What are phrasal verbs?


As teachers, most of us have already recognised the difficulties that students face with what are commonly referred to as ‘phrasal verbs’ (though for issues of accuracy I will call them ‘multi-word verbs’).

There are the multiple meanings:

He picked up his coat from the floor (pick up = to lift from somewhere)
He picked up a girl in a bar (pick up = meet and go home with)

The issue of separability:

He took his coat off v He took off his coat

Whether a direct object must be taken or not:

I woke up

And so on and so forth.

These issues often lead to learner avoidance. Students use this avoidance as a ‘coping strategy’ which we should respect, but in an attempt to help them further improve, I argue that it is more useful to find a way to make multi-word verbs accessible for our students.

With regards to meaning, sometimes this can be deciphered by looking at the individual parts of the multi-word verb. Parrott (2010) argues that by definition, multi-word verbs are not completely literal, but some are more literal than others (e.g. move away) and some are particularly difficult (e.g. She gave up smoking). While there are no clear cut rules for conveying all of these different meanings to students, we can help our students with the form of these multi-word-verbs.

In light of that, I have put together a cheat-sheet of the 4 most common types of multi-word verbs that can be used by students and by teachers who are still coming to grips with the complexities of the language.

Multi-word Verbs Cheat Sheet

Type 1: Phrasal Verb

Example: The plane took off.

  • This multi-word verb is intransitive, meaning it does not take a direct object (The plane took off him)
  • Consists of a main verb (take) + adverb (off)


Type 2: Prepositional verb (inseparable)

Example: I look after my sister on Tuesday evenings.

  • This kind of multi-word verb is transitive, meaning it needs a direct object (e.g. my sister)
  • Consists of a main verb (look) + preposition (after)
  • The direct object cannot go between the main verb and preposition: I look my sister after on Tuesday evenings


Type 3: Phrasal verb (separable)
Example: Can you drop the children off at school?

  • This kind of multi-word verb is transitive (it needs a direct object)
  • Consists of a main verb (drop) + adverb (off)
  •  Is separable (the direct object can go EITHER between the main verb and adverb, or after the adverb
  • If the direct object is a pronoun (e.g. them) it MUST go between the main verb and the adverb: Can you drop them off at school NOT Can you drop off them at school.

Type 4: Phrasal-prepositional verb (inseparable)
Example: You should go through with the wedding

  • This kind of multi-word verb is transitive (it needs a direct object)
  • Consists of a main verb (go) + adverb (through) + preposition (with)



There are other types of multi-word verbs, but these 4 types are the main ones taught in course books and the ones that can be clearly expressing in an accessible way to students. As teachers, you probably don’t want to dwell too much on whether the multi-word verb is a phrasal verb or a prepositional verb, or whether the word after the main verb is an adverb or a preposition. For accessibility, unless I am teaching particularly high level language learners, I call these constructions ‘multi-word’ verbs and the words after the main verb ‘particles’. But whatever you call them, be consistent and choose terms that will help your learners. Good luck!

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