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Concourse 2

Multi-word verbs (MWVs)

breaking in

Note: if this area is fully new to you, you may like to work through the essential guide to MWVs first (new tab).

If you are coming to this guide for the first time, you may want to work through it from top to bottom.  It is quite a long guide with a number of sections so, if you are returning for a second or third look, here's an index of the sections.

Types of analysis 9 tests for MWVs Adverb or preposition? Warning: poor analysis Definitions summaries Clause constituents Categorical indeterminacy
Triple nature of MWVs Phrasal or prepositional? Prepositional verbs Phrasal verbs Transitivity and separability Inseparable phrasal verbs Intransitive phrasal verbs
Phrasal-prepositional verbs Passives with MWVs The meaning of particles Polysemy and style Summary diagrams Pronunciation Word formation

At the end of each section, you can click on -top- to return to this menu, simply read on, scroll back or bookmark the page for another time.


Definitions and types of analyses

What follows is one way of analysing multi-word verbs.
There are other ways to do the analysis which are summarised here.

  1. One analysis recognises a word class called particles which are neither adverbs nor prepositions (although they look like them).  Particles are function words, like conjunctions, prepositions etc., which have no lexical meaning in themselves and need to combine with other words to make any meaning.  For example, on standing alone means nothing but in a phrase such as get on the bus, it forms part of a prepositional phrase which modifies how we understand the verb get.  And no, in this sense the combination of get plus on is not a phrasal or even a multi-word verb.
    It really doesn't matter too much for teaching purposes whether you use the term 'particle', 'preposition' or 'adverb'.  Here, we'll use the adverb-preposition distinction, reserving the term 'particle' for either of them.  We will not follow this sort of analysis because, for teaching purposes, it is too vague a definition and disguises many differences in the ordering of the constituents of a clause which are important as well as leaving the nature of adverbs, adverb particles and prepositions unclear.
    It also leads to a situation in which virtually any adverb following a verb may be classed as a phrasal verb and that, in its turn, leads to an unacceptable learning load.  It is perfectly possible to understand, e.g.:
        She got on the bus
    by analogy with
        She put it on the table
    because in both cases, the particle on is acting as a preposition of movement to a place above ground level.  And, naturally enough, get off carries the opposite meaning.
  2. In other analyses of multi-word verbs, you will discover that all of them are lumped together as 'phrasal verbs'.  This is not the approach taken here but it makes some kind of sense – multi-word verbs are, by definition, phrases, so why not call them by that name?  Analyses which take this line may distinguish between particle verbs, prepositional verbs and particle-prepositional verbs.  Roughly speaking, these categories are similar to the ones used here.
    We will not be using this analysis either because the distinction between an adverb particle and a prepositional particle is necessary for teaching purposes in order that the major patterns can be discerned and taught independently.
  3. A now slightly unfashionable analysis is to call all verb + particle structures phrasal verbs (whether the particle is an adverb or a preposition) and then to divide them into four types.  This is the approach taken in many course books and can be helpful in the classroom but we will not be using this analysis here because it overcomplicates the issues.  The four types, incidentally, are:
    1. Type 1: intransitive phrasal verbs consisting of a verb plus an adverb particle such as Come on!
    2. Type 2: transitive separable phrasal verbs consisting of a verb + a preposition or adverb such as Put it away!
    3. Type 3: transitive non-separable phrasal verbs consisting of verb + a preposition such as Look after the children!
    4. Type 4: verbs containing two or more particles, the first an adverb and the second a preposition such as Stick up for him

There are sound reasons for using any of these three ways of classifying and analysing multi-word verbs and you should use the one that makes the most sense to you.  However, this analysis will use three categories of multi-word verbs and discuss them individually.  These categories are:

  1. Phrasal verbs which contain a verb plus an adverb such as cut up.  In this analysis, these verbs are separable, if they are transitive, so one can have
        I cut it up
        I cut up the tree
        I cut the tree up
    but not
        I cut up it
  2. Prepositional verbs which contain a verb plus a dependent preposition such as rely on and which are not separable, the object always following the preposition, so one can have
        I relied on her help
        I relied on it
    but not
        *I relied her help on
        *I relied it on
  3. Phrasal-prepositional verbs which contain a verb followed by an adverb and a preposition are a subset of prepositional verbs.  These are also inseparable so we can have:
        He lived up to his name
    but not
        *He lived his name up to
        *He lived up his name to

This analysis leaves an indeterminate class of multi-word verbs: those which are inseparable but which are variably opaque in meaning and often quite idiomatic such as care for, look after or go without.  In this category we can have:
    He cared for his patients
    He cared for them
but not
    *He cared his patients for
    *He cared them for.
In what follows this, we analyse these verbs in the same way that it we analyse prepositional verbs (category ii. above) because they follow the same patterns in terms of grammatical structure (i.e., they are not separable and the object follows the particle).  For teaching purposes, therefore, they can be dealt with in the same way and should not form a separate category (usually referred to as intransitive phrasal verbs) because that simply muddies the water and overloads learners.
The argument here is that they are simply another set of prepositional verbs which often have slightly figurative or metaphorical uses of prepositions.  When the particle is an adverb, combining with the verb to form a distinctly new meaning, they will be referred to as phrasal verbs.

Here's a summary of the four main ways of analysing this area of English.  You will encounter all of them at some time, probably, so need to decide which to follow.  Mixing them up is a recipe for confusion.  What follows adheres to Analysis #4.




Distinguishing between adverb particles and prepositions

This is the first thing we need to do because we can't begin to analyse multi-word verbs until the distinction between a particle as a preposition and a particle as an adverb is clear.
The immediate problem is that nearly all the words can function as both adverbs and prepositions, depending on the grammar.
There's a test.  To see it work, consider this sentence:

John is standing in for me

Prepositions in black, adverbs in red in what follows.

take a complement (not, in this analysis, an object although that is a legitimate description).
The word for is a preposition because it has a complement, me, which can be altered without changing the sense of the verb.  So, we can have for Mary, for the moment, for the time being, for the boss of the company and so on.
do not take a complement.  In the clause above, in is an adverb, not a preposition.
If we give it a complement such as the house, the water, the garden etc., it will be a preposition and the meaning will alter.
For example, the sentence
    He is standing in the garden
clearly contains the preposition in.  It is not a phrasal verb or even a multi-word verb.
If you change the particle when it really is an adverb, however, the verb meaning changes.  So we can have
    He is standing
up for her
meaning support or back someone.  We can also use for as an adverb as in
    I won't stand for his behaviour
and that is a different verb with a completely different meaning (tolerate).

Please be careful

The title of this section includes the term 'adverb particles' rather than 'adverbs' for a good reason.
We should be careful to distinguish between an adverb particle as part of a phrasal verb and a one-word adverb functioning to modify the verb.  For example, the clause:
    He looked me up
contains the adverb particle up and is a phrasal verb because changing the particle to, say, down, away, in etc. creates nonsense.  In fact, the verb alone is intransitive so:
    He looked
is meaningless unless what he looked at or for is clear.
When it is a phrasal verb, as in the first example, it is transitive and means either visited or found in a reference text.
It is not possible to omit the particle and retain the verb's meaning.
We can, of course, have
    He looked me over suspiciously
and, by changing the adverb particle, we have changed the sense of the verb.

However, in the clause:
    He rang me back
the situation is not so clear cut because a number of other one-word adverbs could be inserted instead of back, without altering the meaning of the verb ring at all so we can have
    He rang me soon
    He rang me again
    He rang me yesterday
    He rang me frequently

We can also have:
    He rang me
with no adverb and an unaltered sense of the verb.
With a phrasal verb proper, omitting the particle is usually not possible so, for example:
    He looked up the word in a dictionary
cannot be rendered as
    *He looked the word in a dictionary
because it is the combination of the verb and the adverb which supplies the meaning.  The adverb up does not modify the verb, in other words, it contributes to the meaning of the whole phrase.  That is why it is called a phrasal verb.

So, by this analysis, the phrase ring back (or call back) does not constitute a phrasal verb as such although it may be treated that way in many course books, internet-derived lists and classrooms.
Assuming always that single-word adverbs must be parts of phrasal verbs is unhelpful because it adds an additional learning load which is simply not necessary.  You do not need to learn
    call back
    text back
    ring back
    write back
    talk back
    shout back
    email back
    phone back

and so on as phrasal verbs once the meaning of the adverb back has been learned.  They aren't phrasal verbs at all because the sense of the verb is being modified but not fundamentally altered by the adverb.  In all cases, the particle can be omitted without creating nonsense.

Combinations which are transparent in meaning of a verb with an adverb are sometimes referred to as transparent phrasal verbs and there is some value in doing so as the combinations often act grammatically in the same way as phrasal verbs proper.  For example, they are variably transitive and almost always separable.
However, to consider all examples of transparent meaning combinations of verbs and adverbs as phrasal verbs adds an enormous and wholly unnecessary learning load.
If learners understand the meaning of the verb and the meaning of the adverb particle, there is no need to burden them with the need to learn the combination as a language chunk.
For example:
    I took my pen out
merely requires one to understand the prototypical meaning of the adverb out (from the inside to the outside).  Suggesting that take out is a phrasal verb in this case is unnecessary.
Even if we accept that transparent phrasal verbs are phrasal verbs at all, rather than just verbs modified by adverbs, there is no need to mystify them and certainly no need to require learners to learn each one separately.


Modification vs. integration

So, to summarise, we need to distinguish between:

  1. Adverb modification:
    In which the adverb serves to say how the speaker / writer perceives the verb operating and that includes, for example:
        He came back
        She went there
        The car drove past
        She came quickly over the road
        They went happily to the beach
        The car drove noisily up the hill

    In these cases, the adverb is mobile so we allow, for example:
        The car drove up the hill noisily
        She quickly came over the road
        Back he came

    and so on.
    In other words, the constituents of the clause are:
        Subject noun phrase (he, she, the car etc.)
        Verb phrase (came, went, drove etc.)
        Adverbial or adverb phrase (back, there, past, quickly etc.)

    and we can go on adding adverbial phrases of one kind or another virtually indefinitely.
  2. Adverb integration
    In which the adverb functions as part of a verb's meaning and that includes, for example:
        The car wore out
        They talked her round
        She broke it down to make it simple
        I get up at 9
        He came to in hospital
        The boss put off her meeting
    In these cases, when the verb is transitive, the adverb may be separated from the verb by the object so we allow, e.g.:
        The boss put her meeting off
        The boss put it off

        The boss put off her meeting
    but we do not allow:
        *The boss put off it
    because a defining characteristic of separable phrasal verbs is that any object pronoun must come between the verb and the adverb particle.
    In other words, the constituents of the clause are:
        Subject noun phrase (the car, they, she etc.)
        Verb phrase (wore out, talked round, broke down, get up etc.)
        Object noun phrase (
    it, her meeting)
    and we can go on adding adverbial phrases of one kind or another virtually indefinitely to arrive at, for example:
            The boss put off her meeting yesterday afternoon to her great disappointment because he thought ...

