Teaching Multiword Verbs

If you're doing Delta Module Two, have  a look at the following example of a background essay written for a Language Systems (Lexis) Assignment, by one of our past candidates, Ben Corcoran, and focusing on multiword verbs. And see here for a language skills essay.

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics b@year in the life of, used under a CCAttribution non.commercial license. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

Teaching non-transparent multiword verbs to intermediate level students (CEFR B1) using a text-based/guided discovery approach.


A. Introduction    3
      B. Analysis and Issues     3-6
i. Classifying MWVs    3
ii Syntactic behaviour  3-5
iii Transparency, synonymy and polysemy 5-6
iv. Register and collocation  6
v. Phonology  6-7
       C.      Suggestions for Teaching   7-9

Bibliography    10-11

Appendices      12-13     

A.  Introduction

"There is another kind of composition more frequent in our language than perhaps in any other, from which arises to foreigners the greatest difficulty. We modify the signification of many verbs by a particle subjoined." (Johnson, 1755:vii)

Considering the prevalence of multi-word verbs (MWVs) in English, avoiding them in the classroom is simply not an option. In my experience, however, the mere mention of 'phrasal verbs' is enough to incite trepidation and aversion among most learners. This reaction is not altogether incomprehensible, given the enormity of this lexical area, but what seems to create 'most difficulty and contributes to the mystique  which surrounds multi-word verbs' (Gairns and Redman, 1986:33) is the fact that their meaning is often impossible to deduce from an understanding of the constituent parts. Intermediate level learners seem most prone to this irrational fixation, which Gairns & Redman (ibid.) attribute to teachers and textbooks effectively ignoring MWVs in the early stages of learning  before unleashing them in massive doses. The scope of this essay is therefore to investigate whether a text-based, guided discovery approach can help to demystify MWVs and make them more accessible to learners.

B. Analysis and Issues

i. Classifying MWVs

Gairns & Redman (op.cit.) use the term MWVs to define verbs which consist of two or three parts. The meaning of these MWVs ranges from literal, e.g. sit down, to semi-idiomatic, e.g. drink up, to idiomatic, i.e. non-transparent. As a group, MWVs can be divided into three distinct categories (See Appendix 1):

1. Prepositional verbs:  verb + preposition (e.g. get over)
2. Phrasal verbs: verb + adverbial particle (e.g. put off)
3. Phrasal-prepositional verbs: verb + adverbial particle + preposition (e.g. run out of)

ii. Syntactic behaviour

1. Prepositional verbs

These MWVs are always transitive and can never be separated:

 Look after my sister, will you?
 Look after her, will you?
 *Look her after, will you?           (Cowan, 2008:172)

2. Phrasal verbs
Typically regarded as the most complex of all MWVs, phrasal verbs can be further subdivided into four syntactic groups:

a. Intransitive/Inseparable
As there is no object to separate these MWVs, it follows that they always remain together, e.g. He refused to back down.

b. Transitive/Separable
The verb and adverbial particle can be separated by the object, although, as Cowan (op.cit.) notes, if the object is a personal pronoun (him, her, etc.) or a demonstrative pronoun (this, these, etc.) it must come before the adverb:

 John looked up the telephone number.
 John looked the telephone number up.
 John looked it up.
 *John looked up it.                      (Cowan, 2008:171)

According to Potter (2005), another tendency exists whereby information considered to be new is more likely to come after the adverb, so as to add emphasis, e.g. We need to carry out some tests.  Similarly, Cowan (op.cit.) notes that native speakers do not usually separate the particle if the phrasal verb is followed by a long object noun phrase, as this makes the sentence harder to process, e.g. 'John looked up some information about an early religion'(p.172).

c. Transitive/Permanently separated

For a small group of transitive phrasal verbs the adverb can never occur directly after the verb:

That job is getting Janice down.
That job is getting her down.
*That job is getting down Janice   (Cowan, 2008:172)

d. Ergative
These are phrasal verbs which describe an action experienced by the subject; in some cases they can be both intransitive, and therefore inseparable, or transitive, and therefore separable:

The ship blew up.
The terrorists blew up the ship.   (Cowan, 2008:174)

3. Phrasal-prepositional verbs

Most of these MWVs are transitive and inseparable. However, for those which have two objects, one must come before the adverb and the other after the preposition:

They put their failure down to bad advice.      (Richards and Schmidt, 2010:436)                                                                                                                                                                                            

Syntactic Issues:

1. De Cock (2006) notes that learners sometimes use transitive phrasal verbs intransitively, and vice versa, e.g. splitting up the relationship.

