Helping Upper Intermediate learners come to grips with multi-word verbs by Sandra Bradwell

Knowledge of a wide range of idiomatic expressions, and the ability to use them appropriately in speech and writing, are among the distinguishing features of a native-like command of English.
Cowrie, A.P. and Makin, R.(1993:422) Oxford Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs

In communicative approaches to language teaching learners are generally exposed to multiword verbs ( ) from a very early stage in their learning. In any beginner course, learners describe their daily routine and are exposed to wake up, get up as lexical items. A lot of classroom language includes multiword verbs: listen out for the expressions, take out a pencil and paper, and in these early stages they do not cause many problems because they are relatively straight forward as their meaning is literal or the context in which they are used is very clearly understood. As learning continues learners meet more complex forms: get on with …, look forward to …, which they understand and can use in controlled situations but which they tend to avoid in freer situations. At First Certificate level, course books focus on 'phrasal verbs' in each unit. Different course books classify them in different ways. It is at this stage that confusion really sets in because both learners, and teachers, feel overwhelmed and decide that multiword verbs are impossible to understand and learn. This is a great pity because they are a common feature of informal spoken and written English and the distinguishing feature of an excellent command of the language. Learners who do make an effort to use them and manage to use them naturally have the edge on those who do not.

So why are they such a problematic area of L2 teaching?

The first problem is one of terminology for the teachers - deciding what exactly a 'phrasal verb' is. The many reference books can leave you feeling more perplexed than ever. All mention three basic combinations of verb, adverbial particle and preposition:

Verb + adverb
Verb + preposition
Verb + adverb + preposition

Some refer to six patterns, others to four types (see Appendix 1). Parrott classifies the intransitive verb + adverb and the transitive (separable) verb + adverb as 'phrasal verbs'. I have decided to refer to these, the prepositional and phrasal-prepositional verbs as multiword verbs as he does so as not to confuse students with too much jargon.

Rosamund Moon (1997:44) mentions three important criteria for helping distinguish multiword items from other lexical chunks, 'institutionalisation, fixedness and non-compositionality' (see Appendix 2). She explains 'the criteria are not absolutes but variables, and they are present in differing degrees in each multiword unit.' This points us to some of the problems facing learners. How are learners to know how 'conventionalised' items are within the language or how 'fixed' multiword verbs are or how 'literally' they can be interpreted?

On occasions verbs are freely interchangeable: phone up, ring up. Sometimes, the particle does not affect meaning: phone, can be used instead of phone up yet hang up, cut off are more fixed, the verb changes its meaning without the particle.

The idiomatic meanings of some verbs perplexes learners. The meanings may vary on a cline from transparent to very obscure: she's on the phone meaning she has got a phone is a lot more difficult for learners to grasp than she's on the phone meaning she's talking on the phone at the moment. Learners feel safer saying she hasn't got a phone which is more easily comprehensible.

Learners whose L1 has Latin-based items of vocabulary feel more confident using a single Latin-based verb in English than a multiword verb, even though the register may be inappropriate and too formal. Spanish learners prefer connect to put me through. Rosamund Moon (1997:46) comments 'phrasal verbs are motivated and not arbitrary combinations.. can be combined with the verbal use of most nouns which designate barriers: hence block off, …fence off and so on'. Richard Side also argues in favour of grouping multiword verbs according to the particle. It would seem obvious to do this where appropriate and relevant yet the logic of some particles is not always easy to explain, they have to be learnt as a set expression.

Particular syntactic features of multiword verbs cause further problems: some verbs are intransitive and others transitive; the transitive verbs are separable when followed by an adverb yet inseparable when followed by a preposition; the replacement of the object by 'it' can cause problems of positioning, for example I'm going to give it up (smoking) give up it is not acceptable yet I have to see to it (the garden) is acceptable yet see it to is not; the adverb receives full prominence in pronunciation, whereas the preposition does not, it is the verb or object which is prominent.

Furthermore, the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English mentions that multiword verbs make up 2% of conversation and 1% of academic prose and that the most common multiword verbs in conversation are formed from a limited range of verbs: take, get, put, come, go, set, turn, bring, look, work, know, hear, use, a limited number of adverbs, denoting location or direction up, out, on, in, off, down and prepositions, to, with, for, in, on, into, about, of, at, as . This fact should facilitate the teaching and learning of multiword verbs yet it does not.