To see if you have understood the distinction between adverbs and prepositions, analyse the following examples, identifying the bits which are adverbs and which are prepositions.  Then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

He pulled off the trick
eye open
Here, off is an adverb.
If you change it, you change the meaning of the verb:
    *He pulled through the trick
    *He pulled up the trick

By our definition, this is a transitive phrasal verb with the object the trick and it means succeed in doing something.
The prototypical meaning of the verb pull (something like drag or tow) does not include the sense of success, of course so the phrasal verb is quite opaque in meaning.
He opened up to her about what was worrying him
eye open
Here we have two bits to consider, up and to.
Changing up will alter the meaning of the verb or make it nonsense.
The word to takes a complement, her, and the whole phrase can be substituted or even omitted.  So we can have, e.g.:
    He opened up to the group about what was worrying him
    He opened up with me because I'm his friend
in which we have changed the preposition but kept the adverb intact.
We can also just say:
    He finally opened up
retaining the meaning of open up.
So, in this example, up is an adverb and to is a preposition.
Phrasal verbs are often followed by prepositional phrases and it is important to identify where the verb stops and the prepositional phrase begins.
In this case the verb open has retained its prototypical meaning of expose or make unclosed but it is used metaphorically when it combines with the adverb up.
The verb can be used with a prepositional phrase as in, e.g.:
    The house is open to the public
They moved on to the next item on the agenda
eye open
Here we also have two bits to consider, on and to.
You can't change on without changing the meaning, if only slightly:
    They moved along
    They moved away
but you can change the prepositional phrase with to to something else such as:
    They moved on by considering the last item
So, on is an adverb and to is a preposition.
(Incidentally, the confusion between onto (a single-word preposition) and on to (an adverb particle and a preposition) is solved by this analysis.  The words can only be combined when they are both prepositional.)
She's has difficulty getting up these days
eye open
Here there's only up to consider.
Change it and the meaning alters dramatically, e.g.:
    She has difficulty getting about these days.
So, up is an adverb and the verb itself is an intransitive phrasal verb.
The meaning is, however, at least semi-transparent if one understands the usual meaning of the adverb up.
The problem with the verb get is a separate issue because it is notoriously polysemous, having a range of connected but distinct meanings.  Here, it carries the very common meaning of move one's position so it also appears in:
    Get on
    Get out

(both verb + adverb)
and in
    Get off the bus
    Get away from the fire

(both verb + prepositional phrase)
They complained about the service
eye open
Here, again, we only have one item, about.
It's a preposition because it takes the complement the service, and the whole prepositional phrase is the complement of the verb complain.  The verb complain + about is a prepositional, not phrasal, verb.
The service is the not object of the verb, it is the complement or object of the preposition about because complain is intransitive.  When used with no complement, the preposition is dropped, so we get, for example:
    I complained loudly
We can change the preposition but the meaning of complain is unaltered:
    They complained to the manager
    They complained at reception
and we can drop the prepositional phrase altogether and have just:
    She complained
To repeat a little, the preposition may change without altering the meaning of the verb:
    She complained of a pain in her back
This, therefore, is a verb with a dependent preposition or, in this analysis, a prepositional verb, not a phrasal verb.


move on

Moving on ...

In this analysis, there are 3 sorts of multi-word verbs: phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs and phrasal-prepositional verbs.  Before we investigate the difference, we need to recognise a true multi-word verb.  Consider these two sentences and identify the true MWV.  Click here when you've done that.

  1. He turned down the lane
  2. He turned down the offer


Nine other tests for MWVs

There are other tests, none decisive on its own:


Does replacing the particle change the meaning of the verb?

This is actually a test not for any multi-word verb but for phrasal verbs in particular.  There's a good deal more about how to distinguish between a prepositional verb and a phrasal verb below.  For now, this example will do:
If we replace the particle in a sentence such as:
    She ran back
and change it to
    She ran ahead
    She ran about
it is clear that the meaning of the verb is unchanged.  It means go quickly on foot in all three sentences.
However, if we try the same trick with a sentence such as:
    She turned up later
and change it to
    She turned away later
    She turned aside later
it is clear that in the first sentence the verb, turn up, means arrive but in the others it means something much more literal (change attitude).  The verb's meaning contains the sense of the particle in the first sentence but not in the other sentences.
So, the verb turn up passes this test for a multi-word verb.  It is, in fact, and intransitive phrasal verb.  The expressions turn away and turn aside are not multi-word verbs; they are simply verbs modified by a following one-word adverb phrase.

Incidentally, Henry Sweet (1845-1912) referred to verbs whose parts combined to make a new and distinct meaning (such as turn up in our example) as group verbs because the meaning depended on the grouping rather than the individual constituents.  That definition has rather fallen out of fashion so we won't be using it here.  It remains, however, a useful distinction to draw.


Can you make a passive?

You can't say
    *The lane was turned down
but you can say
    The offer was turned down
You often cannot make a passive with prepositional phrases but you can with many transitive phrasal verbs.
Here's another example:
We can have either:
    She looked up the word
    The word was looked up
because the verb is look up.
However, it is often much more questionable when we try to make a passive form with a verb plus a prepositional phrase so, while:
    She looked up the chimney
is the active form, many would not accept:
    ?The chimney was looked up
This is not, however, a particularly firm rule because some prepositional phrases can be manipulated in this way and we might allow, e.g.:
    The house was driven past
although that is an unusual form to encounter.


Can you stress the particle or use a weak form?

    He came to the meeting
    He came to after a while
In the first, to is often pronounced as /tə/, in the second, the particle is usually pronounced in its full form /tuː/.
We can and often do pronounce adverb particles in their full form.
Compare, too:
    He got on the bus
    They got on well together

and you'll hear that in the first case, on is not stressed and in the second, it is.  This is because in the first example, on is just a preposition of movement to a higher place but in the second, it is an adverb which affects the meaning of get and is part of an intransitive phrasal verb.


Can you move the complement phrase around?

You can say
    Down the lane he turned
but not
    *Down the offer he turned
Moving a prepositional phrase is possible for effect (marking it for special emphasis, usually) but moving an adverb particle usually results in nonsense.
We can also allow, e.g.:
    Over the hills they marched
but not:
    *Over the figures he went.
A common device in English to move a phrase for a special or marked meaning is to create a cleft sentence and that will result in:
    It was down the lane that he turned
but that is not an available option with a phrasal verb because it results in the ungrammatical:
    *It was down the offer that he turned.
We can also have, for example:
    About her new job, she spoke for hours
    In French she spoke more slowly
but not:
    *Over the idea they spoke
and this reveals that talk about and talk in are verbs followed by prepositional phrases but talk over is a true phrasal verb in which the verb and the particle combine to make a new meaning (discuss).


Does the question ask what or who or where, how, the subject or when?

There are really two questions here:

  1. If it's answering what or who it's a true MWV.  For example:
        What did she knock down → She knocked down the old shed
        Who did she cut off? → She cut off the caller
        What did she look up? → She looked up the word 'silage'
        Who looked up the words? → She did
    are examples of a true MWVs.
  2. Prepositional phrases refer to where, how, the subject and when:
        Where did he arrive? → He arrived at the hotel
        When did he arrive?He arrived at 6 o'clock
        Where did she look? → Up the chimney
        When did they go? → After the end of the play

        What did she talk about? → Her new job
        What language did speak? → She spoke in French

    so, arrive at, look up, talk about, talk in and go after in these sentences are not MWVs but verbs followed by prepositional phrases which can be replaced by, e.g.:
        at 6 o'clock
        in the garden
        by the early afternoon

Functionally, items which tell us where or when are acting as circumstances but those which tell us who or what are acting as participants in the clause.
Circumstances can be omitted, participants cannot.


What exactly is the question?

If we ask the question which elicits:
    down the lane
as the answer, it is clear we are dealing with a prepositional phrase because the question will be
    Where did she turn?
On the other hand, we cannot discover a question which will evince:
    down the offer
    What did she turn?
does not work.
We can, however, ask:
    What did she turn down?
and that will evince the answer:
    the offer.
If the question contains both the verb and its associated particle, we are dealing with a single meaning so it's a multi-word verb.


Can you insert an adverb phrase or adverbial?

You can say
    He turned immediately down the lane
but not
    *He turned immediately down the offer
Inserting an adverb before a prepositional phrase is commonplace.  Doing it to an adverb particle usually results in non- or questionable English.  You can, of course, put an adverb after the object of a phrasal verb as in
    He turned down the offer immediately
and you can put one before the verb as in
    He immediately turned down the offer
If you cannot naturally split the particle from the verb with an adverb, you are dealing with a multi-word verb.
(There are a very limited number of adverbs which can modify the adverb particle of a phrasal verb so we can allow, for example:
    She hit right on the solution
    The anaesthetic has worn well off
but this rare.)


Can we discover a one-word alternative?

This is a test which cannot always be applied because for some phrasal verbs no single-word alternative exists.  For most, however, there is a single verb which can replace both the verb and its adverb particle and if there is, we are probably dealing with a phrasal verb.  For example, with:
    She turned into the driveway
it is not possible to find a one-word alternative to the underlined section of the sentence.  We can replace the first part with, e.g., drove, or even manoeuvred and we can replace the second part with something like in or along or at (although the sense of direction changes a little).  We cannot, however, replace both parts at once with a single word.
With a sentence such as:
    She turned down the offer
it is possible to replace the underlined section with a single verb so we could have:
    She refused the offer
    She declined the offer
    She rejected the offer

with very similar meanings.

Above and elsewhere in this guide, we define into as a preposition because it is always followed by a complement (or object if you prefer).  This means, in effect that combinations such as turn, change, make etc. with into are not phrasal verbs at all but a verb plus a prepositional phrase with the preposition indicating a change of state rather than a change of position.
In that analysis, turn into is a pseudo-copular verb which indicates a change of state and is in the same category as grow, become, get, end up and more.
This test is not always definitive and it is true that some verb plus preposition combinations can be replaced by a single word.  For example, the verb turn into can be replaced with a single verb:
    She turned into a dictator = She became a dictator
but it does not make it a phrasal verb.


What actually is the verb?

This is related to Test 7 (What is the question) and concerns how we analyse meanings embedded in the clause.
The question to ask is
Is the structure
    verb + prepositional phrase
    verb + direct object?

The test is to insert a complement (or object, if you prefer).  Prepositions take complements (or objects), adverbs do not. So, for example:
    She turned down the road
is a case of a preposition, down, taking the complement (or object), the road, to form a prepositional phrase and we could also have
    She turned into the driveway
    She turned round the corner

Here the structure is:
    verb + prepositional phrase.
So the verb is simply turn.

However, when we consider:
    She turned down my idea
we have down functioning as an adverb because the structure is:
    phrasal verb + direct object
and in this case, the verb is not turn, it is turn down as can immediately be seen if one replaces the adverb with another:
    She turned over my idea in her mind
where the adverb is combining with the verb to make new meanings (consider).

(The verb turn is often combined with the preposition, into, to make a pseudo-copular verb as in, for example:
    She turned into a princess
The combinations of turn + into along with change and make + into are not phrasal verbs because the preposition into happens to have one meaning (among others) of indicating a change of state.  See below for more on the meanings of into.)


A checklist and a task (if you like)

If you would like to try the questions out for yourself when considering how to analyse an item, here's the checklist.  If you would like it as a PDF document, click here.


Here are four clauses to analyse using the check-list questions:

  1. They sorted out the house
  2. She drove on to the supermarket
  3. Mary walked around the village for a while
  4. Peter abstained from the vote

Bear in mind that not all the tests will work perfectly with all examples.  It is a cumulative effect.
When you have applied the tests to the underlined items, click here:



Website warning

There are rather too many websites out here that cannot distinguish between a real MWV and a simple verb followed by a prepositional phrase or a modifying adverb.
Moreover, having decided that something is a multi-word verb, many describe them all as phrasal verbs, following Analysis #2 or #3 above which, as we have suggested, are not very helpful for teaching purposes.
As a source of misinformation, the web has few equals.