2. De Cock (ibid.) states that learners often fail to recognise the particle 'to' as a preposition rather than the infinitive particle, e.g. I'm looking forward to see (seeing) you.  

3. Learners often fail to separate MWVs when required and vice versa, e.g. I picked up them.

iii. Transparency, synonymy and polysemy

As we have already mentioned, the meaning of many MWVs does not correspond to the meaning of their component parts, e.g. 'They don't get on. The plane took off. Do you give up?' (Thornbury, 2006:165). However, as Moon (2005) demonstrates, certain adverbs and prepositions used in MWVs may convey a common conceptual metaphor, such as 'out', which can express the idea of something becoming wider or fuller, e.g. fan out, flesh out.

In many cases, especially with phrasal-prepositional verbs, MWVs also possess one-word equivalents, e.g. 'run up against to "encounter"; come up with to "produce"' (Cowan, 2008:179). At the same time, many MWVs are polysemous, where not only the meaning changes, but in some cases also the syntactic structure:

I need to check out by 1 P.M.
Check it out!                           (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, 1999:434)

Semantic Issues:

4. Learners often fail to understand the meaning of non-transparent MWVs.

5. Learners may confuse literal and non-transparent meanings of polysemous MWVs, e.g. We got on our bikes, We got on well.

6. De Cock (op.cit.) states that learners may use the right verb with the wrong particle, and vice versa, e.g. The task must be carried on (carried out) using the brain.

iv. Register and collocation

MWVs are often considered to be 'informal or even slang (such as faff about, nod off, chill out)' (Thornbury, 2006:166), but as Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman (op.cit.) point out, MWVs are also present in formal discourse. Marks (2005) provides evidence to suggest that the majority of MWVs are neutral, while certain MWVs, such as give up, are in fact more common in newspapers and academic writing than conversation (See Appendix 2).

As well as context, we must also consider co-text, i.e. words or phrases which typically collocate with MWVs. McCarthy (1990) describes collocation as a 'marriage contract between words, and some words are more firmly married to each other than others' (p.12), which explains why set up (start) a business sounds more appropriate than set up (start) a family.

Contextual Issues:

7. De Cock (op.cit.) suggests that learners whose L1 lacks MWVs, e.g. French and Spanish, tend to avoid using them. Side (1990) also suggests that many learners favour one-word Latinate definitions over MWVs, which may lead to them sounding overly formal, e.g. depart instead of set off.

8. De Cock (op.cit.) notes that in formal writing, learners whose L1 contains MWVs which are not marked for style (Dutch, German, Swedish) may use English MWVs which are inappropriate to the overall register, such as asking to be picked up, rather than collected.

9. De Cock (ibid.) states that many learners often combine MWVs with words that do not collocate, e.g. set up a family.

v. Phonology

Underhill (2005) states that the main question regarding the pronunciation of MWVs concerns the placement and distribution of stress on the verb and particle(s). There are two distinct stress patterns associated with MWVs, which also provide a useful guideline for distinguishing between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs. Underhill (ibid.) notes that prepositional verbs usually have the primary stress on the verb and no stress on the preposition, e.g. I don't know what to ˈmake of it. Phrasal verbs, on the other hand, usually have the primary stress on the adverb and a secondary stress on the verb, e.g. I can't ˌmake ˈout the words. However, when a noun comes before the adverb, stress will usually be on the noun rather than on the adverb, e.g. 'Can you ˌmake the ˈwriting out?'. Similarly, if the noun follows the adverb but is important for the speaker's meaning it will again take the primary stress, e.g. 'Can you ˌmake out the ˈwriting?' (ibid.). Phrasal-prepositional verbs follow the same pattern as phrasal verbs, where the preposition remains unstressed, e.g. 'I'll ˌmake ˈup for it.' (ibid.).

Phonological Issues:

10. Dickerson (1994) states that as learners are taught to put stress on content words, they may tend to stress the verb rather than the adverb, e.g. I 'planned to 'turn it down.   

C. Suggestions for Teaching

To help learners overcome the multitude of issues associated with MWVs I would advocate the combined use of two approaches:

To resolve semantic and contextual issues:

·      Text-based approach:
'A methodology that focuses on teaching explicitly about the features of spoken and written texts and that links texts to the cultural context of their use.' (Richards & Schmidt, 2010:595). As Thornbury (2002) suggests, certain text types are often rich in idiomatic MWVs and can provide an effective means of presenting lexical items in context. As an example, Thornbury (2006) demonstrates the natural occurrence of MWVs, put off and come to, in an authentic restaurant review. Another obvious benefit to this approach is that 'contextualisation means noting the situation in which the word may occur, but most importantly the co-text with which it can regularly occur.'(Lewis, 1993:103). 