Finally, although multiword verbs are common in informal spoken and written discourse, stylistically they differ, some being quite neutral phone up as ring, others very informal or jargonistic chuck away.

They are complex. Learners avoid using them because there is a lot of information for them to process.

What can we do to help learners?

Lewis (1993:17) has a very valid point when he says 'effective classrooms will involve working with natural language from the external 'real world', and using classroom procedures which will be as useful outside the classroom as in it.' This has implications for the way we select items, present them, raise learners awareness to features, practise and consolidate them, help learners with the recording of items and finally develop strategies to encourage learner autonomy.

Let us consider the selection of materials and the presentation stage. It is important to consider the relevance of topics for learners and even when using a course book, to adapt materials if necessary to suit the learners' needs. McCarthy (1990:87/89) 'Predicting what learners will need in the way of vocabulary is important in selecting what to teach.' We should consciously use varied resources to input language: video, songs, different texts, visuals, to cater for the variety of learner 'types' in class (see Appendix 3). As far as possible, it is important to present language in a natural, authentic context which reveals the 'real' use of the language in question, for example the multiword verbs in spoken conversation, fiction, songs or in popular news items. Nowadays, with the reference books and vast corpora available it is possible to check language use. This is especially important if Xiaolong's (1988) research, which concludes that there is a link between recalling words and the contexts in which they were learnt, is valid. Moreover, it is vitally important to arouse interest and personally involve learners in the topic or materials being used. As McCarthy (1990: 109) states 'new knowledge is most efficiently absorbed when it is assimilated to the already known and when the appropriate conceptual frameworks or schemata are activated in the mind of the learner.' This additionally (1990:110) 'can evoke in the learner the vital feeling of 'need' for a word to fit a meaning that has been activated in the mind.' By creating or filling a need, the possibilities of engaging with the materials and language are greater and more likely to be remembered. Topic-based materials rarely present only words which are topic-specific. Looking at the conversation I am using to introduce the multiword verbs, learners are exposed to a telephone conversation with many culturally specific features (in Spain "Tell me, I am …." is a typical response) as well as many useful set telephone expressions, in a reasonably natural conversation with discourse features of natural spoken language such as hesitation devices, fillers. It is recommendable to integrate and expose learners to these features.

Baker and McCarthy (1988:32) comment 'The more naturally MWUs (multiword units) are integrated into the syllabus, the less 'problematic' they are.' My course book does integrate a lot of multiword verbs into interesting texts, listening tasks and 'real life' sections as well as in wordspot sections (see Appendix 4). Students have no problems understanding them but are reticent about using them and I find I have to design rather controlled tasks, such as the activity in appendix 4 or board games to focus their attention specifically on these lexical items. Exposure is not enough.

Scott Thornbury (2002:125) argues against the traditional ways of presenting multiword verbs such as focusing on type, verb or topic grouping, stating that these ways can lead to confusion. However, I believe that a lexical set and clear context can aid memory and personal association. Being able to use the telephone is a very useful skill for most adult students of English, especially as English has such a central role in international business. Knowing typical multiword verbs associated with this context increases the chance of learners understanding and performing well. Moreover I have found some explanation of syntactic features can be beneficial to the analytical learners to help them notice items more easily. Since Easter, I have drawn learners' attention to the frequency of mulitword verbs in spoken English, to the fact that they can help them sound more natural and that in some contexts they are more appropriate than the more formal Latin-based items. We also looked at the syntactic features of the verbs to prepare learners for preparing the First Certificate exam next year. In pairs learners had a selection of verbs in context and after highlighting the verbs they looked for similarities and differences and decided on four types (Appendix 5). Since analysing the verb type, some learners have asked about multiword verbs occurring in texts or transcripts. In the near future we have a lot of work to do, especially in encouraging further awareness-raising activities and finding appropriate contexts for practice to build up confidence.