For example, one site describes walk into a trap as a phrasal verb.  Another site describes run after the bus as a phrasal verb.
These are not examples of phrasal verbs.  They aren't even prepositional verbs.  They are simply the verbs walk and run followed by a prepositional phrase (into a trap, after the bus).  This may be a slightly metaphorical use of walk but that's another matter altogether.  Many particles can be either prepositions or adverbs and therein lies the source of much confusion.
We can change the prepositions without affecting the basic meaning of the verb in any way.  For example, we can have:
    walk along the path
    walk around the town
    walk into a room
    walk over a hill
    run behind the bus
    run in front of the bus
    run alongside the bus
    run past the bus

Other examples from a website for learners which claims to explain 56 common phrasal verbs (some of which are not at all common and some of which are not phrasal verbs) are
    fall down
    go ahead
    log into
The first and second of those are simply verbs being modified by adverbs and we can just as easily have:
    drop down
    climb down
    walk down
    stroll down
    run ahead
    drive ahead
    throw ahead
    look ahead

and so on where the adverb is not altering the meaning of the verb.  Even the expression:
    Go ahead!
    Please continue
is simply a slightly figurative use of the adverb which needs no special treatment once the meaning of the adverb ahead has been grasped.
The third example, log into, is even worse because it is just a verb followed by a preposition which needs a complement such as the site.  Even when we make the preposition into an adverb and just have log in or log on, it remains a simple verb plus adverb combination so we can also have:
    log out
    log off
without changing the meaning of the rather unusual verb.  In fact, the word into is a preposition and is so defined in dictionaries.
None is a phrasal verb so the site's admonition to learners to remember these expressions as if they were phrasal verbs is unhelpful and confusing, not to say time wasting, careless and borderline irresponsible.

By the same token, something like
    John ran in
is not a phrasal verb, it is simply a verb modified by an adverb of place so we could equally well have:
    John ran out
    John ran away
    John ran by

all with simple adverb modifiers which do not affect the meaning of run at all.  We can also, incidentally, have:
    John ran yesterday
    John ran often

or just
    John ran

However, when we encounter
    The police ran in John
    The police ran John in
it is clear that the meaning of run has been radically altered (to mean arrest and take into custody) by the adverb particle and we are, therefore, dealing with a phrasal verb because changing in or removing the particle will change the meaning of run.  We cannot say
    The police ran over John
and retain the same meaning of run.
We can apply our test 9 here.  The question is, can we find a one-word equivalent for the meaning?
To some extent we can so, for example:
    John ran away
could be replaced by
    John fled
but the sense of run is lost.
    John ran out
with a single-word alternative is not possible, however and we need to resort to something like
    John left, running
However, with:
    The police ran John in
we can replace the verb and produce
    The police arrested John
and retain the meaning (but not the style).


More misleading errors

Don't believe everything you read.

Here are some other bits of misinformation from around the web.  You may encounter phrases such as these analysed, if that's the word, as phrasal verbs:

  1. I tried to do the crossword but got stuck
    NoThat's the verb get used as a copular verb to connect the subject to the adjective stuck.  Compare, e.g.:
        We got lost.
        They got angry.
  2. I'm trying to get rid of this cold
    No.  That's similar with the verb get again meaning become and the adjective rid.  The adjective is derived from the verb rid, incidentally because it was originally an irregular verb which did not change its form when used as a past participle.  Compare, e.g.:
        We have got free of debt.
        They are rid of visitors.
  3. He is about to phone her now
    No.  This is the marginal modal auxiliary verb be about which is followed by the to-infinitive.  Compare, e.g.:
        She means to see the doctor.
  4. She got in touch with me
    No.  This is the verb get meaning become, move or achieve followed by a prepositional phrase.  Compare, e.g.:
        She got in contact with me.
        She got in the bath.
    In this case, too, we can replace the preposition in with into (which is always prepositional and not adverbial).
    The use of the verb get in this case is metaphorical but metaphor is not a marker of a multi-word verb.
  5. The party takes place on Thursday
    No.  This is a slightly tricky idiom but the word place is a noun, not an adverb or preposition.  Compare, e.g.:
        Let's swap places.
        The investigation is in place

They aren't phrasal or prepositional verbs, of course.  Only one, the fourth, even contains a prepositional phrase and none contains an adverb.


The key

You may be thinking that this is all very complicated and difficult, but there is a key.  It is to analyse the expressions carefully and decide if we are dealing with a combination of verb plus particle which represents a single verbal process or whether we are dealing with a verb modified by an adjunct (either an adverb or a prepositional phrase).
To labour the point, because it is an important one, here are some more examples:



Poor analysis often results in inflating the category of multi-word verbs to the point where extremely long lists can be produced which contain some legitimate examples but many others which do not belong.  This means that learners become intimidated and teachers become overloaded by the need (so it is perceived) to teach and learn an enormous number of language chunks which are much more easily handled by taking a more analytic approach and breaking things down logically.

One well-known website intended to help learners of English lists 170 combinations which, the poor students are told, are the minimum they need to learn for successful communication.  A brief analysis of the list shows, in fact, that only around half are really multi-word verbs at all and the rest are mostly combinations of verbs and one-word adverbs which do not affect the verb's meaning.  Some are prepositions, too, and one or two, such as look forward to are idiomatic expressions which are phrases but not phrasal verbs.

You may think this is just a minor problem because lots of people can't do very good language analysis and that's true but bad analysis like this has implications for learners which are not good.

  1. It means that learners are misled about what constitutes a learnable phrase and what constitutes just a verb plus an adverb.
    If as a learner of English you encounter, for example:
        She put the fire out
    you would be right to think something like:
        Aha!  This means that put plus out takes on a new meaning (something like extinguish)
    and you would be wholly correct and quite wise to try to learn the verb put out as having something to do with fire and flames.
    If, on the other hand, you come across:
        She put the cat out
    you would be unwise to try to learn put out as a verb which has anything to do with cats.  You would be much wiser to realise that put has its normal meaning and the adverb out simply tells us where the cat was put.
    (Of course, if the cat in question was on fire ...)
  2. The second problem follows on and is to do with loading learners with unnecessary problems and memorisation tasks.
    If you tell students that walk back, walk away, walk out, talk about, talk in etc. are all phrasal verbs, then they will try to remember them separately (as you should with real phrasal verbs) but you will be wasting your time because you already know the meaning of walk and talk and the meanings of back, about, in, away and out so there is nothing new to learn and you can get on with learning something useful.
    Equally, if you tell your students that a verb + any prepositional phrase, any adverb or any particle (or, even, an adjective) is a phrasal verb, they will think they have to learn it as a unit.  They will then be stuck with learning lots of 'verbs' which aren't verbs at all but simply combinations of verbs and prepositional phrases or verbs modified by adverbs.  It's like teaching people that turn right and turn left are examples of two different verbs or eat butter and spread butter contain examples of two different nouns.
    You will be denying the learners the opportunity properly to analyse what they are learning and notice how prepositional phrases and adverbs are used in English.

Misleading learners is not forgiveable and made worse if the misleading results in an extra and unnecessary learning load.

That is not to say that learning a collocating language chunk such as run away, meaning flee, is not useful but it bears repeating that any common combination of verbs and modifiers is not necessarily a phrasal or multi-word verb.  The word lots, for example, collocates very strongly with the preposition of and so lots of is a useful, learnable language chunk but it is not in itself a determiner.  If it is treated as such then the category of determiner becomes inflated to include less of, little of, few of, many of, some of, none of, all of and so on.  That would be an unacceptable analysis which will overload learners uselessly.

English is hard enough to learn without people making it harder.



An overview summary of the definitions used in this guide

Four structures have been extensively discussed above so now it is time to draw breath and look at the definitions that we will use to analyse multi-word verbs in what follows.
It looks like this:

Verbs plus prepositional phrases
For example: She drove over the hill
Verbs plus modifying adverbs
For example: She drove back
verb plus preposition  adverb
Prepositional verbs
For example: He relied on my help
Phrasal verbs
For example: She put the meeting off
prepositional phrasal

Only the second two of the types above are multi-word verbs.  There is a third sort which combine the natures of prepositional and phrasal verbs as we shall see.
The first two structures will not be considered in the core of this guide because they are not examples of multi-word verbs (whatever you may read on the web).



Clause constituents

Briefly, if the term is unfamiliar to you, clause constituents are phrases or single lexemes within a clause that perform a single, identifiable grammatical function.

So, for example, in:
    John changed money yesterday
we have four constituents:

  1. John: a single proper noun performing the grammatical role of subject
  2. changed: a past form of a verb performing a verb's usual function of denoting an event or state
  3. money: a single mass noun performing the grammatical role of object
  4. yesterday: a single common noun performing the grammatical role of adverbial time adjunct

Equally, we can have a sentence such as:
    John, the manager, and his elderly mother will have changed a considerable amount of money by this time tomorrow
and we still have only four clause constituents:

  1. John, the manager, and his elderly mother: a noun phrase with the first noun in apposition to another and the second noun pre-modified by an adjective performing the grammatical role of subject
  2. will have changed: a verb phrase with two auxiliary verbs and a main verb performing a verb's usual function of denoting an event or state
  3. a considerable amount of money: a noun phrase pre-modified by a quantifying expression and post modified by a genitive of phrase performing the grammatical role of object
  4. by this time tomorrow: an adverbial phrase of time performing the grammatical role of adverbial adjunct

Identifying clause constituents in the realm of multi-word verbs is a helpful way of identifying what part of the clause is doing what and helping us not to fall into the traps we have discussed above.  It works like this:


What is not a multi-word verb phrase

These three sentences do not contain multi-word verbs:

so, arrive at is not a multi-word verb and the preposition at is not part of the verb phrase.  It is part of the prepositional-phrase adverbial.
so, call back is not a multi-word verb and the adverb back is not part of the verb phrase because it is an independent constituent of the clause modifying the verb call whose base meaning is not altered.  It can be omitted and still leave a well-formed and meaningful sentence.
so, the adverb back may be moved but still is not part of the constituent verb phrase because it still forms a constituent by itself.  It can, again, be omitted and still leave a well-formed and meaningful sentence.


What may be considered a multi-word verb phrase

In some analyses, this example is considered to contain a multi-word verb phrase:

because the preposition about is very strongly associated with the verb complain and the unit can be learned as a chunk.  However, the preposition is still not part of the verb phrase constituent because it can be substituted as in:
    The old man complained of the cold
and left out altogether as in:
    The old man complained
and that leads to an alternative analysis which includes the preposition as the head of the prepositional phrase, about his room.


What is a multi-word verb phrase

The following are, indubitably examples of multi-word verbs, however:

because the adverb off is an integral part of the verb-phrase constituent.  If it is omitted, the sentence carries no meaning and is ungrammatical.
because the adverb up is part of the verb-phrase constituent.  If it is omitted, the sentence carries no meaning and is ungrammatical.
because even when it is split from the first part of the phrase, the adverb up remains part of the verb-phrase constituent.  If it is omitted, the sentence carries no meaning and is ungrammatical.
and it does so again here because the only change is to use a single pronoun to stand for the number.  Nothing else has changed.
because we clearly have an integrated verb and adverb forming the verb phrase followed by a simple prepositional phrase.  The key here is that the preposition to belongs with the truth not with the verb-phrase constituent.
However, as with prepositional verbs, the preposition to is very strongly associated with the phrasal verb face up and the expression face up to is a learnable chunk.  That does not influence the analysis, because we are talking about a teachable unit not clause constituent analysis.

If you would like to see all these little diagrams in one place, they are available at the end in the summaries.



Categorical indeterminacy or gradience

This nasty expression refers to the fact that it is sometimes quite difficult to pin down a word's word class.  We can rarely tell by looking at a word in isolation which word class it belongs to so, for example, bank is a verb in
    I bank in the High Street
and a noun in
    He went to the bank
and the same phenomenon is apparent with thousands of other words in most languages.

