Topic 22 – ‘Multi – word verbs’

Topic 22 – ‘Multi – word verbs’





1.1. Aims of the unit.

1.2. Notes on bibliography.


2.1. Linguistic levels involved in the notion of time reference.

2.2. On defining time reference: what and how.

2.3. Grammar categories involved: open vs. closed classes.


3.1.On defining the term ‘multi- word verbs’.

3.2.A classification of multi- word verbs.









1.1. Aims of the unit.

Unit 22 is primarily aimed to examine in English the notion of multi-word verbs . However, we shall also include in the study of these forms an analysis of their main structural features in terms of form and function in order to provide a relevant and detailed account of this issue despite the fact it is not stated in the original title.

Then, the study will be divided into eight chapters. Thus, Chapter 2 provides a theoretical framework for multi- word verb, first, by answering questions such as, first, which linguistic levels are involved in the notion of time reference; second, what it describes and how; and third, which grammar categories are involved in its description at a functional level.

Once we have set up the linguistic framework, we shall offer a general introduction to multi-word verb in Chapter 3 which shall include (1) a definition of multi-word verbs and (2) a classification of multi-word verbs, to be fully described in the subsequent chapters. Therefore, Chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7 will offer a descriptive account of the main structural features of multi-word verbs in terms of form and function at the level of everyday use regarding colloquial and formal speech and idiomatic expressions. Therefore, we shall namely follow morphological, phonological, syntactic and semantic guidelines.

Chapter 8 provides an educational framework for the structural features of multi-word verbs within our current school curriculum; Chapter 9 draws on a summary of all the points involved in this study; and finally, bibliography will be listed in alphabetical order.

1.2. Notes on bibliography.

In order to offer an insightful analysis and survey on multi- word verbs in English, we shall deal with the most relevant works in the field, both old and current, and in particular, influential grammar books which have assisted for years students of English as a foreign language in their study of grammar. For instance, a theoretical framework for this type of verbs is namely drawn from the field of sentence structures, that is, from the work of Flor Aarts and Jan Aarts (University of Nijmegen, Holland) in English Syntactic Structures (1988), whose material has been tested in the classroom and developed over a number of years; and that of Thomson & Martinet, A Practical English Grammar (1986).

Other classic references which offer an account of the most important and central grammatical constructions and categories in English regarding multi-word verbs, are Quirk & Greenbaum, A University Grammar of English (1973); Sánchez Benedito, Gramática

Inglesa (1975); and Quirk et al., A comprehensive grammar of the English language (1985). More current approaches to notional grammar on multi-word verbs are Sidney Greenbaum, The Oxford Reference Grammar (2000); Angela Downing and Philip Locke, A University Course in English Grammar (2002).


Before describing in detail the notion of multi- word verbs in English, it is relevant to establish first a theoretical framework for this type of verbs, since they must be described in grammatical terms. In fact, this introductory chapter aims at answering questions such as, first, which linguistic levels are involved in the notion of multi-word verbs; second, what it describes and how ; and third, which grammar categories are involved in its description at a functional level.

2.1. Linguistic levels involved in the notion of multi-word verbs.

In order to offer a linguistic description of the notion of multi-word verbs, we must confine it to particular levels of analysis so as to focus our attention on this particular aspect of language. Yet, although there is no consensus of opinion on the number of levels to be distinguished, the usual description of a language comprises four major components: phonology, grammar, lexicon, and semantics, out of which we get five major levels: phonological, morphological and syntactic, lexical, and semantic (Huddleston, 1988).

First, the phonology describes the sound level, that is, consonants, vowels, stress, intonation, and so on. Secondly, since the two most basic units of grammar are the word and the sentence, the component of grammar involves the morphological level (i.e. one- word vs. multi-word verbs) and the syntactic level (i.e. word order in the sentence). Third, the lexicon, or lexical level, lists vocabulary items, specifying how they are pronounced, how they behave grammatically, and what they mean.

Finally, another dimens ion between the study of linguistic form and the study of meaning is semantics, or the semantic level, to which all four of the major components are related. We must not forget that a linguistic description which ignores meaning is obviously incomplete, and in particular, when dealing with the notions of multi- word verbs or more commonly known as phrasal verbs where semantics plays a very important role at the time of distinguish them.