As teachers we can develop inference skills through activities in the classroom which practise these skills: looking at the items in context, looking at morphological clues, position of the object in the sentence, considering elements of pronunciation. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999:990) states 'producing natural, idiomatic English is not just a matter of constructing well-formed sentences, but of using well-tried lexical expressions in appropriate places'. For this to occur we should encourage learners to observe the features in natural contexts and engage them actively in looking for patterns and working out the meanings. By encouraging students to invest more emotional and intellectual effort in the working out of meaning, we achieve as Stevick (Nunan 1991:134) mentions a deeper 'level of processing' which can aid memory and recall. Scott Thornbury (2002:110) backs this idea up 'the more decisions the learner makes about a word, the greater the depth of processing'

For learners to feel comfortable using language they need an opportunity to practise it. From my experience repetition increases the likelihood of retention in memory. Initially this may mean drilling items intensively to help learners articulate the item but it is equally important to set up activities where the language can be drilled naturally in controlled situations. Lewis (1993:127) argues in favour of the 'lexical phrase drill' as an aid to acquisition. Multiword verbs should be drilled in a natural context 'chunk'. It is more effective to drill 'why don't you phone her up?' with the stress on why phone up and the linking of phone her up than to drill phone up alone. We have a wide range of games and activities at hand to recycle lexical items and practise them in a controlled way: dialogues, pictionary, blockbusters, noughts and crosses, board games. A low-anxiety fun environment facilitates production, increases confidence and aids memory. It also encourages learners to use procedural vocabulary and language of paraphrase to carry out the activities.

Another way in which we can help learners is by helping students organise vocabulary. We need to cater for different learner types and the complex processes involved in memory: grids, word roses, semantic maps to reflect word association, topic. Lewis (1993:123) stresses the 'powerful role recording formats play as a language learning technique.' I would insist that it is not only important to record items in a natural context, but also to highlight key features of pronunciation: prominence, linking, silent letters. These can help learners retain the sound of the chunk and encourage more natural production.

As vocabulary learning is such a vast area, encouraging learner autonomy is the most effective way of helping learners. They ultimately are the ones who decide what they need, what is useful, what to concentrate on. Teacher encouragement is essential: encouragement to reflect on and try out a variety of strategies and techniques for improving inferring skills (context, visuals, linguistic features) and memory (personalisation, vocabulary records, learner diaries); encouragement to actively use the expressions in oral activities in class or in homework assignments by using checklists, cue cards; encouragement to maximise resources outside class - videos, computers, radio, songs, newspapers, magazines, novels. Students should be aware that frequent exposure to items will aid memorisation, increase confidence and facilitate future use.

Gairns and Redman (1986:57) suggest allowing students to choose any vocabulary they like from a text and, within a time limit, to work on them using a dictionary. This encourages students to take a personal interest in items and helps them develop their needs in an organised way. Additionally it provides students with a very valuable tool for self study and learner autonomy. Certainly modern dictionaries provide detailed information about meanings, style, the syntactic features of multiword verbs and also about typical collocations and uses.


Most learners feel uncomfortable using multiword verbs yet it is their access to natural language. The focus on this language item should begin much earlier in the learning process. Learners should be encouraged to 'notice' that many verbs in spoken English are composed of a verb + particle(s) instead of the single verb item and they should be learnt as lexical items. If we can help learners perceive their use in natural stretches of discourse often enough, familiarity may lead to confidence and an attempt to experiment with them actively. It is not a question of using multiword verbs for the sake of it but trying to follow models of natural language use which highlight their frequency and usefulness.
Certainly those students who manage to incorporate these items into their linguistic repertoire sound more natural and become proficient speakers of English. If a period of time abroad can help learners, surely emphasis on them in the classroom can have the same effect.


Allen, V. 1983 Techniques in Teaching Vocabulary. Oxford University Press
Lewis, M. 1993 The Lexical Approach. Language Teaching Publications
McCarthy, M. 1990 Vocabulary. Oxford University Press
McCarthy, M. 1991 Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press
Nunan, D. 1991 Language Teaching Methodology. Longman
Richards, J. 1990 The Language Teaching Matrix. Cambridge University Press
Schmitt, N. 2000 Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press
Schmitt, N., McCarthy,M. 1997 Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge University Press
Taylor, L. 1990 Teaching and Learning Vocabulary Prentice Hall International
Thornbury, S. 1997 About Language. Cambridge University Press
Thornbury, S. 2002 how to Teach Vocabulary. Longman
Skehan, P., Bygate, M., Foster, P. in Willis, J. and Willis, D. 1996 Challenge and Change in Language Teaching. Macmillan Heinemann
Wilkins, D. 1972 Linguistics in Language Teaching. Edward Arnold

Side, R. 1990 Phrasal Verbs: sorting them out ELT Journal April 1990 Oxford University Press

Course materials
Bolitho, R., Tomlinson, B. 1995 Discover English. Heinemann

Reference Books
Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., Finegan, E. 1999 Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Longman
Parrott, M. 2000 Grammar for English Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press


Sandra Bradwell works in Madrid, running the Chester School of English.