The phenomenon is particularly noticeable with particles in multi-word verbs and that leads to the difficulties looked at in the last section because many common adverbs are also prepositions in other environments and vice versa.
The eleven most common particles in multi-word verbs are:

around, at, away, down, in, off, on, out, over, round, up

and all bar the preposition at and the adverb away may be prepositions or adverbs depending on their grammatical function in a clause.  Like this:

particle as a preposition as an adverb
around He walked around the town They fell around laughing
at He complained at reception Not possible
away Not possible She's gone away
down He came slowly down the stairs They broke the figures down
in He left it in the suitcase She filled the form in
off He took it off the table The bomb went off
on She left it on the table She switched on the light
out They climbed out the window I must speak out
over The dog jumped over the wall Please turn the page over
round The man appeared round the corner They talked me round
up We drove up the road We finished the food up

The words into and onto do not appear in this list because they never function as adverbs.  They are prepositions.  We can have:
    He brushed the paint on
    He pushed the drawer in

and the words on and in are functioning as adverbs telling us a bit about the verb.
We can also have:
    He brushed the paint onto the door frame
    He pushed the drawer into the desk

and the words onto and into are prepositions.
However, we cannot have:
    *He brushed the paint onto
    *He pushed the drawer into

because neither word can function adverbially.

The list of words which some describe as prepositional adverbs (i.e., those that can perform both functions) is:

aboard, about, above, across, after, against, along, alongside, around, before, behind, below, beneath, besides, between, beyond, by, down, for, in, inside, near, notwithstanding, off, on, opposite, outside, over, past, round, since, through, throughout, under, underneath, up, within, without

and they can all modify a verb without, necessarily, producing a phrasal verb.
In some analyses, the distinction between adverbs and prepositions is not maintained in this way.  In that view, the words in the list above are simple intransitive prepositions (or prepositions which allow intransitive use).  This is a defensible analysis because it is consistent with defining the noun phrase as the object of the preposition rather than its complement.

A test to see which grammatical function a word is performing is to add a complement (or object, if you prefer) to the word.  If it's possible to do so, you have probably identified a preposition because adverbs do not take complements or objects.  So for example, we can have:
    He came over
and that's an adverb modifying the verb
    He came over the road
and that's a preposition with its complement / object the road telling us where he came.

Unfortunately, when it comes to phrasal verbs as we shall see, the picture is not so clear so while in, for example:
    He gave up the job
it looks as if we have a preposition, up, with a complement, the job, but that is not the case because here the word is an adverb which combines with the verb give to form a new verb give up (meaning abandon) and the job is the object of the verb give up, not a complement or object of a preposition.
In our analysis, this is a key factor in assigning verbs to the categories of phrasal verbs (verbs combining with adverbs) and prepositional verbs (verbs followed by prepositions).

Another key test is to try replacing the particle with a different one or removing the particle altogether to see if the sense of the verb has altered.  If it has, we are dealing with an adverb combining with the verb to form a phrasal verb.  If it hasn't, the particle is prepositional.  So, for example, changing the particle in:
    He walked slowly up the stairs
to make
    He walked slowly down the stairs
    He walked slowly along the stairs
    He walked slowly by the stairs

etc. has no effect at all on the meaning of walk.
However, changing the particle in:
    He put off the meeting
to make
    He put down the meeting
    He put into the meeting

    *He put along the meeting
or leaving the particle out to make:
    *He put the meeting
etc. either changes the meaning of the verb or makes nonsense.

A final test is to spot the stressed forms.  Adverbs are usually stressed but prepositions are not.  We get, therefore:
    He talked of his childhood
in which of is unstressed and pronounced as /əv/ but
    What did he talk of?
in which of is in its full form and stressed as /ɒv/.

There are times when two or more adverb particles are possible without a change in meaning so we can have, for example:
    They fell around laughing
    They fell about laughing
    They set off early
    They set out early
with little discernible difference in meaning although in both cases the particles are adverbs.
Fortunately, this is quite rare.



The triple nature of MWVs

Now we are ready to begin the analysis proper.  The following summarises the story so far and more detail follows.

  1. Phrasal verbs
    The adverb particle changes the meaning of the verb and the change is often non-literal, i.e., idiomatic.  For example, adding the adverb down to the verb turn produces the new meaning of decline (an offer).  Prepositions do not do that.
    Nor, as we saw above do all adverbs.  Only adverb particles vary the meaning of the verb.  We saw above, and will see again, for example, that the adverb back does not always change the meaning of the verb it follows.  Nor, incidentally does an adverb like away which simply means to a distance from.  So, although:
        He walked away
    looks like a phrasal verb, it is not because the adverb is just telling us the direction in which he walked and not interfering with the meaning of walk at all.  By the same token, we can have:
        She ran away
        He drove away
        They strolled away
        It flew away

    and many more examples of a one-word adverb modifying but not changing the meaning of the verb.  If we call all these examples phrasal verbs, we will be adding hundreds if not thousands of verbs to a list which is long enough to depress many learners and teachers already.
    Even a metaphorical use of the verb does not magically result in a phrasal verb so
        He walked away with first prize (won easily)
        He ran away with the game (became unbeatable)
    are not really phrasal verbs but are, as we shall see, metaphorical uses of a verb plus an adverb.
    However, when the meaning of the verb changes, we have encountered a real phrasal verb so, while, e.g.:
        He gave the money away
    is comprehensible by understanding the meaning of away as and adverb meaning movement to a more distant place, so it is not a phrasal verb.  It is possible in this case, to find a one-word alternative (using test 9) so we could have:
        He donated his money
    but that does not carry quite the same sense because the verb is usually followed by a prepositional phrase complement (such as to charity).
    If we try to do that with
        He gave the secret away
    we can see that the meaning of the verb has changed because the meaning of give and the meaning of away have combined to make a new meaning (revealed).  That is a real phrasal verb.
  2. Prepositional verbs
    Prepositions link the verb to a noun phrase but the choice of preposition is strongly determined by the verb (which is why they are sometimes called verbs with dependent prepositions).  They do not change the meaning of the verb.
    For example, adding the preposition about to the verb hear does not change the nature of the verb:
        He heard about the disaster
    and changing the preposition will leave the verb's meaning unchanged
        He heard of the disaster
        He heard from his parents
    Some of these verbs allow of only one preposition as is the case, for example, with:
        She relied on his help
    in which no other preposition is possible.
    Some of these verbs, as we shall see, require complementation and cannot stand without a prepositional phrase.
  3. Phrasal-prepositional verbs
    The adverb particle changes the meaning of the verb and the preposition links the verb to a noun phrase.  For example, adding the adverb up and the preposition with to put changes the meaning of the verb and links it to the noun phrase:
        He couldn't put up with their noise any longer
    (verb + adverb, making a phrasal verb, followed by a prepositional phrase)
    Later, some doubt will be cast on whether this is a real category or a phrasal verb followed by a strongly collocating preposition.

Here's a summary of that with examples:

first summary

Later, you will find slightly more sophisticated summary diagrams which deal with verb types, transitivity and separability, err, separately.



Distinguishing phrasal from prepositional verbs

If the multi-word verb isn't a prepositional verb then it's either a phrasal verb or a phrasal-prepositional verb.  To know which it is, we need to look at how it's used.
In this area, we need to consider 5 constituents of the clause:

For our purposes, we can ignore the subject.
Given that we place the subject and the main verb first in the clause, there are, in English, only 4 possible arrangements of particles and objects to finish the clause.
See if you can arrange the following to make a well-formed English sentence:
    He + the + lever + up + pushed
    He + it + for + pushed
    He + boat + the + away + pushed

    He + over + pushed + them
What are the alternatives?  Click here when you have an answer.

The key identifying pattern is Pattern 4.
The verb has been split from its particle by an object pronoun and that is one defining characteristic of most transitive phrasal verbs, but ...


... this is not a unique characteristics of phrasal verbs

Before we get too excited about the fact that a pronoun must be placed between the verb and the adverb particle, we need to consider that this is not something unusual or unique to phrasal verbs.  Pronouns frequently appear in this medial position when a verb is modified by an adverb.  For example:
    She drove the car quickly
    She drove it quickly
but not
    *She drove quickly it
    He writes emails frequently
    He writes them frequently
but not
    *He writes frequently them
We can see the same pattern with hundreds of other perfectly normal adverbs modifying transitive verbs.  Not even the wildest websites will suggest that drive quickly and write frequently are phrasal or multi-word verbs.

Simply noticing the fact that the pronoun must come between the verb and the adverb does not mean that you have found a phrasal verb.

However, a better test is possible by looking at the ordering of constituents of a clause.
So, for example:

Verb + modifying adverb
1 She drove the car quickly = verb + object noun + adverb
2 She drove it quickly = verb + object pronoun + adverb
3 *She drove quickly the car = verb + adverb + object noun
4 *She drove quickly it. = verb + adverb + object pronoun
Phrasal verb
1 She put the meeting off = verb + object noun + adverb
2 She put it off = verb + object pronoun + adverb
3 She put off the meeting = verb + adverb + object noun
4 *She put off it = verb + adverb + object pronoun

And you can see that a phrasal verb, properly understood, allows pattern 3. whereas a simple verb + modifying adverb normally does not.
If we apply this test to a range of verbs + adverbs we discover, for example, that an expressions like call back, move about, drive ahead, push under, pull over etc. cannot be seen in pattern 3. so are not phrasal verbs per se because:
    *She called back the garage
    *She moved about the furniture
    *He drove ahead the car

    *He pushed under the suitcase
    *He pulled over his scarf

are not available, but call off is a phrasal verb because we can happily form:
    She called off the meeting.

This is not, we hasten to add, a defining characteristic of the two forms but it is a clear indication.

Unfortunately, of course, simple verbs plus prepositional phrases such as:
    She got on the bus
    They fell over the carpet

etc. can also be used in pattern 3. but this does not mean that get on and fell over are phrasal verbs.  They aren't; they are verbs followed by prepositional adverbial phrases and we can just as well have:
    She climbed on the bus
    She stepped onto the bus
    They tripped over the carpet
    They stumbled over the carpet
    She got off the bus
    She got in front of the bus
    They fell onto the carpet
    They fell across the carpet

You can see, too, that on in all cases can be replaced with onto and that word is only prepositional.

Now we can go on to look at which patterns are associated with which forms of multi-word verbs.



Prepositional verbs

look up the chimney  

This guide uses the term prepositional verbs for this category of multi-word verbs.  Others may refer to them as verbs with dependent prepositions because the verbs are normally associated with particular prepositions.  Others still may call these verbs strongly collocating verb-preposition pairs.

We need to be careful to distinguish between a verb followed by a prepositional phrase in the normal way of English syntax and those which are, so to speak, primed to accept only one preposition (or, at most, a very limited range) in the syntax of the language.
This is a facet of a phenomenon called colligation to which there is a guide on this site (linked below).
We can, for example have both:
    He flew from London
    He suffered from a cold
but a moment's thought reveals the difference because

  1. We can analyse the first sentence as:
        subject (he) + verb (flew) and prepositional phrase (from London)
    but the second sentence can only be analysed as:
        subject (he) + verb (suffered) + dependent preposition (from) + object (a cold).
  2. We can also have:
        He flew to London
        He flew over London
        He flew across London
        He flew into London
        He flew at six
        He flew before six

    and many more adverbial prepositional phrases saying where and when he flew.
    Indeed, we can omit the complement altogether and just have:
        He flew
    However, the verb suffer cannot be used in the same way because, if we want to have a preposition after it, our choice is limited to from.
        *He suffered at a cold
        *He suffered before a cold
        *he suffered over a cold
        *He suffered across a cold

    are all unacceptable.

What all this means is that some verbs are particularly primed to co-occur with certain prepositions before their objects.  Hence the term dependent preposition.  The prepositional choice is dependent on the verb suffer in a way that is different from the way we use prepositions with other verbs.

To start the analysis, which of the following are acceptable English?

  1. He longed for a holiday
  2. He longed for it
  3. He longed a holiday for
  4. He longed it for

Sentences c. and d. are wrong.  Prepositional verbs (long for in this case) can only follow patterns 1 and 2.