Therefore, we must point out that each of the linguistic levels discussed above has a corresponding component when analysing the notion under study. Thus, phonology deals with the accent, rhythm and intonation on verbs, prepositions and adverbs (i.e. I’m looking for a T-shirt); morphology deals with the verb structure (i.e. one-word vs. multi-word verbs); and syntax deals with which combinations of words constitute grammatical strings and which do not (i.e. NOT: Can I try on it? BUT Can I try it on?).

On the other hand, lexis deals with the expression of time reference regarding the choice between different types of prepositions (i.e. look at/after/into/like/for ) or adverbs (i.e. look forward to) and the use of specific prepositions with certain structures (i.e. get on with somebody/run out of petrol); and finally, semantics deals with meaning where syntactic and morphological levels do not tell the difference (i.e. I can’t put up with racism = I can’t tolerate racism).

2.2. On defining multi- word verbs: what and how.

On defining multi-word verbs, we must link this notion (what it is) to the grammar categories which express it (how it is showed). Actually, on answering What is it?, the term

‘multi-word verb’ is defined in opposition to the term ‘one-word verb’. In fact, both terms are drawn from the classification of lexical verbs into two types, where ‘one-word verbs’ consist of one single lexical item and multi-word verbs of at least two. It is from the latter that we get the notions that constitute the core of our study: phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, phrasal-preposit ional verbs and verb +noun+preposition/verb + adjective idioms. Regarding how multi- word verbs are realized, we must examine the grammar categories related to them, that is, open vs. closed classes which are fully examined in next section.

2.3. Grammar c ategories involved: open vs. closed classes.

So far, in order to confine the notion of multi- word verbs to particular grammatical categories, we must review first the difference between open and closed classes since multi- word verbs involve both. Yet, grammar categories in English can be divided into two major sets called open and closed classes. The open classes are verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs, and are said to be unrestricted since they allow the addition of new members to their membership, whereas the closed classes are the rest: prepositions, conjunctions, articles (definite and indefinite), numerals, pronouns, quantifiers and interjections, which belong to a restricted class since they do not allow the creation of new members.

Then, as we can see, when taking multi-word verbs to phrase and sentence level, we are dealing with both classes, for instance, open word classes, which mainly involve lexical verbs, along with open-class nouns, adjectives, and adverbs; and also with the category of closed classes, such as prepositions. Finally, it is worth noting that apart from grammatical categories, we may find other specific phrase structures, such as idiomatic expressions which are part of everyday speech (i.e. They turned up an hour later =arrived/S he made the story up=invented)


Therefore, we shall define multi-word verbs and then we shall establish a classification of multi- word verbs taking into account the internal and external features which shape them. For instance, the notions of transitivity vs. intransitivity, the possibility of pronoun/noun insertion, passivity, pronominal questions and adverbial questions. On defining the term‘multi-word verbs’.

3.1. On defining multi- word verbs.

Multi-word verbs are defined as a large group of verbs which consist of a basic verb + one or more particles, which can be prepositions (i.e. look after) or adverbs (i.e. look up). Other possible combinations are verb + adverb + preposition (i.e. look forward to) and a combination with nouns (i.e. take care of) and adjectives (i.e. set free). It is important to bear in mind that a multi-word verb (also called two-word verb or compound verb) is still a verb (i.e. get vs. get up), whose meaning may have little or no connection with the individual units that make it possible.

The possible combinations may have literal meaning, that is, can be predicted on the meaning of each element (i.e. apply for, break off, consent to, fill out, find out, live on, refer to) even if we do not take into account the preposition after it, whereas other combinations cannot be predicted because of each element (i.e. come down with, face up to, keep up with, look forward to, put up with, run away with) . On the contrary, they have fixed comb inations and have to be learnt as individual vocabulary items.

It is also important to distinguish whether a multi- word verb is transitive or intransitive, and this is achieved by means of the choice between adverb and preposition. For instance, ‘look at’ is transitive since an object is required after it (i.e. He was looking at his wife) whereas ‘look out’ is intransitive since it cannot have an object after it (i.e. Look out! A cat is crossing the road!). Hence, the preposition is followed by an object whereas the adverb is not. However, we may find some instances where the same multi- word verb may function as transitive and intransitive at the same time (i.e. take off: ‘Take off your shoes vs. The helicopter took off at midnight’).