To resolve syntactic and contextual issues:

·      Guided discovery:
Scrivener (2005) describes this as an activity type which allows learners to generate their own discoveries and explanations by drawing their attention to interesting language issues. A key technique involves asking oral or written questions which 'encourage the learners to notice language and think about it.' (Scrivener, 2005:268). Thornbury (2011) notes three types of guidance: firstly, a text may simply contain a large quantity of target items: input flood; secondly, items in a text may be highlighted: input enhancement, often requiring the learners to search for, extract and label a grammatical pattern; thirdly, corpus concordances are used to provide and highlight instances of the item(s): input flood and enhancement. One of the benefits to this type of approach is that 'a rule that has been 'discovered' is more memorable than one that has simply been presented.' (Thornbury, 2011).

In order to implement these approaches it is first necessary to consider both the choice of lexical items and text-types. In choosing which non-transparent MWVs are most useful to teach we might consider the frequency with which they occur, the range of text-type in which they occur and the specific needs of the learner, e.g. set up might be more useful in business English, while get on may be of greater use to learners of general English. Similarly, the type of text we select must also reflect the specific needs of the learner, e.g. a university student may benefit more from exposure to a academic articles, while a business executive might find listening to a conference call more beneficial. We may also choose to grade or adapt an authentic text according to our learning objectives. For example, if our aim is to concentrate on the grammatical patterns of MWVs, we might adapt a text to 'demonstrate their syntactic behaviour' (Thornbury, 2002:125), while if we want to focus on meaning we must ensure that the context is 'rich enough to offer adequate clues to guess a word's meaning' (Schmitt, 2000:153). However, if we merely wish to treat MWVs as incidental lexical items, no specific modification may be required.

While most intermediate course books use reading texts to contextualise their presentation of MWVs, they often fail to clarify a number of problem areas. Clare and Wilson (2011) overburden learners by presenting twelve MWVs in a single activity, as well as simultaneously attempting to deal with transitivity and separability. Kay and Jones (2000) present an array of MWVs, but make no attempt to highlight their syntactic features. Cotton, Falvey and Kent (2001) use one-word definitions to check comprehension but provide no further practice, nor demonstrate syntactic patterns. Moreover, none of these course books deal with the phonological characteristics of MWVs.

The following activities may be used either codependently or independently...

To resolve semantic and contextual issues:

Inferring meaning from context: Having established a context, learners are then presented with a text and must guess the meaning of non-transparent MWVs using clues provided by both the context and co-text. 

Rationale: Hedge (2000) suggests that the degree of problem solving involved in inferring unfamiliar lexis helps with the retention of the word. This also helps to promote the application of collocational awareness.

To resolve semantic and contextual issues:

Matching activities: Having been presented with contextualised examples of non-transparent MWVs, learners match MWVs with 1. written definitions, 2. illustrated representations of meanings, 3. collocations.

Rationale: Learners can effectively demonstrate their comprehension of lexis and collocational awareness. This also appeals to visual and possibly kinaesthetic learners.   

To resolve syntactic and contextual issues:

Guided discovery:
1. Consciousness-raising: Learners are given examples of non-transparent MWVs of two or three parts before reading a text in which they must find and underline other examples.
2. Rule discovery: Learners are presented with a text in which a number of non-transparent MWVs are already highlighted. After being given an example of different syntactic patterns, e.g. transitive/intransitive,  or separable/inseparable, learners must correctly categorise the remaining MWVs.

Rationale: By asking learners to notice language, or a language rule, they will be more likely to internalise it. By discussing rules it also makes the task more metacognitive. This type of approach also appeals to visual learners.

To resolve semantic and contextual issues:

Concordances from a corpus: After the meaning of non-transparent MWVs has been established, learners are presented with gapped concordance results. Teacher may also demonstrate how to effectively use a concordancer to generate further examples.
Rationale: As well as providing additional examples of authentically occurring collocations, syntactic behaviour and polysemy, it also helps to promote learner autonomy.

To resolve phonological issues:

Backchaining/Choral drilling: Teacher writes up sentences from a text containing MWVs and highlights the stress patterns, or asks learners to mark the stress in their materials. The teacher then models the stress patterns orally and learners repeat.
Rationale: Drills provide added receptive practice of target language as well as appealing to auditory learners.

To resolve semantic, syntactic and contextual issues:

Rewriting: Having been presented with contextualised occurrences of non-transparent MWVs, learners are asked to reproduce examples, either in the form of personalised phrases or in a variant form of the original text-type.

Rationale: Personalisation and reproduction of new lexical items will aid retention, as well as providing evidence of comprehension and collocational awareness.

