some kind of object.
    1. We can have
          He complained about the service.
          He complained about it.
          He complained.
    2. We can't have
          *He complained the service about.
          *He complained it about.
  4. The headache wore off.
    A Phrasal Verb which cannot have an object and is therefore inseparable (because there is nothing to separate!).
    1. We can have
          The headache wore off.
    2. We can't have
          *The headache wore off her.


Verbs with adverbs

He walked away  

One of the problems faced by both teachers and learners of English is that there is a good deal of confusion about what is and is not a phrasal verb.
We saw above that a phrasal verb is a verb whose meaning is combined with an adverb to make a new meaning so, for example, if we add and adverb particle to the verb look as in changing:
    She looked in the dictionary
in which verb look simply means use your eyes to
    She looked up the word in the dictionary
we can see that look plus up makes a new meaning: find in a reference book.

Some people find this hard to grasp and insist that any verb which is followed by an adverb must be a phrasal verb.  That way madness lies because we can have, for example:
    He walked away
    He walked out
    He walked back
    He walked alone
    He walked home
    He walked quickly

and in all these cases the meaning of the verb does not change.
It is not true, therefore, that walk away, walk back or any of the examples is a phrasal verb.  They are cases of verbs being modified by one-word adverbs, changing how we see the verb but the verb retains its meaning.

Unfortunately, if you look out here on the web for examples of phrasal verbs, you will find lots of people posting nonsense and the most common piece of that is that something like:
    She'll call back
    I want to look around
    They ran out
and many more contain examples of phrasal verbs.  They do not.

You may think this is just a minor problem because lots of people can't do very good language analysis and that's true but bad analysis like this has implications for learners which are not good.

  1. It means that learners are misled about what constitutes a learnable phrase and what constitutes just a verb plus an adverb.
    If as a learner of English you encounter, for example:
        She put the fire out
    you would be right to think something like:
        Aha!  This means that put plus out takes on a new meaning (something like extinguish)
    and you would be wholly correct and quite wise to try to learn the verb put out as having something to do with fire and flames.
    If, on the other hand, you come across:
        She put the cat out
    you would be unwise to try to learn put out as a verb which has anything to do with cats.  You would be much wiser to realise that put has its normal meaning and the adverb out simply tells us where the cat was put.
  2. The second problem follows on and is to do with loading learners with unnecessary problems and memorisation tasks.
    If you tell students that walk back, walk away, walk out etc. are all phrasal verbs, then they will try to remember them separately (as you should with real phrasal verbs) but you will be wasting your time because you already know the meaning of walk and the meanings of back, away and out so there is nothing new to learn and you can get on with learning something useful.

Misleading learners is not forgiveable and made worse if the misleading results in an extra and unnecessary learning load.

MWVs cause learners difficulties, of course, and for a number of reasons.  For more on that see the guide to teaching MWVs.

Take a short test in this area.

If you want to learn more and have done well in the test, try the more advanced guide to MWVs.