Appendix 1

Jennifer Seidl 1990:8/9 - English Idioms Exercises on Phrasal Verbs


There are three basic combinations of verb, adverbial particle and preposition. These are:
Verb + particle
Verb + preposition
Verb + particle + preposition

In their Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English, A.P.Cowrie and R. Mackin present these combinations in a system of patterns, three intransitive (i.e. there is no direct object) and three transitive (i.e. there is a direct object).

This gives us six patterns:
1 Intransitive + particle
e.g. slow down, get on, take off

2 Intransitive + preposition
e.g. go off someone/something, count on someone/something

3 Intransitive + particle + preposition
e.g. put up with someone/something, come up against someone/something

4 Transitive + particle
e.g. pack something in, take someone off

5 Transitive + preposition
e.g. talk someone into something, turn someone off someone/something

6 Transitive + particle + preposition
e.g. put someone up to something, take someone up on something

Martin Parrott 2000: 109
Grammar for English Language Teachers

Main types of multiword verb

Learners are often taught that there are four 'types' of multiword verb:

Type 1 No object (intransitive) i.e. they don't take a direct object
We got up early. The plane took off.

Type 2 Object (transitive) inseparable i.e. they need a direct object and this can't go between the verb and the particle
She never asks me to look after the children (NOT .. never asks me to look her children after.)

Type 3 Object (transitive) separable i.e. they need a direct object and this can go between the verb and the particle
Can you put my parents up if they come?
Don't bring these problems up at the meeting.

Type 4 Object (transitive)with two particles (the particles are inseparable)
You should look up to teachers (NOT … look up teachers to)

Note: Teachers as well as learners generally find this degree of analysis sufficient for all practical purposes. However, sometimes multiword verbs are also known as and divided into phrasal and prepositional verbs, and the particles are described as adverbs or as prepositions. In this case types 1 and 3 multiword verbs are known as phrasal verbs and their particles are classified as adverbs. Type 2 multiword verbs are known as prepositional verbs and their particles are classified as prepositions. Type 4 multiword verbs are known as phrasal-prepositional verbs. The first particle is classified as an adverb and the second as a preposition.

Other types of multiword verbs

Not all multiword verbs fit neatly into one of these four categories.

Some verbs and particles have to be separated by an object, even if this is not a pronoun.
He knocked his children about (NOT He knocked about his children).

The object of some multiword verbs can only be it. We can't use other nouns, expressions or pronouns.
We both sulked for ages but in the end we had it out and now we've made it up.

Appendix 2

There are three important criteria which help distinguish holistic multi-word items from other kinds of strings. They are institutionalisation, fixedness, and non-compositionality:

Institutionalisation is the degree to which a multi-word item is conventionalised in the language: does it recur? Is it regularly considered by a language community as being a unit? Pawley (1986) discusses the process and fact of institutionalisation or, in his terms, 'lexicalisation'

Fixedness is the degree to which a multi-word item is frozen as a sequence of words. Does it inflect? Do its component words inflect in predictable or regular ways? For example, they rocked the boat and not they rock the boated or they rocked the boats. Similarly, does the item vary in any way, perhaps in its component lexis or word order? For example, another kettle of fish and a different kettle of fish are alternative forms, but on the other hand is not varied to on another hand or on a different hand.

Non-compositionality is the degree to which a multi-word item cannot be interpreted on a word-by-word basis, but has a specialised unitary meaning. This is typically associated with semantic non-compositionality: for example when someone kicks the bucket (i.e. 'dies') they are not actually doing anything to a receptacle with their foot, and cats' eyes (luminous glass beads set into the road surface to guide drivers) in British English, are not in any degree biological. However, non-compositionality can also relate to grammar or pragmatic function. For example, of course is non-compositional because it is ungrammatical, and the imperative valediction Take care! can be said to be non-compositional because of its extralinguistic situational function or 'pragmatic specialisation'.