While these activities go a long way to resolving many of the issues raised, the key to internalising the idiomatic meanings and complex rules associated with non-transparent MWVs is for learners to be frequently exposed to them. Furthermore, recognition and retention of these items is more likely to be achieved if learners are encouraged to develop their autonomous learning skills. This may take the form of recording new language in a vocabulary note book, developing dictionary or concordancer skills, or simply reading more outside the classroom. As teachers, this is something we can and should actively try to promote.  


Celce-Murcia, M. & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher's Course (2nd ed.). Boston: Heinle & Heinle
 Clare, A. & Wilson, J.J. (2011). Speakout Intermediate. Harlow: Pearson Longman.
 Cotton, D., Falvey, D. & Kent, S. (2001). Market Leader Intermediate business English. Harlow: Pearson Education.
 Cowan, R. (2008). The Teacher's Grammar of English: a course book and reference guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
 De Cock, S. (2006). Learners and phrasal verbs. MED Magazine (35). Retrieved 1st April 2015 from http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/MED-Magazine/February2006/35-Phrasal-Verbs-Learners.htm
 Dickerson, W. (1994). "Discourse Stress and Phrasal Verbs." Ideal 7: 56-66.
Gairns, R. & Redman, S. (1986). Working with Words: a Guide to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Johnson, S. (1755). A Dictionary of the English Language. London: W.Strahan for J. and P. Knapton, T. and T. Longman et al.
Kay, S. & Jones, V. (2000). Inside Out Intermediate. Oxford: Macmillan Education.
Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward. London: Language Teaching Publications.
Marks, J. (2005). The truth revealed: phrasal verbs in writing and speech. MED Magazine (34). Retrieved 1st April 2015 from http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/MED-Magazine/October2005/34-Feature-PV-Spoken-Written.htm
McCarthy, M. (1990). Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Moon, R. (2005). Metaphor and phrasal verbs. MED Magazine (31). Retrieved 1st April 2015 from http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/MED-Magazine/June2005/31-Phrasal-Verbs-Metaphor.htm
Potter, E. (2005). The syntactic behaviour of phrasal verbs. MED Magazine (32). Retrieved 1st April 2015 from http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/MED-Magazine/July2005/32-Phrasal-Verbs-Syntactic.htm 
Richards, J.C. & Schmidt, R. (2010). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (4th ed.). Harlow: Pearson Education Limited
Schmitt, N. (2000). Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning Teaching: A guidebook for English language teachers (2nd ed.). Oxford: Macmillan.
Side, R. (1990). Phrasal verbs: Sorting them out. ELT Journal, 44(2), 144-152.
Thornbury, S. (2002). How to teach vocabulary. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Thornbury, S. (2006). An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan Education.
Thornbury, S. (2011, June 5). G is for Guided Discovery. An A-Z of ELT. Retrieved 1st April 2015 from https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/tag/guided-discovery/
Underhill, A. (2005). Pronunciation and phrasal verbs. MED Magazine (34). Retrieved 1st April 2015 from http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/MED-Magazine/October2005/34-Phrasal-Verbs-Pron.htm

Appendix 1: Classifying MWVs based on Cowan (2008), Gairns & Redman (1986), Thornbury (2006) and Potter (2005)

Phrasal Verbs
(Verb + adverb)
Multiword Verbs
verb + 1 or 2 other elements

Type 1: Intransitive / Inseparable

e.g. She sat down slowly. (She sat slowly down.)
        We are going to move on.
Ergative phrasal verbs: (describing an action experienced by the subject)
e.g. The storm began to die down.
        The ship blew up.

Phrasal Prepositional Verbs
(Verb + adverb + preposition)
Prepositional Verbs
(Verb + preposition)

Type 2 : Transitive

a. Separable (follow particle movement rule)
e.g. Maggie looked up the address.
        Maggie looked the address up.
        Maggie looked it up. (object pronouns must come between verb and adverb)
Some paired ergative phrasal verbs: (follow particle movement rule)
e.g. The terrorists blew up the ship.             

b. Permanently separated (object must occur between verb and adverb)

e.g. That job is getting Janice down.
        That job is getting her down.
        That job is getting down Alice.


a. Inseparable (with one object)

e.g. He got away  with murder.
        Joan really looks up to her father.
        We are looking forward  to the party.

b. Separable (with two objects)

e.g. I've decided to take you up on that job

Transitive / Inseparable

e.g. I ran into Jacob yesterday.
        Can you deal with it?
        Look after my sister, will you?

Appendix 2

Forty-five examples of the uninflected non-transparent MWV 'GIVE UP' in formal writing, generated by the Lextutor Concordancer using the Academic General Corpus, registering 14 hits per million words.

