English Learner Article Phrasal Verbs Multi-Word Verbs: Phrasal Verbs Multi-Word Verbs

Summary: A look at the problems phrasal verb present to learners

By: |Audience: All|Category: English Grammar Usage Articles & Notes

Phrasal Verbs present problems for many learners. One initial problem is that writers on the subject disagree as to exactly what a phrasal verb is: others use different names for different types.  For example, some differentiate between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs and present both as sub-classes of multi-word verbs; some consider prepositional verbs to be a sub-class of phrasal verbs; and some use different terminology altogether. However, whatever the name, the concept of what we may neutrally call multi-word verbs is useful. It helps you see that there is a real difference in the meaning of the underlined words in:

 1. He looked up the stairwell in the old house.

2. He looked up ‘stairwell’ in the dictionary

 In #1, look is a verb with a meaning similar to turn one's eyes in a particular direction, and up is a preposition conveying the idea of to or in a higher position somewhere.  Each word can be used naturally with these meanings in thousands of other sentences, as for example:

1a. If you look carefully, you can just see the old house.

2a. She pushed the pram up the hill.

In #2, however, the words look and up together make up a unit with a meaning similar to seek information about; this meaning cannot easily be inferred from the core meaning of the two parts. A further difference between the sentences is that it is possible to re-position up in #2 but not in #1:

2b. He looked the word up in the dictionary.

1b. *He looked the stairwell up in the old house.

It is useful, therefore, to consider the two parts of the ‘unit’ of look up (=seek information about) as a single multi-word verb (called by some writers a phrasal verb). The name is not important, though understanding how the verb groups are used is. It is also important for you not to worry if examples such as look for are given different names by different writers,   For example, a phrasal verb, a prepositional verb or a verb followed by a preposition. Look for still means something like seek or try to find, whatever we call it, and #3 is always unacceptable:

3. *I have told Luke to look the missing file for.

In the following sections we examine the ways in which multi-word verbs are used. We shall see that the verbs fall into distinct types. For the sake of easy reference, each type has been given a name but, as noted above, the name is not important; what we are examining is how each type is used.

1. Types of Multi-word verbs

1.1. Verbs followed by a preposition

4. Emma went intothe room. (from, past, through, etc)

5. The cat got over the hedge (under, through, etc)

In both these sentences the word in bold is a preposition, and can be replaced by other prepositions such as those in brackets, changing the meaning of the sentence as the meaning of the preposition changes. The meaning of the underlined word, an intransitive verb, does not change. We are not dealing with multi-word verbs here, any more than we are with:

6. The cat sat on the mat.                    

7. I am in Prague.

The fact that some of these verb + preposition groups can be replaced by a nearly synonymous verb without a preposition (e.g., enter = go into) is irrelevant.

For verbs followed by a preposition two pattern are normally possible:

a. verb+preposition+noun object:                               6. The cat sat on the mat.        

b. verb+preposition+single pronoun object:               6a. The cat sat on it.

A third pattern is possible, but not common:

c. verb+preposition+pronoun object

coordinated with a noun or another pronoun:         6b. The cat sat on it and the table.

Two patterns are not possible:

d. verb+noun object+preposition:                               6c. *The cat sat the mat on.           

e. verb+pronoun object+preposition   :                       6d. *The cat sat it on.     

1.2. Prepositional verbs

Now consider these:                                                    

8. The manager went into the matter thoroughly.

9. She can't get over her shyness.

Here, the underlined word-pairs take on a meaning beyond the literal meanings of the original verb and preposition, (though it may be possible to see the meaning as metaphorical extensions of those literal meanings). It can be useful to consider such verb + preposition groups as multi-word verbs.  Some writers call this type of multi-word verbs (inseparable) phrasal verbs – inseparable because the two parts cannot be separated by their object; #8a and #9a are not possible:

8a. * The manager went the matter into thoroughly.

 9a. * She can't get her shyness over.

However, as they differ in usage from other types of 'phrasal verbs', and because they are used in the same patterns as verbs followed by a preposition (1.1 above) it is more useful to call them prepositional verbs.

Other verbs are extremely restricted in respect to the number of possible prepositions that can follow them. Some writers consider such verb + preposition groups as look at, look for, approve of, cope with as prepositional verbs, but it is more useful to consider them to be simply verbs which collocate frequently with specific prepositions. This is not important; the grammar of cope + with is the same whether we think of it as a prepositional verb or a verb followed by a preposition. (It is important, of course, that you to learn the appropriate preposition.)

By grammar we understand here the way in which the words can be used. For prepositional verbs the possible word order patterns are the same as for verbs followed by a preposition. Two are normal:

a. verb+preposition+noun object:                        8. The manager went into the matter thoroughly.                                 

b. verb+preposition+single pronoun object:        8b. The manager went into it thoroughly.                                

A third pattern is possible, but not common:

b. verb+preposition+pronoun object

coordinated with a noun or another pronoun:   8a. The manager went into it and other matters thoroughly.