The Rule: Prepositional verbs cannot be separated from the preposition by the object so can't follow patterns 3 and 4.

These verbs follow these patterns only:
Pattern 1 subject + verb + preposition + object noun
He longed + for + a holiday
Pattern 2 subject + verb + preposition + object pronoun
He longed + for + it

Other examples of prepositional verbs are:

rely on (meaning trust)
We can have:
Pattern 1: He relied his aging parents for money
Pattern 2: He relied on them for money
but not:
Pattern 3: *He relied his aging parents on
Pattern 4: *He relied them on
break into (meaning enter by force)
We can have:
She broke into the house
She broke into it

but not:
*She broke the house into
*She broke it into
(It actually makes more sense to define the combination of break and into as simply a verb followed by a prepositional phrase with the preposition indicating change of position, as it often does.)
keep at (meaning [more or less] persist)
We can have:
They kept at the work
They kept at it

but not:
*The kept the work at
*They kept it at

Prepositional verbs can, as we have shown, only follow patterns 1 and 2.
That does not mean, incidentally, that you are free to classify them as inseparable phrasal verbs.  That way madness lies because they are not phrasal verbs at all.


Are prepositional verbs really multi-word verbs at all?

There is quite a strong argument to made that what are called prepositional verbs should not be considered multi-word verbs at all because they do not exhibit any particular difficulties or specialised grammatical structures.  A better way to analyse them may be as strongly collocating verb + prepositional patterns and treat them as learnable chunks because they are never separable.
An alternative we shall shortly encounter is to treat some of them as verbs which require complementation with a prepositional phrase just as, for example one cannot say:
    *I put it
without saying where.
The verb put therefore counts as a PP complement verb because it must have, rather than may have, a prepositional phrase complement.  Equally, therefore, one cannot say:
    *I relied
without saying on what I relied.
Only the so-called transitive prepositional verbs fall into this categories and others, such as abstain, conform, connive etc. can stand alone with no complement.

For example, a verb followed by (and modified by) a prepositional phrase such as:
    She looked at her paper
can be expressed as
    She looked at it
but not
    *She looked it at
    *She looked the paper at
but the prepositional phrase can be variously changed without changing the meaning of the verb but modifying the way the looking was done so we might have:
    She looked through her paper
    She looked over her paper
    She looked for her paper
    She looked round her paper
    She looked in her paper

    She looked under her paper
and even
    She looked after her paper
and so and these all follow the same pattern of either
    verb + prepositional phrase including an object noun
    verb + prepositional phrase including an object pronoun.
The expression look at is often described as a prepositional verb or, even less accurately, as a phrasal verb.  It is neither.  There is nothing about a sentences such as
    She looked at the paper
which cannot be explained by the normal rules of English syntax, i.e., subject + verb + prepositional phrase adverbial.  The preposition at frequently means in the direction of and is not mysterious.
Equally, we can keep the prepositional phrase intact and use a range of different verbs for it to modify and have, e.g.:
    She glared at her paper
    She pointed at it
    She stared at her paper
    She slapped at it
    She spat at her paper
    She screamed at it

and so on and they all exhibit exactly the same two possible structures.

A whole host of other examples can be used to illustrate the same phenomenon:
    They talked about / over / through / around the problem
    We cut across / through / around the traffic
    She talked over / about / of the music

and so on.

In summary, the argument is that although certain verbs often have predictable associated prepositions (i.e., they strongly collocate), the preposition adheres to the verb and the combination is a learnable language chunk.
This is, however, a teaching point, not analysis of the language.
Another way of saying this is that the verb is pivotal, in the sense that it determines the preposition or limited range of prepositions, with which it collocates.
Yet another way is to call the preposition dependent on the verb.


two kinds

Two kinds of prepositional verbs

This list is divided into two types.  Why?  It'll help you if you put them into sentences in your head.
Click here when you have an answer.

Type A Type B
account for
acquaint with
adhere to
admit to
allude to
amount to
arrange for
bear on
coincide with
conceive of
consist of
count on
deal with
dwell on
embark on
hang around / about
long for
rely on
stick to
verge on
vouch for
abstain from
adjust to
agree on / about / to
aim at / for
approve of
argue about
ask about / for
believe in
call for / on
care about
comment on
complain about
comply with
concentrate on
conform to
connive at
contribute to
depend on
decide on
do without
focus on
follow through
frown on
hear of / about
hope for
insist on
interfere with
laugh at
learn of / about
lecture on / about
listen to
live on
make of
object to
participate in
pay for
plan on
pray for
provide for
quarrel about
read about
resort to
row about
speak about / on
succeed in
suffer from
suspect of
react to
refrain from
talk of / about
think of
vote for
wish for
write about / on

There are some issues to note for teaching purposes:

As we saw above, there is a strong case to argue that these sorts of verbs are not truly multi-word verbs at all but examples of varying strengths of verb + preposition collocation.
It is even more easily argued that we have here a case of colligational patterning with some verbs being primed to coincide with certain prepositions.  There are meaning patterns here, too, with verbs have similar meanings frequently taking the same prepositional complement.  For a little more, see the guide to colligation.
While it is difficult to select any preposition other than on to follow a verb like depend, other verbs in the lists normally used of prepositional verbs are more flexible so we can have, for example:
    She complained about the service
    She complained of a pain in her back
    They reacted to the news badly
    They reacted against the idea immediately
    He talked of the accident
    He talked about the accident
    They laughed at the idea
    They laughed about the idea
    They laughed over the idea

and so on.
The point being demonstrated here is that the verbs simply collocate in predictable ways rather than having to be considered (and learned) as multi-word lexemes.
There is no doubt a good case for teaching and learning the very strongly collocating combinations as single lexemes so, for example, depend on, connive at, hang around, conceive of, decide on etc. can all be considered very strongly collocating items learned and produced as prefabricated chunks but that is not the case for other verbs in the list.

Objects of prepositional verbs do not need to be nouns (although they frequently are).  They can also be:


that- and infinitive clauses with prepositional verbs

The object of a prepositional verb cannot, however, be a to-infinitive or a that-clause, so we do not allow:
    *They complained about to be kept waiting
    *She relied on that I said it would be OK
The reason is simple: that-clauses and to-infinitive clauses can never be the complements (or objects) of prepositions.
This restriction adds weight to the correctness of analysing some of these patterns as intransitive verbs taking preposition-phrase complements.

When prepositional verbs are used with that- or to-infinitive clauses they lose their prepositions.  For example

As we noted above, the to- constructions are sometimes better considered as examples of verb catenation but only when the word to is acting as a syntactical rather than semantic unit.
This is not intuitive and learners who have understandably decided or been persuaded to learn the items as lexical chunks may produce errors like:

See below for a discussion of why prepositional verbs are sometimes confused with phrasal verbs and called inseparable phrasal verbs.


More bad analysis

  1. There are those who would like to include common collocations such as thank for and protect from as prepositional verbs but a moment's consideration reveals the fact that the verb thank is frequently followed by the preposition for + a noun phrase and the verb protect, because of its meaning, is often followed by the preposition from.  In other words, they are simply verbs with a modifying adverbial prepositional phrase.  That is revealed by moving the phrase so we can have:
        He thanked her for her patience
        He protected the machine from the rain

        For her patience, he thanked her
        From the rain, he protected the machine

    We also separate the preposition from the verb and that is not something we can do with a real prepositional verb.
    We cannot have:
        He abstained the vote from
    because abstain from is prepositional
    but we can have
        He protected the child from danger
    because protect from isn't a prepositional verb.
  2. A further source of confusion for learners is to include, for example, persuade to, help to, remember to as prepositional verbs.  They are not, they are examples of catenative verbs forming chains of meaning and the grammatical particle to belongs with the following not preceding verb, so while we can have, e.g.:
        I persuaded her to come
        I helped them to win
        I remembered to post the letters

    etc., we cannot follow them with noun-phrase complements so, e.g.:
        *I persuaded to it
        *I helped to the house
        *I remembered to the war.

    are not possible.
    There are prepositional verbs with to which are real examples, of course, such as:
        I agreed to the suggestion
        I stuck to my argument
        It conformed to the rule

    See point 7. above.
  3. Even worse and even more commonly, there are those who like to lump all prepositional verbs into the general category of phrasal verbs and that way more madness lies.
    Trying to do this means that prepositional verbs, which have their own characteristics as we have seen, get confused with phrasal verbs proper and that leads to all kinds of avoidable (and teacher-induced) errors such as:
        *I adhered it to
        *We longed the rain for

    and so on.
    In an effort to dig themselves out of a hole excavated by poor analysis, some will be tempted to tell their learners that such verbs are simply inseparable phrasal verbs.  They aren't.

See below for a consideration of how passive structures operate with pseudo-transitive prepositional verbs.


A note about pronouncing the preposition

The pronunciation of multi-word verbs has its own section towards the end of this guide but it is worth pausing to consider how the prepositional nature of these verbs is revealed by their pronunciation in connected speech.

It was noted above under other tests for multi-word verbs that adverb particles are usually given their full pronunciation while prepositions are often weakened.  This is evident with these verbs and their dependent prepositions.
So, for example:
    I laughed at his shirt
is pronounced as:
with the weakened form of at (/ət/).
    It amounted to £5
is pronounced as:
with the weakened form of to (/tə/).
    How do you account for the difference?
is pronounced as:
with the weakened form of for (/fə/)
and so on.
Weak forms cannot, of course, be stressed so the main stress with prepositional verbs falls on the verb rather than the particle.

By contrast, when these particles are adverbs forming part of a phrasal verb proper, they are usually pronounced in full (/æt/, /tuː/ and /fɔː/ respectively).  For example:
    He came to after the operation
is pronounced as:
    He kept at his work
is pronounced as:
    I will not stand for his behaviour
is pronounced as:
and the adverb is often (not always) stressed.

With phrasal-prepositional verbs (see below), the second particle is a preposition and also usually weakened while the preceding adverbial particle retains its full-form pronunciation.



Phrasal verbs

look up the word  

There is a true phrasal verb look up which means refer to a reference source.  This verb, unlike the verb followed by a prepositional phrase or simple adverb which means direct your eyes upwards, is a proper phrasal verb.

Which of these four are acceptable?

  1. He looked up the word in the dictionary
  2. He looked up it in the dictionary
  3. He looked the word up in the dictionary
  4. He looked it up in the dictionary

Sentence B. is wrong because ...

The Rule is: Transitive phrasal verbs cannot follow pattern 2.  These verbs insist that the pronoun is inserted between the verb and the particle.

These verbs follow these patterns only:

Pattern 1 subject + verb + adverb + object noun
He looked + up + the word
Pattern 3 subject + verb + object noun + adverb
He looked + the word + up
Pattern 4 subject + verb + object pronoun + adverb
He looked + it + up

Here are some more examples of separable phrasal rather than prepositional verbs:

push around (meaning bully)
We can have:
Pattern 1: He pushed around the smaller kids
Pattern 3: He pushed the smaller kids around
Pattern 4: He pushed them around
but not:
Pattern 2: *He pushed around them
get across (meaning communicate)
We can have:
She got across her meaning
She got her meaning across
She got it across
but not:
*She got across it
find out (meaning discover)
We can have:
I found out the reason
I found the reason out
I found it out
but not:
*I found out it

However, not all transitive phrasal verbs are separable and not all the separable ones insist on the placement of the pronoun like this.  Most, however, are like this.  More below.