3.2. A classification of multi-word verbs.

Following Quirk et al. (1985), multi-word verb combinations are realized by four main combination types: first, phrasal verbs (verb + adverb); second, prepositional verbs (verb + preposition); third, phrasal prepositional verbs (verb + adverb + preposition); and fourth, verb + noun + preposition or verb + adjective (+preposition). Each type will be fully described in next chapters individually, from the linguistic paradigms of form and function, that is, regarding morphological and phonological features (form) and syntactic and semantic features (function).


Phrasal verbs are formed by the structure ‘verb + adverb’, that is, combinations of a verb and a member of a closed set of adverbs, such as about, across, along, around, aside, away, back, by, down, forht, in, off, on, out, over and up, where the word stress is placed on the adverb and not on the verb (i.e. Chris called ‘up the seller” (phrasal verb) vs. “Chris ‘called on the seller” (prepositional verb), even if it is in final position (i.e. He call him ‘up).

With respect to this last example, we must address the syntactic function of multi-word verbs, whereby we must take into account the question of pronoun/noun insertion within the concepts of ‘transitivity’ and ‘intransitivity’ since phrasal verbs can be both. First of all, we shall point out that intransitive phrasal verbs do not take a direct object after them and, therefore, do not allow other elements in between (i.e. break down, come in/out/up/down/back, get up).

On the other hand, transitive phrasal verbs take a direct object after the particle and, therefore, they have the possibility of inserting nouns in between the verb and the particle, that is, pronouns to substitute nouns in object function (i.e. bring up, fill in/out, find out, put off, put on, ring up, among others). Following Quirk & Greenbaum (1973), “with most transitive phrasal verbs, the particle can either precede or follow the direct object (i.e. They turned on the light vs. They turned the light on) although it cannot precede personal pronouns (i.e. They turned it on but NOT: They turned on it). As we can see, the particle tends to precede the object if the object is long or if the intention is that the object should receive end – focus.

Phrasal verbs are generally defined as ‘non- literal’ since their meaning cannot be deduced by defining its individual parts (i.e. The enemy gave up/She took in her parents/They called off the meeting). However, some phrasal verbs have literal meaning and can be easily deduced from the sum of its individual parts (i.e. The guests came in/She went out/They found out the truth).


Prepositional verbs are formed by the structure ‘verb + preposition’ and are combinations of a verb + prepositions such as ‘at, in, on, for, about, etc’ (i.e. ask for, believe in, care for, deal with, live on, long for, object to, part with, refer to, write about among others). They are usually monotransitive and can take direct objects (i.e. He did not enlarge on this subject/Aren’t you listening to my advice?). As a rule the stress falls on the verb and the preposition is unstressed (i.e. “Why are you looking ‘up that word in the dictionary” (phrasal verb) vs. “Don’t ‘look at me!” (prepositional verb).

Regarding their syntactic function, it is again necessary to remember that they can be transitive or intransitive verbs and therefore, they allow other elements in between (i.e. take after, look like, go up, go down, get over). For instance, “the preposition in a prepositional verb must precede its complement. Hence, we can contrast the prepositional verb ‘call on’ (visit) with the phrasal verb ‘call up’ (summon). On the other hand, the prepositional verb allows an inserted adverb after the verb and a relative pronoun after the preposition (i.e. They called early on the man BUT NOT: They called early up the man/ The man on whom they called BUT NOT: The man up whom they called)” (Quirk & Greenbaum, 1973:349).

“In general, prepositional verbs, such as ‘call on’ or ‘look at’ + their prepositional complements differ from single-word verbs + prepositional phrases, as in ‘They called at the hotel’ and ‘They called after lunch’, in that they allow pronominal questions (with

‘who’ for personal noun phrases and ‘what’ for non-personal) but do not allow adverbial questions for the whole prepositional phrase”.

He adds that “many prepositional verbs allow the noun phrases to become the subject of a passive transformation of the sentence (i.e. They called on the man = The man was called on)”. However, “other prepositional verbs do not occur in the passive freely, but will do so under certain conditions, su as the presence of a particular modal (i.e. Visitors can’t walk over the lawn =The lawn can’t be walked over (by visitors).