Two word-order patterns are not possible:

d. verb+noun object+preposition:                       8d. *The manager went the matter into thoroughly.              

e. verb+pronoun object+preposition:               8e. *The manager went it into thoroughly.                                                 

1.3. Phrasal verbs

Now consider this sentence:     

10. The terrorists blew up the police headquarters.

Once again, the underlined word-pair takes on a meaning (explode) beyond the original dictionary definitions of its parts However, the word up is not being used as a preposition here, but as an adverb or, as some writers refer to a word used in this way, a particle. In this paper we use the term phrasal verb for such combinations of verb+adverb/particle. Others call them (separable) phrasal verbs - separable because the two parts can be separated by their object; #10a is possible:

10a. The terrorists blew the police headquartersup.

Some writers regard such groups as those italicised in #11 and #12 as phrasal verbs:

11. He put down his book.                                 11a. He put his book down.

12. You can throw away that old radio.               12a. You can throw that radio away.

However, verb and adverb/particle are used here with their core meanings, and there is little point in considering them as phrasal verbs. Once again, this is not important. Whether we think of them as phrasal verbs or as verbs plus adverb/particle, the grammar is the same.

For both phrasal verbs and verbs followed by a particle used transitively, i.e., with a direct object. three patterns are possible:

a. verb+particle+ noun object:10.  The terrorists blew up the police headquarters

11. He put down his book.

b. verb+noun object+particle:                         10a.   The terrorists blew the police headquarters up.

11a. He put his book down.

c. verb+ pronoun object+ particle                   10b.   The terrorist blewit up.   

11b. He put it and his glasses down.                                                           

A fourth pattern is possible, if not very common:

d. verb+particle+pronoun object coordinated

with a noun or another pronoun:                    10c The terrorists blew upit and the nearby mill.

11c. He put it and his glasses down.     

One pattern is not possible:

e. verb+particle+single pronoun object:         10d * The terrorists blew upit.

                                                                        11d * He put down it.    

Thus we have a difference in word-order patterns between what we have called prepositional verbs and verbs followed by a preposition on the one hand, and phrasal verbs and verbs followed by a particle/adverb on the other, as we can see on the following table:

Verb + Preposition

Verb + particle

√ He went into the room.

√ He went into it.

√ He went into it and other things.

* He went the room into.         

* He went it into.           

√ He put down the book.

* He put down it.

√ He put down it and his glasses

√ He put the book down.

√ He put it down.

Prepositional Verb

Phrasal Verb

√ She got over her illness.

√ She got over it.

√ She got over it and losing her job.

* She got her illness over.

* She got itover.

√ They blew up the house.

* They blew up it.

√ They blew up it and the nearby factory.

√ They blew the house up.

√ They blew it up.

With blow up in #10 we see the dangers of labeling combinations without taking context into consideration. In #10-10d it is used transitively (meaning explode), and it is used as a phrasal verb (so * he blew up it is not acceptable). However, we can use blow as a simple intransitive verb and follow it with the preposition up. Think of an organist testing for blockages in a pipe: he pursed his lips, he put them to the end of the pipe and

13. He blew up the pipe.

Here we have a simple verb blew (for which we could substitute other verbs such as called, shouted) and a preposition up (for which we could substitute other prepositions such as down, through). In this sense it is possible to say: he blew up it.

The phrasal verb blow up can itself be used intransitively (1.5, below).

1.4. Intransitive verbs followed by a particle/adverb.

14. as I opened the door, Mike walked past. (away, by, in. past, over, up, etc)

15. Margaret looked away, (down, round, up, etc)

In both these sentences the word in bold is a particle/adverb, and can be replaced by others such as those in brackets, changing the meaning of the sentence as the meaning of the particle/adverb changes. The meaning of the underlined word, the verb, does not change. We are not dealing with multi-word verbs here, though some writers class such verbs as the following as phrasal verbs;

bend over        come round                       fall over             get up/ away             go away

lie down          look up/down/round           sit down/up        stand up                   wake up

 Three patterns are possible:

a. Verb + particle:                                14a. As I opened the door, Mike walked past.

b. Verb + adverb of manner + particle:           14b. As I opened the door, Mike walked quickly past.

c. Verb + particle + adverb of manner:            14c. As I opened the door, Mike walked past quickly.

1.5. Intransitive phrasal verbs

Now consider this sentence:                               

16. We fell out over the incident.

Here, the italicised word-pair takes on a meaning (disagreed, argued) beyond the original dictionary definitions of the two parts. In this paper we use the term (intransitive) phrasal verb for such combinations of verb+adverb/particle.

Note that many phrasal verbs can be used both transitively and intransitively.

10. The terrorists blew up the police headquarters.

17. A passer-by was killed when the car blew up.

Two patterns are possible with intransitive phrasal verbs:

a. Verb + particle:                                           

18a. The plane took off.

b. Verb + particle + adverb of manner:          

18b. The plane took off slowly.

One pattern is not common:

c. Verb + adverb of manner+ particle:

18c. *The plane took slowly off.

Thus we have a difference in word-order patterns and intransitive phrasal verbs as we can see on the following table:

Intransitive verbs followed by a particle/adverb

Intransitive phrasal verbs

√ Mike walked past.