The other point to note has already been mentioned.  Placing a pronoun in the medial position between the verb and the adverb particle is not a characteristic only of phrasal verbs.  For example, we allow:
    I found the reason very quickly
    I found it very quickly
but not
    *I found very quickly it
and nobody has ever suggested that find very quickly is a phrasal verb.
In these cases, however, the object must not be separated from the verb by the adverb phrase whether it is a pronoun or a noun proper.  That is a general rule for all adverb modifiers: they never come between the verb and the object.  We also cannot have:
    *I found very quickly the reason

Click here for a test to see if you have understood all this.
Hint: all you need to do is rephrase the object as a pronoun and see where it goes.  If it comes between the verb and the particle, it's a separable, transitive phrasal verb.


put off

Transitive phrasal verbs

He put off the meeting  

Transitive phrasal verbs are usually separable (almost always in fact).

We can have

Pattern 1: verb + adverb + object noun
    I put off the party
    They broke up the fight
    They talked over the issue
Pattern 3: verb + object noun + adverb
    I put the party off
    They broke the fight up
    They talked the issue over
Pattern 4: verb + object pronoun + adverb
    I put it off
    They broke it up
    They talked it over

But we cannot have Pattern 2: verb + adverb + object pronoun
    *I put off it.
    *They broke up it
    *They talked over it

Transitive, phrasal verbs are also very common.

The Rules:
The pronoun object must be placed between the verb and its adverb particle.
The noun object may be placed between the verb and its particle.



There are four serious complications:

  1. Pronouns
    It is sometimes suggested that only pronouns such as it, her, they us etc. demand this placement but that's not the whole story:
    1. Any demonstrative pronoun must also be placed in this position:
          I picked that up
          *I picked up that
      The same applies to the use of this, those and these.
    2. Other pronouns and pro-forms can be put in both positions:
          I dropped a few off
          I dropped off a few
          I picked some up
          I picked up some
          Did you snap any up?
          Did you snap up any?

          I picked the latter / former up
          I picked up the latter / former

      and determiners acting as pronouns also do this:
          I dropped neither off
          I dropped off neither
          I dropped both off
          I dropped off both
          You can put either off
          You can put off either
    3. The some-, any-, no-, every- series of pronouns generally prefer the medial-position but it is not obligatory:
          She is seeing somebody out
          Can you put anything off?
          I called everyone in

          I called in everyone
          I put off nothing

      but longer expressions may appear terminally (see the next point, b.):
          She threw out somebody disruptive and aggressive
          I put off anything non-urgent
          I dropped off everyone who needed to get a train home
    4. The pronoun one also prefers the medial position as in, e.g.:
          I left one off
      but again, lengthening the noun phrase may result in end-positioning the object as in, e.g.:
          I left off one of the most important figures in the accounts I presented.
    5. It is also suggested that pronouns must invariably come between the verb and the adverb particle so, for example:
          I picked it up on the grapevine
      is allowable, but
          *I picked up it on the grapevine
      is not.
      True so far.  However, when the pronoun forms part of a noun phrase or group, this rule does not apply.  We can therefore allow, for example:
          I picked most of it up on the grapevine
          I picked up most of it on the grapevine
      We can also allow:
          I threw him out
          I put it off

      but not
          *I threw out him
          *I put off it

          I threw out only him
          I put off all of it

          I put off half of them
      are all allowable because the pronoun is part of a noun phrase.
  2. End weighting and end focus
    An observable tendency in English is to place heavy phrases, i.e., those which are longer and more complex, towards the end of the sentence and that accounts for the way in which long noun phrases are handled.
    The heavier the noun phrase is, the less likely is separation.  We can have:
        She put the meeting off
    but to many:
        ?She put the meeting to decide the future of the museum and its curators off
    is not or doubtfully acceptable and they would prefer:
        She put off the meeting to decide the future of the museum and its curators.
    Some verbs are conventionally separated by the object, whether it is a noun or pronoun, but as soon as the object phrase gets too long, it is shifted to final position so, while:
        He messed the meeting about
    is preferred to
        ?He messed about the meeting
    we would prefer:
        He messed about all the people who had come to the meeting expecting a decision
    and not:
        ?He messed all the people who had come to the meeting expecting a decision about
    and although:
        I can't tell the twins apart
    is preferred to
        ?I can't tell apart the twins
    we may prefer
        I can't tell apart John's twin daughters when they are wearing the same school uniform
        ?I can't tell John's twin daughters when they are wearing the same school uniform apart
    End focus is an allied phenomenon and refers to the fact that the most important or newest information is also likely to come towards the end of an utterance so, for example:
        She put the meeting off
        She put off the meeting
    are not simple alternatives because the speaker has decided in the second case that it is the meeting which is the new or important information and placed the object at the end.
    (There is a guide to there and it on this site linked in the list of related guides at the end which considers other aspects of end weight and end focus.)
  3. Always (?) separated
    It is averred by some that a few phrasal verbs must be separated and cannot be used any other way so any noun or pronoun object must be interposed between the verb and the adverb.  For example:
        She talked her mother into the idea
        She talked her into the idea
        She talked her into it
    are all acceptable but it is not possible to have:
        *She talked into her mother the idea
    We have discovered that the word into is always prepositional, never adverbial, so this is really a verb followed by a preposition signifying change of state (compare turn into and make into, for example).  The word into is confined to prepositional use only.  If it were a phrasal verb, it would be an example of a ditransitive verb which cannot be monotransitive at all and there are no such verbs in English.  We could not have, therefore:
        *She talked her into
        *She talked into the idea
    and this betrays the fact that the construction should be analysed as the verb talk plus a simple prepositional phrase so not a phrasal verb at all.
    A related, approximately synonymous form, talk round, works similarly although it can also be monotransitive:
        She talked her mother round
        She talked her round to the idea

    but not:
        *She talked round her mother to the idea
        She talked round her mother
    is probably acceptable.
    A little corpus research reveals that talk round is used both unseparated as in, e.g.:
        He talked round his cabinet colleagues
    and separated as in, e.g.:
        She talked her friend round to the idea
    Again, the analysis can be that this is an incidence of the verb talk with a prepositional phrase so it can be compared to, e.g.:
        Her mother came round to the idea
  4. Usually separated
    Most other examples are ones in which separating the verb and its adverb particle is strongly preferred but not fully obligatory.
    They include:
    The verb bring down (as in depress or discourage):
        Her criticisms really brought John down
        Her criticisms really brought him down

    are possible but
        ?Her criticisms really brought down John
    is probably not.
    The verbs ask over / round / back / out:
        Ask the neighbours over
    but why not
        ?Ask over the neighbours?
        She asked my brother out
    but not
        ?She asked out my brother
    However, in both these cases, it is reasonable to analyse the structure simply as a verb post-modified by a normal adverb construction because we can also have:
        She called me across
        She asked me in
        They invited us round

        I was invited over
    etc. and in these cases, we simply have a verb plus adverbial construction because we can also have:
        She called me to her
        She asked me politely
        The invited us yesterday
        I was invited without hesitation

    The verbs help on and help off are similarly analysable as just a verb post-modified by an adverb:
        I helped the lady on with her coat
        I helped my brother off with his coat

    And in both cases, we have a verb plus a post-modifying adverb which is transparent in meaning followed by a prepositional phrase.

    The verbs call back and ring back are also sometimes called phrasal verbs but they aren't.  It is suggested that we can have:
        I'll call my brother back
        I'll ring the garage back

    but not:
        ?I'll call back my brother
        ?I'll ring back the garage

    An argument, previewed above, with these two verbs is that they are not in fact phrasal verbs at all but verbs plus adverbial modifiers and we could equally have:
        I'll call / ring my brother soon / again / tomorrow / next week / presently

    It is true that the separated form is often more natural and more frequently encountered (according to a little corpus research) but not everyone would disallow the non-separated forms.
    One reason, not often noted, for the separated form of a phrasal verb to be preferred is the possible confusion with a parallel form which may have a different interpretation.  So, for example:
        He asked the neighbours round
    can only be interpreted as meaning
        He invited the neighbours to his home
        He asked round the neighbours
    could mean the same but could also mean
        He asked the same question of all his neighbours.

    You may also come across lists of so-called inseparable phrasal verbs which include, for example:
        He left his money to his daughter
        He put the question to me
        He kept the truth from us

    etc. with the suggestion that leave to, put to and keep from are phrasal verbs.  They are transparently not phrasal verbs at all.  They are, in fact, not even multi-word verbs; they are simply verbs followed by prepositional phrases and we can change the preposition to have, e.g.:
        He left his money in trust
        He put the question before the meeting
        He kept the truth to himself

    Calling them multi-word verbs at all simply confuses your learners.  Calling them phrasal verbs is plain nonsense.
  5. Ergative uses
    worn out
    The ergative case applies to the times in which the direct object of a transitive verb has the same form as the subject of an intransitive verb.  Verbs that allow both uses are common in English and are sometimes referred to as labile or ambitransitive verbs.  In other words, the ostensible grammatical subject is semantically the object of the verb.  For example:
        They wore the engine out
    is a transitive use of the phrasal verb and can be separated or not with the full object but must, as is the rule, be used separably with a pronoun object.  It can, however, also be used intransitively as in:
        The engine wore out
    Other examples of phrasal verbs which can be used ergatively include boil over, blow up, break down, break up, hold up, light up, open up, push off, run out, topple over, twist up and more.  A complication with some is that they have slightly different or metaphorical meanings when used ergatively rather than transitively with a conventional object.  For example:
        The bulb lit up
        She lit up the room
        The bus broke down
        They broke down the figures

    and so on.

A teaching clue:
It is not possible to know by looking at a verb whether it is separable or not.  However, treating them all as inseparable when the object is a noun and separable when it is a pronoun will usually be acceptable unless it is one of the very rare and debatable cases which are always separated (as we saw in point c, above).


Ditransitive phrasal verbs

We saw above when looking at transitive and intransitive prepositional verbs that some may be used with two objects although doubt was cast there on whether the verbs qualify as a special form of multi-word verb or are simply verbs followed by prepositional phrases or post-modifying adverbs.  The doubt persists in this section.

Slightly rarely, some verbs are ditransitive, i.e., they can take both a direct and an indirect object.  For example:
    She passed up the tools
could be analysed as a simple phrasal verb (passed up) with a single direct object (the tools) and, in the normal way, it can be rephrased as:
    She passed the tools up
    She passed them up

but not, of course:
    *She passed up them
because Pattern 2 (verb + adverb + pronoun object) is not allowed.
However, because the sense of the adverb up is obviously derivable from the preposition, it is arguable whether in this case the combination is a phrasal verb at all.  If we compare, for example:
    She passed up the opportunity
then we can see that this is a phrasal verb proper because it cannot be understood from the sense of up meaning to a higher place.

Notwithstanding our doubts concerning the status of pass up in this case, when we have a ditransitive use as in:
    She passed John up the tools
we have two objects: the direct object (the tools) and the indirect object (John).
The phrase ordering is:
    verb + indirect object + adverb + direct object
The same sense can be expressed as:
    verb + indirect object + direct object + adverb:
    She passed John the tools up
or, less naturally but possibly
    She passed John them up
The complications occur because either or both objects of the verb may be replaced by pronouns so we can have:
    She passed John them up
    She passed him them up.