Appendix 3

Nunan, D. (1991:170) - Learner types and their preferences:

Type 1: 'concrete' learners. These learners tend to like games, pictures, films, video, using cassettes, talking in pairs and practising English outside class.

Type 2: 'analytical' learners. These learners liked studying grammar, studying English books and reading newspapers, studying alone, finding their own mistakes and working on problems set by the teacher.

Type 3: 'communicative' learners. These students like to learn by watching, listening to native speakers, talking to friends in English and watching television in English, using English out of class in shops, trains, etc., learning new words by hearing them, and learning by conversations.

Type 4: 'authority-oriented' learners. These learners preferred the teacher to explain everything, liked to have their own textbook, to write everything in a notebook, to study grammar, learn by reading, and learn new words by seeing them.

Appendix 4

The course book I am using has a wordspot focus that draws learners' attention to different lexical items, sometimes to different phrases of verbs such as get, mind or particles such as over, up. They are always presented as a spider graph with some follow up activity (see below). They present a lot of very useful expressions, 'phrasal verbs' included. However, it is very difficult to present this language as it is in the book because there is an information overload. I have tried different activities to exploit this very useful bank of expressions, asking learners to look at the items as a homework task before working with them in class or using the expressions in question form as a speaking activity at the beginning of the class (see activity below) to familiarise students with the expressions frequently over a period of time. The latter exercise has led to increased learner interest in the expressions with some 'keen' learners even trying to use the expressions outside the initial context of the speaking activity because they were using them to relate personal experiences. If we want learners to use multiword verbs confidently and effectively, we need to draw their attention to them in a meaningful context, provide opportunities for using them and actively encourage their use.


Do you get on well with all members of your family?

To get on well with someone
To have a good relationship with someone (friends/family)

How long did it take to get to know your best friend?

To get to know someone
the process of knowing someone well

When did you last get your hair cut?

To get one's hair cut (more informal than have your hair cut)
To go to the hairdresser's and have your hair cut

How many presents did you get for Christmas?

To get a present
To receive presents

Did you get in touch with anybody special at Christmas?

To get in touch with someone
To contact someone (friends/family)

When was the last time you got your photo taken?

To get one's photo taken (more informal than have your photo taken)
To have one's photo taken

Did you get any surprises at Christmas?

To get a surprise
To receive a surprise, something unexpected

Have you ever seen anybody stopped for going over the speed limit?

To go over the speed limit
To drive faster than 120 km/hour on the motorway

Do you remember vocabulary by saying it over and over again?

Over and over again
To repeat something several times

Do things often slip your mind?

something slips your mind
You forget it

What's the best thing to cope with problems?

To cope with problems
To deal with/ respond to problems

Have you given up anything as a New Year's resolution?

To give up something
To stop doing something (a bad habit/ smoking/ eating chocolate)

What have you been up to over the Christmas holidays?

To be up to something (informal)
To do something

What's the most important thing you've done over the last decade?

Over the last decade
In the last ten years

Do you usually speak your mind?

To speak your mind
To say what you really think

Would you mind lending me a pen?

Would you mind ___ing ?
Very polite way of asking for something. Usual answer NOT AT ALL

How long does it take you to tidy up your room?

To tidy up - to clean, order completely

Have you given up anything in the New Year?

To give up something - to stop doing something

Do you think prices have gone up since the change over to the Euro?

To go up - to increase

What time were you up on New Year's Day?

To be up - not in bed

What were you up to at the weekend?

To be up to - doing : What were you doing?

If you had a bottle of champagne, would you drink it all up?

To drink up - to drink it all, to drink it completely.

Would you walk up to a handsome man and invite him out?
beautiful woman her

To walk up to - to approach, to walk towards

Are the computer programmes you use up-to-date?

To be up-to-date - to be modern

Appendix 5

Type 1 Type 2
Verb + adverb
Cannot be separated. No object.
In passive, stress on adverb
Verb + adverb + object
Verb + object + adverb
Verb + pronoun + adverb
In passive, stress on adverb
Type 3 Type 4
Verb + preposition + object
Verb and preposition cannot be separated
In passive, stress on the verb
Verb + adverb + preposition + object
Verb and particles are not usually separated

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