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Concourse 2

Teaching multi-word verbs (MWVs)


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

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


Why are MWVs difficult for learners?

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

There are consequences of interlingual differences:


Avoidance and overuse

Learners whose first languages do not have parallel multi-word verb forms will, predictably, tend to avoid them and rely more heavily on single-word equivalents such as postpone for put off or divide for split up and so on.  Communicatively, this may still be effective but stylistically there are clear problems because most single-word equivalents are significantly more formal in English than the multi-word verb structures.

On the other hand, learners from Germanic language backgrounds (such as Dutch and German speakers) my overuse phrasal verbs in English because they are not alert to the stylistically informal nature that many exhibit.  In both Dutch and German, multi-word verbs are not specifically marked for formality at all and are neutral.  This results in the opposite problem and such learners may be unable to adopt a suitably neutral or formal style when needed.



While the use of synonymy in classrooms as a short-cut to meaning is often effective, there are obvious perils when it comes to multi-word verbs.  For example, it is often averred that:
    find out = discover
    get by = manage

and so on.
However, this may result in errors such as:
    *We have to find out a new method
    *They have to get by the problem somehow


Collocation and context

Multi-word verbs and their one-word equivalents often collocate in unpredictable ways so, for example while we can have:
    establish a company
    set up a company
    establish the truth
    establish a garden

and so on, we cannot allow:
    *set up the truth
    *set up a garden
We can also allow:
    select the best bits
    pick out the best bits
    select a new method

but do not allow
    *pick out a new method
and so on.

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

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

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


Which verbs to teach and which particles?

PVs are both very important and very difficult to learn
Garnier and Schmitt,(2015:4)

pick one out  

The bad news:
Estimates of the number of phrasal and prepositional verbs in English vary but corpus research has helped a good deal in pinning things down.  There are, according to some surveys, around 5,000 to 10,000 in total and that is clearly an impossible target even to consider.
There is a need, therefore, to be very selective in our approach.

The good news #1:
Many of the verbs identified by corpus researchers are uncommon and the even better news is that a little common sense will alert you to the fact that the adverb particles often mean exactly the same thing across a range of verbs which corpus research would identify as separate items.  We saw in the guide to the analysis of this area that the phrasal verb take off, meaning remove as in, e.g.:
    I took off the sticky label
is akin in meaning to at least:

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 it is clearly unnecessary to teach each of these as a separate item.  Learn one and you have learned them all.  We do not have 18 phrasal verbs here; what we have is one meaning of the adverb off combining with 18 verbs.
This sort of analysis will not, of course, lead learners to understanding something like
    He took the Prime Minister off hilariously
but that is quite a rare item in any case.

The good news #2:
Corpus research has also discovered that

20 lexical or main verbs, combined with only eight particles (out, up, on, back, down, in, over, and off), account for more than half (50.4%) of the PVs in the BNC. Looking at individual PV lemmas (e.g. pick up, go on), [other researchers] found that only 25 make up nearly one-third of all PV occurrences in the corpus, and 100 make up more than one-half (51.4%).

(The BNC is the British National Corpus of around 100 million words in British English based on spoken and written samples.
A lemma is the technical term for a dictionary entry for a word so, for example, speak is the lemma entry but will include spoke, spoken, speaking etc.)

This actually reduces the load on learners very considerably because we now have a teachable target of around 150 verbs only.

The good news #3:
Researchers often ascribe separate meanings to phrasal verbs which can be seen, with a little imagination, to constitute the same meaning.  For example, some will ascribe two meanings to the verb put out in:
    I put out the light
    I put out the fire
whereas a little thought reveals that there is only one basic meaning at work here.  Moreover, if a learner has grasped that the adverb out has a specific sense of causing absence or disappearance (compare rub out, strike out, scratch out, cross out etc.) then the meaning becomes more transparent.

The good news #4:
If we select from the 100 most common verbs in English only those that conventionally combine with adverb particles to form phrasal verbs we get a list of 56 verbs like this:

Verbs Particles

Of course, if all the verbs combined with all the particles, this would still represent 448 different phrasal verbs to learn and teach but ...