The ordering cannot, however, be:
    *She passed the tools John up
    *She passed them John up
    *She passed them him up
    *She passed the tools him up

because, in English, the indirect object precedes the direct object.  Compare an obviously non-phrasal verb such as:
    She told the children a story
in which the ordering of objects is the same and English disallows:
    *She told a story the children.
It is possible to alter the ordering of objects by using the to- structure (the so-called dative shift or alternation) so we allow:
    She told a story to the children
and the same tactic may be used with phrasal verbs so we allow:
    She passed the tools up to John
    She passed them up to John
    She passed the tools up to him
    She passed them up to him.
but not, of course:
    *She passed up them to him

Other examples of ditransitive phrasal verbs include:
    They handed the teacher over their homework
    They handed him over their homework
    She talked her colleagues through the process
    She talked them through the process
    She gave the children out their test papers
    She gave them out their test papers
    She walked the old lady over the road
    She walked her over the road
    They made the man out a liar
    They made him out a liar

But in all cases bar the last two examples, the constructions are analysable more simply as verbs post-modified by adverbs with transparent meanings (over, through, out etc.). In none of these cases is it possible to insert the pronoun after the adverb, of course, whichever object it replaces.  They are possibly separable transitive phrasal verbs and the rule applies as one would expect, so:
    *They handed over their homework him
    *They handed their homework over him
    *She talked through the process them
    *She talked the process through them
    *She gave out the children them
    *She gave the children out them
    *She walked over the road her
    *She walked the road over her
    *They made out a liar him

    *They made out him a liar
etc. are all disallowed.
It may be possible to use the to-formulation to produce, for example:
    They handed it over to him
    She talked through the process to them
    She gave them out to them

etc. but such formulations are often clumsy and, in fact:
    She walked her over to the road
has a significantly different meaning because the preposition to will be understood as meaning towards, i.e. direction to a destination.
No such reordering is possible with the last example at all except as:
    The made him out to be a liar
which is, in any case, probably the preferred expression of the meaning.

Only the direct object, whether it is a noun or a pro-form, can separate the two parts of a phrasal verb.

The moral of this little story is to be wary of introducing a ditransitive phrasal verb until the learners are fully comfortable dealing with monotransitive verbs.  It's a topic to deal with only at advanced levels (and arguably avoidable even then).



(So called?) Inseparable transitive phrasal verbs

By some traditional analyses some transitive multi-word verbs are described as inseparable phrasal verbs.  That is a legitimate classification because of their idiomatic nature and opaqueness of meaning in many cases.  It is also legitimate because in many cases, the particle is an adverb, not a preposition, so including them in the category of phrasal verbs is consistent with the theory.
In this group, we get, for example:

*bear on (be relevant to)
*break into (a house, a conversation)
*care for (nurse or like)
come across (find)
come by (obtain)
*count on (rely)
*do without (manage)
*fall behind (start to lose)
*get [a]round (avoid)
*get off (a bus)
*get on (a bus)
get over (a shock)
get round (persuade)
go for (like)
*go with (match)
*go without (manage)
*hear of (learn)
hit on (discover)
*join in (an activity)
keep at / on (persist)
lay off (desist)
*lean on (threaten)
live on (exist)
*look after (care for)
*look into (investigate)
pick on (bully)
*run against (compete)
see about (attend to)
stand for (tolerate)
*stick to (persist)
strike up (start)
take after (resemble)
tell on (report)
*touch on (discuss briefly)
wait on (serve)

This is nearly a full list and such verbs are rarer than separable phrasal verbs.  They are classed in many analyses as phrasal verbs because the particle cannot always be replaced without altering the meaning of the verb and the meanings are not always derivable from an understanding of their constituents.  That is an acceptable analysis but leads to a certain looseness of categorisation.
Many of these verbs fall equally satisfactorily into the category of prepositional verbs encountered above.  The verb count on is listed as prepositional, above, for example, but is also in this list.
All those verbs marked * in this list, about half of them, are arguably prepositional rather than phrasal in meaning because the meaning is transparent from an understanding of the particle and the particle is functioning grammatically as a preposition.  All verbs followed by into are not phrasal at all because into is stubbornly prepositional in nature.
The remaining 16 verbs which are transitive, opaque in meaning and inseparable form an identifiable teaching unit.
They are:

come across (find)
come by (obtain)
get over (a shock)
get round (persuade)
go for (like)
hit on (discover)
keep at / on (persist)
lay off (desist)
live on (exist)
pick on (bully)
see about (attend to)
stand for (tolerate)
strike up (start)
take after (resemble)
tell on (report)
wait on (serve)

Some of these verbs are undeniably phrasal verbs, and are also undeniably inseparable.  For example, in:
    I came across an old diary the other day
    I'll lay off trying to get him to see sense
    I came by this old book in the market
    She hit on just the solution
    I'll see about the problem you are having

etc. no alteration of word ordering is possible and the verb and its adverb cannot be split.
A few verbs are left rather in limbo so, although the verb strike up is in this list, not everyone would dismiss:
    She struck a conversation up
although the verb's inseparable use is more common.

There are gradations of opaqueness in meaning, too, from the rather obvious:
    They heard of the accident on the radio
    He lives on very little money

via the slightly metaphorical:
    She touched briefly on the topic
    He kept at / stuck to his work

to the almost fully opaque
    I'm counting on you
    They came across an old man.

In this analysis, they aren't all really teachable as phrasal verbs at all, in fact, even though they consist of a verb combining with an adverb in many cases, because:

  1. Grammar
    1. They all work grammatically exactly like prepositional verbs.  So we get, e.g.:
          They joined in the party
          They joined in it
      but we cannot have
          *They joined the party in
          *They joined it in
      The verbs follow Patterns 1 and 2 only just as prepositional verbs do.
      Some can be used without the particle: join in the game / join the game.
    2. As we saw above, many of these verbs do not allow the formation of passive sentences as separable transitive phrasal verbs do, so while we can allow, e.g.:
          The patients were cared for
          The problem was got around
          A solution was hit on
          The child was picked on

      we do not naturally allow:
          *The issue was borne on
          *I was counted on
          *The work was kept at
          *The problem was seen about

          *The money was gone without
          *The accident was heard of
  2. Meaning
    1. In some cases the particles are just part of prepositional phrases following verbs.  So we have pairs such as
          get on the bus
          get off the bus
      which is simply the verb get (meaning move position) used with prepositional phrases and not even a multi-word verb.  Compare, for example:
          get home
          get to school
          get over the wall

          get out of danger
    2. Something like run against is clearly a verb (meaning compete with) which determines the preposition and is a prepositional verb like complain about.  It also falls into the first category of such verbs (see above) and can be used intransitively:
          He decided not to run
      or with a prepositional phrase, or two:
          She ran against me in the election
          He didn't run in the election / for the position / in the race
      The issue is one of polysemy; many verbs can have two or more related meanings.  For example, hear can mean
          perceive with the ear
          be told of / learn about.
      In such cases, the preposition can be replaced by another with little change in meaning: hear of/about, learn of/about etc.  With proper phrasal verbs, that's not possible.  By this definition, hear of and learn of are not phrasal verbs at all.  They are prepositional.
      Similar considerations apply to a verb such as join in where the preposition is determined by the meaning of join.
    3. Some are metaphorical extensions of either the verb's meaning or the locative use of the preposition.  For example, fall behind is a metaphorical use of the verb and preposition and so is lean on.  For example:
          He leant on the bar
      contains a simple prepositional phrase telling us where he leant, but:
          He leant on his brother until he agreed
      contains a metaphorical use of the prepositional phrase meaning oppress or urge.  It is arguably a phrasal verb because we cannot replace the particle without changing the meaning and:
          He leant across his brother
      is simply a verb plus a prepositional phrase with a different meaning.
      However, whether and to what extent the meaning of the verb has been changed by the addition of on in the case of a metaphorical use of lean on is a debatable point.

      With break into a conversation we have a metaphorical use based on the idea of breaking into something physical like a house.  The verb often has the sense of interrupt and so we can replace the particle with a number of others:
          He broke off the conversation to answer his phone
          The school broke up for the holidays
          They broke into song

      The verb touch is another good example of extending the sense of the verb (meet, contact, handle etc.) and using it metaphorically to mean briefly refer to.  A metaphorical use does not magically turn the verb into any kind of phrasal verb at all.
      (For more on metaphor and polysemy, refer to the guide to polysemy and homonymy linked in the list of related guides at the end.  There is also a brief section below which may explain a little more.)
    4. Many of the verbs in this category are, or can be described as, delexicalised verbs which take their meanings from the context in which they are used.  Examples are:
      do | have | get | go | make | put | set | take
      get, for example, can mean: receive, experience, contract, attain, fetch, prepare, find, travel by, obtain, contact, reach.
      Many of them do form real phrasal verbs but many will also function with prepositions and take their meaning from the prepositional phrase which follows them.
      For example, the verb go, normally intransitive, can be followed by an adverb and an object to change its meaning from depart as in, e.g.:
          I must go now
      to manage as in
          She goes without breakfast
      and it is the particle, arguably a preposition, which determines the meaning of go.  If we compare:
          They left without breakfast
          She arrived without her family

      etc. the prepositional nature of the particle in go without becomes more apparent.
      Because delexicalised verbs take their meaning primarily from the particle and contribute little meaning themselves, it is quite doubtful whether any of the combinations with such verbs should be analysed as phrasal verbs at all.
      (For more on delexicalised verbs, refer to the guide to the Lexical Approach linked in the list of related guides at the end.)
      Other verbs, not usually considered delexicalised, may also take their meaning from the adverb with which they collocate so, for example:
          They picked out the best student (selected)
          They picked on the best student (bullied)
          They lived on seafood and vegetables (ate)
          They lived by fishing (earned a living)
    5. Meaning may be almost fully opaque rather than obviously metaphorical.  For example:
          I ran into Mary yesterday
      is often described as an inseparable phrasal verb because the meaning is clearly metaphorical and does not mean physically contact necessarily.  The same phenomenon can be seen with, e.g.:
          I bumped into him quite by chance
          I looked after his children

      These verbs are not phrasal in our analysis because the particles are prepositions, not adverbs.  We can use other prepositions with these verbs to arrive at different meanings:
          I ran by Mary yesterday
          I looked for his children

      and these are clearly different meanings but not of the main verbs run and look.  The verb bump can also be used with other prepositional phrases such as:
          I bumped the car into the wall
          I bumped the bicycle over the kerb

      The words into and after are prepositional in nature and not adverbial as they cannot stand alone.  We allow:
          I went afterwards (the adverb)
      but not
          *I went after (the preposition which demands a complement)
          I walked in (adverbial)
      but not
          *I walked into (prepositional requiring a complement)
      So a better analysis is that we have metaphorical uses of the verbs run, look and bump combining with prepositional phrases.  If that is the case, they are neither prepositional nor phrasal verbs proper.

It is possible to teach all these so-called inseparable phrasal verbs as if they were phrasal verbs, even when they aren't, but they don't share grammatical structures or semantic phenomena with real phrasal verbs (even if metaphorical meaning needs to be found).  They are better treated in the classroom along with prepositional verbs with which they share fundamental sentence structures or simply as verbs which happen to collocate with or are followed by a limited range of prepositions or adverbs.

By this analysis is it perfectly acceptable to classify all so-called inseparable transitive phrasal verbs as prepositional verbs and treat them that way in the classroom.



in to or into
or onto?

There is some confusion concerning the distinction between the expressions as two words and as single words which can be treated here.
We saw above that neither into nor onto can be adverbs so they cannot, by definition, form part of a phrasal verb.  Both, can, however, be prepositional.  This means that we cannot allow either:
    *John ran into
    *Mary put it onto
because prepositions cannot exist without a stated or implied complement or object.


wake up

Intransitive phrasal verbs

Coffee helps me wake up  

This is the simplest pattern.  Here are some examples:

Look out!  It's falling!
I can’t get up early.
The plane’s taken off.
Something’ll turn up.
The car broke down.
He’s growing up.
My legs gave out.
How are you getting on?
School has broken up for the holidays
Don’t let on.
Never look back.
Has he woken up?
It’s worn off.
I dropped off at 10.
Hold on a second.
I give in.
My plans fell through.
I'm turning in.  Goodnight.