001. speech made to one group he argued that they had need to " GIVE UP some of [their] justifiable rage"  
002. untrained interpreter tends to do one of the following: (a) GIVE UP a slightly time consuming analysis of meaning  003. cannot be fulfilled; yet we must not - indeed, we cannot - GIVE UP our efforts to bring it nearer to fulfilment by   004. dialectic which would concede Marxism's equivocalness, and GIVE UP the claim to the dialectical logic of History 
005. Men need, in effect, to say to each other, "I authorize and GIVE UP my right of governing myself, to this man, or to
006. control than are Kohnstamm-negative subjects; that they can GIVE UP their control and allow themselves to be 
007. hey realize that this strategy no longer works. Parents can GIVE UP during this process feeling that the plan is not
008. Francois, 1977; Macnamara, 1982). Of course, once children GIVE UP their single - level assumption, they accept the
009. demand for complete autonomy and his demand that the client GIVE UP his own judgment and responsibility, 
010. do and try to get back as much mobility as possible. Don't GIVE UP. Good health is a combination of many factors, 
011. suggest that the majority of the new users will eventually GIVE UP daily heroin use. The motivational accounts of  
012. I would not to - morrow, for the sake of a united Ireland, GIVE UP the policy of trying to make this a really Irish Ire
013. with the child and expect not to be obeyed. They may GIVE UP and try to avoid asking the child anything or feel a
014. for the mother to treat the ailing youngster and she might GIVE UP on the treatment for this reason. Finally, the  
015. views begin to emerge. Individualists who concede too much GIVE UP the very explanations which, from their 
016. By May 1915 Unionist leaders were convinced that they must GIVE UP some independence if they were to influence
017.  and day, during the aforesaid time". They told her she must GIVE UP Christianity and deny, not only God and all 
018.  the conventional term for a specific meaning, they must GIVE UP their own coinage and begin instead to use
019.  the hamstrung athlete warned by the doctor that they must GIVE UP running. Writers almost invariably insist upon
020. adequate evidence for a holist theory, and so could never GIVE UP our view of individuals as basically autonomous
021. homosexuals in a large number of cases, says Freud, do not GIVE UP the mother and find another woman as  
022. about their sexual needs and feelings. Older people often GIVE UP sexual intercourse because it has become
023. the feminine , says Freud. Women seem unable to ever quite GIVE UP their wish for a penis, and they usually begin  024. and no such criteria can be provided. But, then, we should GIVE UP the concept of" identical meanings" and accept 
025. opportunities has led to the view that older people should GIVE UP their jobs in order that younger people can 
026. identity of meaning may take some time - children should GIVE UP their form in favour of the conventional one for
027. think of Michael who sent away his son, Luke, rather than GIVE UP his land; and surely the picture of the man 
028. to have been flawed; such philosophy must therefore GIVE UP its claim to truth. Ironically, then, the trajectory
029. will get much worse. Thus at this imaginary point A they GIVE UP, turn around, and go home. This causes an 
030. or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that they GIVE UP their right to him and authorize all his actions in 
031. above examples is that they do not require participants to GIVE UP their jobs or move away from their homes and
032. and women are renouncing unequal qualities. The man has to GIVE UP some of his power; the woman must gain
033. is waning fast. Agriculture has fewer and fewer workers to GIVE UP to industry or the tertiary sector, and short
034. risks. In Colombia, many of the peasants were persuaded to GIVE UP their coffee and cocoa trees, which though not
035. (see Graham, 1982) that it must be rational for a person to GIVE UP their autonomy sometimes. One case often
036. of identity politics, by saying "Yeah, it's easy to GIVE UP identity when you got one". Should we not be suspicious
037. all this, he might finally decide that the time had come to GIVE UP further arguing and accept what each of us has
038. avid Laing MP, in his maiden speech, urged married women to GIVE UP their jobs because "there is so much to do
039. of the most adroit negotiators cannot decide them to GIVE UP a rank which they believe to be their right". This
040. achieved tariff autonomy and an agreement in principle to GIVE UP extraterritoriality, yet enclaves of foreign
041. and the Individual Talent". In.1922 he threatened to GIVE UP literature. His fascination with religious ideas
042. at different answers. The ignorant response to this is to GIVE UP in despair, and to slump back agnostically into the 
043. to reduce our self confidence further and encourage us to GIVE UP before trying. Thoughts misinterpreting bodily
044. women she addressed that suffragists did not want them to GIVE UP "one jot or tittle of your womanliness, your
045. - a self - contradictory absurdity - a moral ground to GIVE UP reading and remembering…", and so on. Whatever