The good news #5:
They don't all combine with all the particles.  For example, the verb add only naturally combines with in and up and leave only combines with in, off and out.
The majority of the verbs will only combine with half or fewer of the adverb particles so, immediately, the targets are reduced to around 200 possible phrasal verbs and that is an attainable number when one considers that learners at level A2 on the Common European Framework are expected to have mastered around 2000 words.  By C1, this total rises to over 4000 words of which only 5% would be phrasal verbs in our sense of the term.

The good news #6:
In many cases, we are not dealing with phrasal verbs of impenetrable meaning, if we are dealing with them at all.  For example, expressions like:
    I'll call back
    Please stand up
    When will you get back?
    She ran back
    He wasn't in

etc. are simple to understand and produce because the adverb is functioning in its central meaning.  Compare, e.g.:
    I'll ring / phone / write / email back
    Please stand here / there / outside
    When will you get here / there / home?
    She ran there / here / back / away
    He wasn't out / there / here / outside

By our definition, these are not examples of phrasal verbs at all.  They are simply verbs post-modified with adverbs.

The good news #7:
The PHaVE list consists of 150 phrasal verbs and seems to be freely available at
The slightly less good news is that each verb in the list has an average of just under 2 possible meanings but, even if we assume that a different meaning of a phrasal verb has to be separately learned, that still leaves a target of fewer than 300 verbs to learn.  That's doable especially when one considers that some of the verbs in the list (such as get on / off the bus) are not really phrasal verbs at all.
Usefully, too, the PHaVE list gives a guideline concerning which meaning of each verb is more frequent as a percentage.  For planning purposes, that's helpful.

The good news #8:
At the outset at least learners can be led to the structural aspects of multi-word (and particularly phrasal) verbs by focusing on those whose meaning is transparent.  This means that multi-word verbs such as bring up, pick up, set up, get up and so on can be taught simply once the learners are aware of the meaning of the adverb particle up parallels its familiar use as a preposition.

The summary:
If we extract the verbs only from the PHaVE list, we end up with 62 verbs forming 150 combinations (some of which will be polysemous).  The issue of distinguishing when and whether one meaning of a multi-word verb is different from another is also important.  For example, the PHaVE list suggests that the meaning of set up is different in:
    An advisory committee is being set up
from the meaning in:
    We need to set up a few more chairs so everyone can sit down.
and that's arguable, at least, because many would suggest that the verbs are synonymous rather than polysemous in those examples, the former being slightly figurative but transparent in meaning.
As is pointed out in the guide to polysemy on this site:

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

Some of them will also be prepositional rather than phrasal verbs because the list does not distinguish between them.
Here they are:

Verb + Particle(s) Verb + Particle(s)
come through move back / in / on / out / up
back up open up
blow up pass on
break off / out / up pay off
bring about / back / down / in / out / up pick out / up
build up play out
call out point out
carry on / out pull back / out / up
catch up put back / in / off / on / out / up
check out reach out
clean up rule out
close down run out
come about / along / around / back / down / in / off / on / out / over / up send out
cut off set about / down / off / out / up
end up settle down
figure out show up
fill in / out shut down / up
find out sit back / down / up
follow up slow down
get back / down / in / off / on / out / through / up sort out
give back / in / out / up stand out / up / out
go ahead / along / around / back / down / in / off / on / out / over / through / up step back
grow up sum up
hand over take back / down / in / off / on / out / over / up
hang on / out / up throw out
hold back / out / up turn around / back / down / off / out / over / up
keep on / up wake up
lay down / out walk out
line up wind up
look around / back / down / out / up work out
make up write down

The problem with lists, naturally, is that they don't contribute to analysis insofar as the items are not classified by separability, transitivity or form.
Some of the above, such as get back (in the sense of return) are just a verb plus a modifying adverb and do not need to be learnt as special or intimidating combinations because we can just as well have run back, drive back, walk back, stroll back and a huge range of other verbs which refer to movement.
Others, such as get on and get off (embark and disembark very roughly) are analysable as verbs plus prepositional phrases because we can have on / off the boat / train / tram / roundabout / liner / plane / ferry etc. and, again, do not need to be learned as combinatory meanings in the same way that get on meaning make progress does.


Teaching multi-word verbs

Now that we have a sort of syllabus, we need to get on to teaching the forms.

don't do it

Don't do it!

