The weekly column

Article 90, March 2002

Teaching English multi-word verbs is not a lost cause afterall

By Robert Wyss M.A.

EFL Learner needs

Phrasal verbs: the mere mention of this English lexical bugbear is enough to make the hair stand up on the backs of the necks of most well-meaning EFL learners. "If there's one thing I'll never understand about English, it's these awful multi-word verbs," many will readily confess. Yet a persistent desire to learn phrasal verbs and to incorporate them accurately into everyday verbal and written interchange is felt by all.

Why are phrasal verbs so difficult to learn?

Phrasal verbs have long presented a formidable obstacle on the road toward EFL learner fluency and there are good reasons for this.

It is probably true that children of English-speaking people learn phrasal verbs earlier than any other kind of verb, and that foreign learners seldom master them under current teaching conditions. The problem is fourfold:

  1. A verb of this type may have a meaning which is simply the sum of its parts, but may also have a meaning which bears little apparent relation to those parts.
  2. The particle may indicate some kind of direction but may just as easily have a meaning little related to direction.
  3. The same particle can serve as a preposition or adverb and a student can easily confuse these functions.
  4. There are so many phrasal verbs in modern English (and the number is constantly growing), they are so important in the spoken language, and they have so many shades of meaning that the student may despair of ever mastering this area of language (McArthur, Atkins: 1974).

The pedagogical problem is further compounded by the fact that in addition to the aforementioned semantic considerations, the learner is obliged to master syntactic variations such as transitivity and whether certain transitive multi-word verbs are separable (i.e, whether an item may be inserted between the verb and particle as in He picked it up).

Plagued by doubts about how and when to use multi-word verbs, EFL speakers generally tend to rely on the communicative strategy known as 'lexical avoidance' where an unfamiliar phrasal verb is required. In such circumstances learners whose mother tongue is a Romance language, such as French or Italian, will invariably opt for the Latin 'cognate' over the more complicated (i.e, truly Anglo-Saxon) multi-word verb. So, tolerate is favored over put up with, for instance.

Problems may arise when learners are required to comprehend such an apparently odd admixture of lexical items when such are communicated to them by someone else. In Italian, for instance, 'mettere su con' (= put up with) is an utterly meaningless verb + particles combination. So although there do exist a number of multi-word verbs whose meaning is more or less transparent, such as go out, fall down, and stand up, others such as put up with, look after, and carry on have meanings which cannot simply be understood as the sum of their parts.

A further difficulty is encountered with phrasal verbs which contain shades of meaning difference that are related to context and register. For example, a beginner-level EFL learner might resort to selecting exit instead of go out when responding to the question, 'Is Sue at home?' No, she's just exited, instead of No she's just gone out. Lacking the requisite phrasal verb, having seen exit signs at the cinema and having heard air hostesses instructing air passengers to exit by the rear of the plane, the learner will overgeneralize the multi-word verb (i.e, exit) to colloquial situations where the informal go out is really the accurate choice.

An alternative approach to teaching multi-words to EFL learner

Because random lists of multi-word verbs form the basis of presentation in most phrasal verb materials, EFL instructors often adopt the memorization-by-rote approach to teaching multi-word verbs. Learners memorize lists of target verb entries which have been compiled according to adverbial or prepositional particles (eg. 'up' = give up, look up, get up, ring up, do up, bring up, hold up, take up, etc). The problem, however, is that lexical items presented in lists without a relevant context fail to stimulate learner interest. In order to reinforce memory and sustain learner interest, learners need a meaningful contextual background with which they can associate target lexical items.