The main semantic feature to be mentioned here is that meaning can be deduced from the sum of its individual parts (i.e. His son asked for pocket money)where the preposition may have an emphatic function on the verb (i.e. He objected to do that word). It is relevant to remember that some prepositional verbs may be highly idiomatic, for instance, ‘You must go into the problem’; ‘She has taken to drinking’; and so on.


Phrasal-prepositional verbs are formed by the structure ‘verb + adverb + preposition’, that are combinations of a verb + adverb + preposition. Note that the majority of them are non- transitive verbs (i.e. We do not get on with our neighbours; Do you go in for squash?). Alike prepositional verbs the stress falls on the adverb or the preposition, the verb being unstressed (i.e. I can’t put ‘up ‘with racism).

Regarding the syntactic functions of phrasal-prepositional,we can analyse them as transitive verbs with the following noun phrase as direct object as with prepositional verbs (i.e. put up with (your behaviour), cut down on (cigarettes), look forward to (the summer holidays), run away with (you), turn out for (a meeting). They may be transitive and intransitive but they do not allow other elements in between the verb and the particles in specific constructions. They can occur in the passive (i.e. Bad manners can’t be put up with for long) and may allow pronominal questions (i.e. What can’t they put up with?) but not adverbial questions.

Regarding their semantic features, we must say that “like phrasal and prepositional verbs, these multi-word verbs vary in their idiomaticity. Some, like ‘stay away from (=avoid), are easily understood from their individual elemtns, though often with figurative meaning (i.e. stand up for =support). Others are fused combinations, and it is difficult or impossible to assign meaning to any of the parts (i.e. put up with=tolerate). There are still others where there is a fusion of the verb with the first particle or where one or more of the elements may seem to retain some individual meaning. For instance, ‘put up with’ also means ‘stay with’, and in that sense ‘put up’ constitutes a unit by itself.

However, they may vary in their idiomaticity since verbs such as ‘stay away from my children’ or ‘I face up to everyday problems’ are easily understood from their individual elements whereas verbs such as ‘You always stand up for my ideas’ and ‘look forward to seeing you again’ have figurative or idiomatic meaning. Often, in other combinations it is difficult or impossible to assign meaning to any of the parts (i.e. She can’t put up with her husband manias).


Specific idiomatic constructions are drawn from the structures ‘verb + noun + preposition’ (i.e. catch sight of, keep track of) or ‘verb + adjective’ (i.e. cut short, wash clean, work loose) which cannot be modified nor can they become the subject of a passive sentence. Consider: ‘We caught sight of the plane’ vs. ‘We caught sudden sight of the plane’ where the former is the correct sentence because of its idiomaticity. Regarding the phonological features in specific idiomatic expressions, the stress falls on the noun after the verb, for instance, ‘You can take ‘advantage of your economic position).

Regarding the syntactic functions of these specific idiomatic constructions, they are considered to be transitive verbs with the following noun phrase as direct object as with prepositional verbs. Since they do not allow other elements in between the verb and the particles in specific constructions, they cannot occur in the passive (i.e. Active: They kept track of all his movements; Passive: Track was kept of all his movements – NOT).

Semantically speaking, they are considered then as indivisible units ha ving the function ofpredicator in the structure of the sentence” being this the main reason for multi-word verbs to be monotransitive (i.e. catch sight of, keep track of, take notice of, take advantage of, etc) but other similar verbs + noun + preposition sequences resemble them in that the constituent that follows them can become the subject of a passive sentence (i.e. His illness should have been made allowance for, He was last caught sight of disappearing in the river).


The different multi- word verbs dealt with in this study are so relevant to the learning of a foreign language since differences between the vocabulary related to multi-word verbs of the learner’s native language (L1) and that of the foreign language (L2) may lead to several problems, such as the incorrect use of their structures and that foreign learners seldom master them under current teaching conditions.