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

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

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

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


Plan and focus

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

  1. Dealing with separability and intransitivity.
    Idea 1
    You could focus a lesson on transitive prepositional verbs such as abstain from, comment on, quarrel about, react to and talk about in a lesson on the topic of friends meeting and talking to plan an event or a formal meeting to discuss a local problem or whatever.  It's not difficult to develop a text containing them if the context is clear.  For example:
    They met to talk about the party they were planning for John's 50th but soon began quarrelling about whether it should be a surprise or not.  Mary, in particular reacted badly to the idea saying that John hated being surprised by events like this ...
    All these prepositional verbs share a common structure: they are both transitive and inseparable.  Your learners will not be tempted into mistakes such as
        *They talked the problem about
    by analogy with a transitive separable phrasal verb such as in
        They tossed the ball about.
  2. Dealing with separability and intransitivity.
    Idea 2
    Equally, you could plan a lesson which does focus on separability of transitive MWVs such as call off, think through, call up, count in, pass on, set up etc. and the same idea of planning a party for someone would work well as a topic to hang it on along the lines of:
    They decided not to
    give the party idea up but to set it up for the following Saturday.  Unfortunately, they had to call the event off when it was clear ... etc.
    All these phrasal verbs share a common structure: they are both transitive and separable.
  3. Dealing with noncompositionality.
    Idea 1
    Focus on a particle, such as the example of off above, and choose to introduce verbs which show the gradual transition from literal to metaphorical meaning.
    For example, for the idea of progress towards a target, you could select get on, then go on, then carry on, then keep on, then move on then hurry on.  The idea that on often has the sense of towards a goal (but some meanings are slightly metaphorical) is easy to grasp.
    It is also the case, incidentally, that the particle on carries aspectual meaning and suggest a progressive sense.
    Later, you could select another meaning of on, that of connection or joining, and introduce tie on, stick on, turn on, switch on, hold on etc.  If you look at the table concerning the meanings of adverb particles in the analysis guide, you'll find some more candidates.
    Although it looks nice, the following sort of presentation is flawed
    for two reasons:
    a) we actually have multiple meanings of the particle out (exit, emerge, clearness, disappearance) and
    b) there's no exemplification or context to help the learners.
    There's nothing wrong in principle with this kind of presentation or in getting your students to construct one but you have to maintain focus and contextualise with examples.  It would be better like this
    out 2
    because here we have one meaning only of out (the idea of making something disappear or go away) and there are examples to help the learners.
  4. Dealing with noncompositionality.
    Idea 2
    If you focus on a verb rather than a particle then you need to show the connected meanings of the particles in the same way.  You can, for example use the sense of break (as in destroy or interrupt) to show how the particles alter its meaning with, e.g.:
        break into a meeting
        break out of a meeting
        break up a meeting
    and then go on to try a different verb such as call with
        call someone up
        call on someone
        call someone in
    etc.  There are (in)separability issues with this approach with both verbs.
    You can use the same kind of presentation (or get your learners to construct one) as above but again, you need to keep the focus and exemplify.
  5. Dealing with polysemy
    Try to make sure that the materials you use don't confuse, especially at early stages.  It may be tempting to add, when explaining
        The car broke down
        "But understand that this verb can be used with an object to mean something completely different, you know."