One practical solution when teaching multi-word verbs to intermediate-to-advanced level students lies in having learners deduce the meanings of phrasal verbs as they appear in reading passages. The teacher may select a newspaper or magazine article, for instance, which contains a number of relevant multi-word verbs. Learners are asked to identify all the phrasal verbs contained in the reading and make an educated guess as to their respective meanings based on the surrounding linguistic context in which the verbs appear. This allows learners to develop familiarity with the verbs at prime facie by guessing their meanings from the prose readings. This activity is rendered more interesting by having learners locate and deduce the meanings of any idiomatic expressions contained in the reading passage in addition to the multi-word verbs. Finally, a follow-up group discussion on the topic of the reading passage will elicit verbal use of the target phrasal verbs.

Multi-word verb typology

Learners will eventually begin to reflect on what exactly constitutes a phrasal verb. For example, does a verb + preposition combination represent a phrasal verb? Or must only verb + adverb combinations be considered true phrasal verbs? Why is go out considered a multi-word verb while go to is not? How important is it that learners develop the ability to precisely mark the distinction? Not very. As most learners are concerned with improving their EFL communicative skills, the actual spoken and written application of the correct verb overrides any of the more 'analytical' considerations.

Nonetheless, a few guidelines on understanding and classifying phrasal verbs should be considered by EFL instructors involved in teaching them. These typological clues provide useful 'rules' which help learners to know how and when to use the appropriate multi-word verb. Just knowing that nearly all phrasal verbs of movement contain a literal meaning can help begin the demystification process, to name but one example. It is astounding, given the obvious need for such instruction, that available phrasal verb teaching materials invariably fail to include such important guidelines.

Guidelines for cracking the phrasal verb code

The guidelines listed below may be used as a reference to simplifying the complicated process of 'cracking the phrasal verb code' and rendering multi-word verb pedagogy a more feasible endeavor both for EFL teachers as well as learners.

(a) Verbs of motion tend to be transparent (i.e, literal):

He went up to the top floor
The cat ran down the tree.
She walked out of the room.

(b) As mentioned earlier, multi-word verbs can be either opaque (i.e, idiomatic) or transparent (i.e, literal). Briefly, a phrasal verb may be said to be transparent if its meaning can be deduced by defining its individual parts. If it cannot, it is opaque.The following pairs illustrate the distinction.

opaque types:
The enemy gave up. (opaque = 'surrendered')
He called off the meeting. (opaque = 'cancelled')

transparent types:
The guests came in. (transparent = literal meaning)
She went out. (transparent = literal meaning).

(c) Verbs which are separable are those which, under certain conditions, may have an item inserted between the verb and particle. These conditions are as follows:

If the object of a separable phrasal verb is a noun, the particle may proceed or follow the noun. He picked the book up. OR He picked up the book.

If, however, the object is a pronoun, the particle must follow it.
He picked it up.

(d) With transitive phrasal verbs, there is a greater likelihood of the particle preceding the noun phrase if opaque (i.e, idiomatic).

They covered up the crime.
They covered the body up.

(e) It is useful to remember that although it is possible to decide in almost any sentence whether a particle is an adverb or a preposition, an important characteristic of many particles is that they can function as either. Though it is not always the case, most phrasal verbs are made up of a verb + adverb rather than a verb + preposition. Examples include'in' and 'up':

Sue sat in the chair. (preposition)
Sue came in. (adverb)
He climbed up the ladder. (preposition)
She got up early. (adverb).

(f) As mentioned earlier, the particle may be an adverb or a preposition. If there is an object pronoun, the adverb occurs after the pronoun and the preposition before it. This rule represents an important key to constructing correct word order when using phrasal verbs.

He ran it up. (the bill)
He ran up it. (the hill)


McArthur, Tom and Atkins, Beryl. (1974). Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs and Their Idioms. New York, NY: HarperCollins.


About the author

Robert Wyss is currently employed as Director of Studies at a language school in Milan, Italy. He has also taught several years at a Roman college preparatory school (Lyceo Classico Statale). His undergraduate degree is in Journalism/Anthropology and he has recently completed a Master of Arts Degree in Applied Linguistics from Ball State University, Muncie, IN, USA.

Questions or comments about this week's article? Why not post them on our Discussion Forum