For instance, the most common mistakes for Spanish students, both at ESO and Bachillerato level, is to use incorrectly some phrasal verbs (i.e. When does he lunch? instead of When does he have lunch?). Often, they make serious grammatical mistakes. In the Spanish curriculum (B.O.E. 2002), the use of multi-word verbs is envisaged at all levels. For instance, in earlier stages of ESO the use of simple verbs is reflected in the use of everyday life or any other specific topic. (get up, have breakfast/lunch/dinner, get dressed, be good at, have fun, etc).

Up to higher stages of Bachillerato, we are dealing with more complex verbal forms, such as the co-occurrence of patterns, whereby idiomatic phrasal verbs may be substituted by synonyms (i.e. ‘die out=disappear’, ‘bring up=educate’, ‘turn down=refuse’, etc; prepositional verbs (i.e. depend on, believe in, speak to, agree with, etc); verb + noun+ preposition (i.e. take care of, give advice on, catch sight of, have control of, etc);verb + adjective (i.e. get asleep, get married, go blind); and above all, idiomatic expressions in certain multi-word verbs (i.e. to be fed up with, to get on with, to give on to, etc).

So, the importance of how to handle these multi-word verbs cannot be understated since it may cause important misunderstandings because of the relevant distinction of meaning between the different types and their structures. We must not forget that Spanish students are likely to use one-word verb rather than using multi- word verb structures (i.e. He stopped smoking vs. He gave up smoking), especially when they are idiomatic phrasal verbs and they do not handle their meaning.

Current communicative methods foster the ‘teaching’ of this kind of specific linguistic information to help students recognize the main differences with the L2 words. Learners cannot do it all on their own. Language learners, even 2nd year Bachillerato students, do not automatically recognize similiarities which seem obvious to teachers; learners need to have these associations brought to their attention.

Therefore, this study is mainly intended for teachers to help Spanish-speaking students establish a relative similarity between the two languages that would find it useful for communicating in the European framework we are living in nowadays. We hope students are able to understand the relevance of handling correctly the expressio n of multi-word verbs to successfully communicate in everyday life.


All in all, although the question ‘What is an multi-word verb?’ may appear simple and straightforward, it implies a broad description of the multi-word verb structure in terms of morphology, phonology, syntax, semantics and use which, combined, give way to the study we have presented here. The appropriate answer suitable for students and teachers, may be so simple if we are dealing with ESO students, using simple multi-word verbs or so complex if we are dealing with Bachillerato students, who must be able to handle more complex verb structures.

So far, in this study we have attempted to take a fairly broad view of multi-word verbs since we are also assuming that there is an intrinsic connexion between its learning and successful communication because of the importance of using them in colloquial speech. Yet, we have provided a descriptive account of Unit 22 dealing with Multi-word verbs whose main aim was to introduce the student to the different paradigms that shape the whole set of this specific type of verbal combinations in the English language.

In fact, the correct expression of multi-word verbs is currently considered to be a central element in communicative competence and in the acquisition of a second language since students must be able to use and distinguish these forms in their everyday life in many different situations.Therefore, it is a fact that students must be able to handle the four levels in communicative competence in order to be effectively and highly communicative in the classroom and in real life situations, now we are part of the European Union.

To sum up, we have attempted in this discussion to provide a broad account of multi-word verbs by means of form, function and use within verb phrase morphology, phonology, syntax, semantics and usage in order to set it up within the linguistic theory, going through the localization of multi-word verbs in syntactic structures, to a broad presentation of the main grammatical categories involved in its expression.


– Aarts, F., and J. Aarts. 1988. English Syntactic Structures. Functions & Categories in Sentence Analysis. Prentice Hall Europe.

– B.O.E. RD Nº 112/2002, de 13 de septiembre por el que se establece el currículo de la Educación Secundaria Obligatoria/Bachillerato en la Comunidad Autónoma de la Región de Murcia.

– Council of Europe (1998) Modern Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. A Common European Framework of refer ence.

– Greenbaum, S. 2000. The Oxford Reference Grammar . Edited by Edmund Weiner. Oxford University Press.

– Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leach, G., and J Svartvik. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. Longman.

– Sánchez Benedito, F. 1975. Gramática Inglesa. Editorial Alhambra.

– Thomson, A.J. and A.V. Martinet. 1986. A Practical English Grammar. Oxford University Press.

– Wyss, R. 2002. Teaching English multi-word verbs is not a lost cause afterall . Article 90, March 2002. The weekly column.