√ Mike walked quickly past.

√ Mike walked past quickly.

√ He The plane took off.

*The plane took slowly off.

√ The plane took off slowly.

1.6. Phrasal-prepositional verbs

These consist of a phrasal verb followed by a preposition.

19 He caught up with his brothers in Brno.        

Noun and pronoun objects must follow all three parts of phrasal-prepositional verbs, and the word order patterns are therefore:

Possible                         

Not Possible

√ He caught up with Jim (and us).    

√ He caught up with him.     

* He caught Jim (and us) up with.* He caught up Jim(and us) with.       

* He caught up Jim and us with.  * He caught Jim and us up with.       

* He caught him up with.            * He caught up him with.              

Once learners have mastered the basic idea of phrasal verbs, phrasal-prepositional verbs present few additional difficulties.

One problem is that learners sometimes do not find it easy to accept to as a preposition in such phrasal-prepositional verbs as look forward to, be/get used to, be/get accustomed to. A common mistake is:

20. * I look forward to see you.

Here, learners need to be aware that we are not dealing with the to-infinitive form to see, but with the phrasal prepositional verb look forward to, which is followed by a noun phrase (eg  your visit) or by a verb-noun form, traditionally known as the gerund (= verb + ING).

A second problem is that not all sentences containing a verb and two prepositions/ particles necessarily involve phrasal-prepositional verbs. They may contain multi-word prepositions see 2.1 below).

2. Further Problems

The preceding section has examined most of what teachers and learners need to know about how multi-word verbs are used. In section 2 we examine a number of further problems that can be encountered, usually with more advanced learners. These are often best dealt with as they arise, but beginning teachers need to be aware of them in order not to fall into the trap of misleading learners by giving incorrect explanations.

2.1. Multi-word prepositions

21. John sat next to his sister.

There is no multi-word verb here. Sat is the verb, and next to is a preposition consisting of two words; near-synonyms might be: by, alongside, beside.

Some common multi-word prepositions are:

ahead of           all over             apart from         away from        close by           close to           

In back of         in between        In front of          inside of           near to              next to             

on top of           out of                outside of         prior to up against         up to

2.2. Particles and prepositions occurring together

22. I hung the picture up in my room.

23. Andrea looked up from her book.

There are no phrasal-prepositional verbs here. In #22 and #23 we have what in this paper are considered as verbs collocating with an adverb/particle, hang up (here used transitively). and look up (here used intransitively), followed by a preposition + noun.  Some authorities may call hang up and look up phrasal verbs, but that does not change how they are used

2.3. An uncommon pattern

24. I shut George up when he began moaning about the conditions.

A number of phrasal verbs are not normally used with the 1.3. a. pattern verb + particle + noun object, unless the object consists of several words. Thus, #24a would be possible, though #24b is very unlikely.

24a. I shut up the representatives from the union.

24b. ? I shut up George.

Many of these verbs normally take a human object. Some more common verbs of this type are:

answer back                 brush off              call back             catch out          hear out

Invite in/out/over           play along          push around        stand up           tell apart

2.4. Which pattern?

Some verbs can be used in different patterns, sometimes with different meanings. We have already noted blow up:

10. The terrorists blew up the police headquarters.

Here, meaning explode, the verb is used transitively, with four possible word-order patterns (see section 1.3). The verb, still with the meaning of explode, can also be used intransitively (section 1.5):

17. A passer-by was killed when the car blew up.

With the pattern of an intransitive verb followed by a preposition (section 1.3), the two words have a literal meaning in:

13. He blew up the pipe.

The two words can be used with other meanings. The entry for blow up in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary reads:

blow up: 1 to explode, be destroyed by…  2 to start suddenly and with force.

blow sth…up: 1 to destroy sth by an explosion… 2. to fill sth with air or gas so that it becomes firm…

3 to make a photograph bigger… 4 to make sth more important, better, worse, etc than it really is…

blow up (at sb): get angry with sb

Phrasal verbs are no different from any other word or word-group in English in having different meanings and different possible word order patterns. The example of blow up has been given simply to illustrate the risks beginning teachers take if they introduce the expression with some such explanation as, “Blow up is a separable phrasal verb meaning explode.

2.5. Differences in British and American usage

British teachers using American materials and Americans using British materials should be aware that phrasal verbs can have very different meanings in the two dialects.

A British friend of mine was staying with an American colleague.  The American looked a little taken aback when my friend, after saying goodnight, asked him to knock her up at seven next morning. The expression on his face caused my friend to explain that she had no alarm clock and wanted him to knock on her door to wake her; the American was relieved that she had not been asking him to make her pregnant.

When working with materials from the other side of the Atlantic, it is a good idea to use a dictionary to check the meanings of what appear to be phrasal verbs.

Copyright © 2012

Written by Jed Webb for UsingEnglish.com

About the author:

I began teaching in 1967, and, apart from post-grad studies, have been teaching and writing ever since. I've taught French and Herman in British secondary schools and FE Colleges, and EFL at schools and universities in China, the Czech Republic, Estonia.,
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