    but that's very rarely helpful.  Make sure you have context and co-text to help understanding and do not over-complicate the issue.
  6. Dealing with collocation and style
    Not telling learners that MWVs are always informal is a good beginning (see above).
    When you do use the one-word equivalent to explain, e.g., the meaning of speed up as accelerate, make sure that you focus on the fact that you can't accelerate your speaking or reading but you can accelerate a car or an object in a physics lesson.
  7. Remembering the particles
    Intransitive phrasal verbs and transitive prepositional verbs are not separable.  In the first case, of course, because they have no object.  This means they can be taught, practised and remembered as single items.
    There's no need to teach people that
        I wake up at six every morning
    is an example of wake plus an adverb particle.  It, along with a host of other verbs can be taught as a single word with a space in the middle.
    Equally, rely on, account for, talk about etc. can be taught and practised as if they were single words.
    Doing this may help your learners not to separate the verbs with other adverbs and say things like
        *I get early up
        *She relies definitely on him
    and so on.
    It is possible to use adverbs in this way
        She talked loudly about ...
    but never necessary so why confuse people when they are acquiring the system?  Such subtleties can wait till advanced levels (or even longer).
  8. Finding the verb.
    Idea 1
    If you are dealing with a complex expression such as
        He dropped me off by the cinema
    get students to notice the difference between a preposition introducing a phrase such as by the cinema and get them to come up with alternatives (near, next to, opposite the cinema etc.).
    That will help them to understand that drop off is actually the verb they should learn.
  9. Finding the verb.
    Idea 2
    The problem of verbs being separated by lots of text from their adverb such as the example:
        They had to give their dream of saving up enough money to buy their first house in London up
    is not easy to tackle but once the learners are alerted to the fact that the meaning of the main verb is relinquish, they can begin to look for the MWV that they know.  Exposure to already known MWVs in this kind of environment is useful but if the MWV is not known it's far too challenging to find it.  Build up the challenge slowly and focus on simple ones that are already familiar in sentences such as
        He handed his essay in
        He handed his essay and the ones that his classmates gave him in
        He gave sweets away
        He gave all the sweets, the chocolate, the cakes and most of the rest of the food away
    An alternative is to start with a 'normal' ordering such as
        They had to give up their dream of saving up enough money to buy their first house in London
    and then focus on the fact that it is possible to move the particle to the end without changing the meaning.  Then get the students to do it with, e.g., a sentence or two like
        He pointed out the new buildings and many of the other surprising changes in the city to me.
    Practice of this sort will help learners to avoid panicking when they are reading texts that do this and to keep calm and look for the particle if the verb alone is making no sense.
  10. Noticing multi-word verbs.
    Especially at lower levels and especially for learners from language backgrounds that have nothing like English MWVs, there is a risk that the verbs will not be spotted at all and that will lead learners to try to understand the verb and the particle separately to figure out the meaning.  You cannot understand:
        I give up
    by understanding the sense of give and up.
    If you have a text that you intend to mine for examples of these verbs, you need to do more than rely on learners' alertness to the forms so use some kind of highlighting device such as:

    The plane took off on time and, as it was a long flight, I settled down to watch a movie.  Unfortunately, the steward brought the food around almost immediately and the person in the next seat decided to complain about his dinner.  He also kept calling the steward over to order a drink or something up.  I gave the whole idea up and turned the movie off.  Eventually I dropped off and didn't wake up until we were almost there.

    This way, learners can see that MWVs are sometimes simply two words with a space between them and sometimes two words separated by their objects.
    A simple way to encourage learners to notice or be alert to the possibility of a multi-word verb is to point out that the verbs are:
    a) very common
    b) almost always monosyllabic (of the 62 verbs listed above, only five are disyllabic and none has more than two syllables)
    So, if learners encounters a common, monosyllabic verb in a sentence that they are finding difficult to understand, a good bet is that they have encountered a MWV.  Time to go to ...
  11. Dictionaries and on-line resources.
    The advent of corpus-based linguistics has ushered in a golden age for lexicographers because they now have a way of measuring the frequency of words in real language samples and of noting collocations and other combinations such as multi-word verbs.
    While the second part of this endeavour has borne fruit and most up-to-date, general learners' dictionaries are excellent at identifying and explaining multi-word verbs, they still have to take on board considerations of frequency.
    Dedicated phrasal-verb dictionaries are also available and are undoubtedly useful reference resources for learners but, in an effort to be inclusive, they try to list almost all the possible phrasal and prepositional verbs in the language and do not, generally, highlight those which are the most frequent and, therefore, the most useful to learn.
    One well-known and useful website, for example, claims that it provides "a dictionary of 3,533 current English Phrasal Verbs with definitions and example sentences" (www.usingenglish.com).
    The Cambridge Phrasal Verb Dictionary claims to cover "around 6,000 phrasal verbs current in British, American and Australian English".
    McGraw-Hill's Essential Phrasal Verbs Dictionary doesn't do quite as well but still claims "1,800 entries with examples of everyday usage".
    As references, such books are valuable (especially for those learners obsessed with this area of the language, who are interested in the meaning of, e.g., bring forth, conk out or glom onto) but the acquisition of a working knowledge of the most frequent and useful phrasal and prepositional verbs is not likely to be achieved by using them.
    In addition, many of these dictionaries include dubiously categorised expressions such as gallop through the agenda which is not, quite arguably, anything but a verb plus a prepositional phrase.
    Handle dictionaries of either sort with some care.


Two cautions

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



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

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

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

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

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