They are, of course always inseparable by virtue of the fact that they have no objects to do the separating.  Interposing other adverbs is perilous but sometimes possible:
    It's worn completely off
    ?He's growing slowly up
    *Has he woken yet up?
Interposing prepositional phrases as adverbials is never acceptable:
    *He won't get in the morning up
    *He dropped at ten o'clock by


All of the second parts (the particles) are adverbs not prepositions.  Changing any of them changes the meaning of the verb completely.  Compare:
    He dropped by at 10 (visited)
    He dropped off at 10 (fell asleep)

These verbs are variously interpretable from understanding their constituent parts so while, e.g.:
    I got up early to catch the train
    After winning the scholarship, she didn't look back
are both easily comprehensible by understanding the meanings of up and back,
    I hope something will turn up to make it easier
    She didn't let on that she was in town
are not so easily comprehensible and are opaque, idiomatic uses of the verbs.
It is for this reason that they are probably better learned and taught as chunks rather than word combinations.

A few intransitive phrasal verbs can operate as copular verbs linking the subject directly to an attribute.  For example:
    I woke up hungry
    He turned out bad
    The pictures came out blurred


hour glass

Phrasal-prepositional verbs

We have run out of time  

Phrasal-prepositional verbs are never separable by the object.  In this sense they are better considered a subset of prepositional verbs because they share grammatical characteristics.
In these verbs, the adverb comes immediately after the verb and is followed by the preposition and the object.  The adverb alters the meaning of the verb and the preposition links it to the object.
Just like simple prepositional verbs, these verbs can only follow Patterns 1 and 2 (slightly amended), like this:

Pattern 1 subject + verb + adverb + preposition  + object noun
He ran + out + of + time
Pattern 2 subject + verb + adverb + preposition  + object pronoun
He ran + out + of + it

Patterns 3 and 4 are forbidden so we do not allow:
    *He ran it out of
    *He ran time out of

Here are some examples:

We've run out of oil.
He got away with murder.
She gets on well with her mother.
He looks down on foreigners.
My time is taken up with it.
Face up to the truth.
You put up with too much.
We need to do away with the rule
She came out with a good joke
I must get down to some reading.
I can get by on very little.
The children came out in spots
She went in for yoga.
I can catch up with them.
Stick up for yourself!
He fell out with all his friends.
I look forward to helping.
Don't run away with that idea.
She listened out for the telephone
He looked out for her.
She dropped out of university.
She got out of doing the work.
I did it to keep in with the neighbours.
She went through with it.

These verbs are always transitive or, using an alternative analysis, always require a prepositional complement even when the preposition and the object are ellipted:
    A: Is there any milk?
    B: No, we've run out [of milk].

There are, however, closely related intransitive phrasal verbs in many cases with the same meaning:
    He worked hard to catch up (intransitive phrasal verb)
and often transitive, separable phrasal verbs, too:
    He worked hard to catch the class up
    He worked hard to catch them up
    He worked hard to catch up with the class
(transitive inseparable [of course] phrasal-prepositional verb).

The same considerations apply to these verbs as applied above to prepositional verbs concerning whether they truly form a set of identifiable multi-word verbs.
Arguably, they don't because they can with equal confidence be analysed as phrasal verb + prepositional phrase.  However, in these cases, teaching most of them as single lexemes pays off because the collocational strength of the phrasal verb + preposition is great.  That is not invariably the case because we can have, for example:
    My time is taken up with these questions
    My time is taken up by all these questions
Both those sentences are, by the way examples of how the passive works with phrasal-prepositional verbs and that will be dealt with in the next section.
In particular, the preposition with is so common in prepositional phrases that it appears frequently following intransitive phrasal verbs and does so no fewer than eleven times in the 24 examples above.


Splitting phrasal-prepositional verbs

There are four related issues:

  1. It is possible to insert an adverb between the adverb and the preposition because the verb + adverb constitutes the core meaning.  This is, however, often better avoided:
        We have run completely out of milk
        I look forward greatly to helping
        She ran away immediately with the idea
        ?He looks down often on foreigners
        ?I'll catch up eventually with them
  2. It is also possible to insert an adverbial prepositional phrase in the same position, between the adverb and the preposition but sometimes results in questionably correct sentences, especially with place prepositional phrases:
        He fell out at the end of the year with his parents
        Her time was taken up right up to Christmas with her book
        ?They faced up at the meeting to the facts

        ?They ran out at the hotel of parking spaces
  3. Inserting other adverbs between the verb and the adverb particle is occasionally acceptable but always avoidable and often wrong:
        *I can catch quickly up with them
        *I look greatly forward to helping
        ?He went immediately in for golf
        ?My time is taken wholly up with the work
    and inserting prepositional phrase adverbials in this position is always disallowed:
        *She can catch over the holidays up with the work
        *He looks at all times down on foreigners
        *They fell at the party out with her
  4. The prepositional-phrase part of the clause is mobile in a way that a true multi-word verb does not allow so, for special, i.e., marked, emphasis, notably in cleft sentences, we can allow, e.g.:
        With her, I have fallen out
        On such poor grammar, he always looks down
        It's only on some foreigners that he looks down
        What we need to face up to is the facts
        It is to the lack of money that we have to face up
        It was with the a daftest ideas that they ran away
        It was only with me that she fell out

A trap for the unwary is to assume that if there are two particles, we must be dealing with a phrasal-prepositional verb.  That is not always the case because some prepositions consist of two words and not an adverb plus a preposition so, for example:
     He ran ahead of the clock
is simply a verb (ran) plus a prepositional phrase (ahead of the clock) and the preposition is the complex preposition ahead of.
However, in:
    He pulled away from the other runners
we have a true phrasal-prepositional verb consisting of the phrasal verb (pull away) and the prepositional phrase (from the other runners).
A further example is:
    He pulled out of the garage
in which the words out of constitute a complex preposition, not an adverb plus a preposition.  It is not an example of a phrasal-prepositional verb, in other words.

A further trap to avoid is mistaking a prepositional phrase for a prepositional verb.  So, for example, although
    They drove off up the hill
appears to be a prepositional verb (drove off) plus another preposition (up), that is a false analysis.  It is in fact an intransitive phrasal verb (drive off) followed by a prepositional phrase (up the hill).
The prepositional phrase can be moved around and it can be replaced by any number of other phrases such as in a hurry, down the road, towards the car park etc. without in any way affecting the meaning of the verb drive off.

It may be argued, in fact, as we saw above that all so-called phrasal-prepositional verbs can be analysed as a phrasal verb plus a prepositional phrase.  The fact that a separate category is usually identified for these expressions has more to do with the strong collocational aspect of the preposition with the phrasal verb than any systematic grammatical feature.



Passive forms of prepositional and phrasal verbs

Transitivity implies the possibility of passive-voice use, of course.  The presence of the particle may make the forms difficult for learners to acquire, however, and many choose to avoid them altogether.  That is a pity because the form is simple and only one arrangement of verb and particle is possible.

Making a passive structure requires the verb and its particle to remain unseparated and the adverb particle follows the past participle directly so we allow, for example, with a phrasal verb:
    The house was cut off by the floods
but not:
    *The house was cut by the floods off
and, with a prepositional verb (which does not allow the separation in any case) we can only have:
    The work was interfered with by the woman
not, of course:
    *The work was by the woman interfered with
Because transitive phrasal verbs are real examples of a verb's meaning being significantly dependent on the adverb particle, all separable transitive phrasal verbs can be framed in the passive voice.  We can have, therefore:
    The meeting was put off
    The flowers were picked up
    The wedding was called off
    The fool was thrown out

and so on.

Some multi-word verbs resist any use of the passive at all.  In particular, we cannot have:
    *Her mother was taken after by her daughter
    *The tie was gone with the suit

and only the active forms are allowable:
    The daughter took after her mother
    The tie went with the suit
This is not a phenomenon confined to multi-word verbs because some verbs, such as resemble, cannot be used in passive clauses at all.  For more on that, consult the guide to the passive, linked below.

With ditransitive phrasal verbs, two passive structures are possible but, again, the adverb particle must follow the past participle directly so we can have with a phrasal verb:
    The delegates were given out their badges at the beginning
However, with ditransitive verbs the to- structure (or dative shift) for the indirect object is all that is usually allowed:
    The badges were given out to the delegates at the beginning
    *The badges were given out the delegates at the beginning

Rarely, the for-structure for the indirect object, which denotes that something is the beneficiary rather than the target of the action, is possible so we can encounter:
    The badges were given out for the delegates
    The food was brought in for me.

Ditransitive prepositional verbs only allow a passive with the direct object.  We can have:
    She was thanked for her efforts
but we can't have
    *Her efforts were thanked to her for

Prepositional verbs as we saw above are sometimes classified as transitive or intransitive although there is a sustainable argument that they are all intransitive because none takes a direct object without the intervening preposition.
Because the preposition is not separable from the verb, the pseudo-passive structure is simpler for learners to understand and produce.  However, only some of these verbs naturally make passive structures at all so we can allow, for example:
    The service was complained about
    The children were protected from the weather
    The rain was longed for

and many others but we do not usually allow:
    *£100 was amounted to
    *The cake was consisted of
    *The shopping mall was hung around
    *?The rules were conformed to

and more.
We can draw an analogy with verbs which are undeniably intransitive so we allow, for example, a pseudo-passive construction such as the transformation of
    We arrived at a final figure
    A final figure was arrived at
and it is clear that arrive is not a prepositional verb at all but simply one which often takes a prepositional-phrase adverbial modifier.
As with all intransitive verbs however, the pseudo-passive constructions is not universally available.  We can allow:
    The guests went into the garden
    ?The garden was gone into
is at best unlikely.
The acceptable pseudo-passive transformations do, of course, result in the trailing or stranded preposition much beloved of grammar pedants.  So be it.

Phrasal-prepositional verbs are analysed above.  Here it is enough to note that they suffer from the same inconsistencies as those affecting prepositional verbs (of which they form a subset).  We allow, for example:
    His time was taken up with it
    The law was done away with
    She was looked down on
and possibly a few more.
For many, the existence of two particles in these verbs means that the verbs are disallowed in the passive so most speakers do not allow:
    ?Murder was got away with
    ?The concert was looked forward to
    ?The truth was faced up to

and almost nobody would allow:
    *They were caught up with
    *Golf was gone in for
    *The idea was run away with
    *The rudeness was put up with

One of the tests, as we saw above, to determine whether we are dealing with a multi-word verb at all is the ability to make a passive from the active form.  Many verbs which are often described as multi-word verbs (or even, perilously, as inseparable phrasal verbs) fail the test so we do not allow:
    *The bus was got on
    *The train was got off
    *The food was managed without
    *The book was come across

and many other examples including those given above in the section on inseparable phrasal verbs.

When an expression is formed by a slightly metaphorical use of the preposition, the passive is allowed so we can have:
    The matter was gone into thoroughly
    The problems can be lived with
However, literal use of the verb + a prepositional phrase cannot be used in the passive voice so:
    *The house was gone into
    *I am lived with by her
are not allowable.



The meanings of the particles

Transparency and opaqueness

It is frequently averred that phrasal verbs are examples of idiomaticity because:

  1. They exhibit fixedness: we cannot alter either the verb or the particle without changing the meaning.
  2. They exhibit non-compositionality: the meaning is opaque and cannot be derived by understanding the meaning of the constituent parts.

However, that is not completely true in the case of opacity.
When considering the meaning of the particle in phrasal verbs we need to distinguish between:

of the particle.


Three types of meaning

The key is understanding that there are three sorts of meaning that an adverb may have.

  1. Transparent / prototypical meaning
    It was made clear above that the combination of a verb and an adverb is not always usefully defined as a phrasal verb because that leads to many tens of thousands of possible combinations being construed as lexical chunks which need to be individually learned.
    For example, in:
        I put on my hat
    we have the verb followed by the adverb representing its prototypical meaning.  The adverb on and the preposition on both carry the sense of placement in the normal way and we can compare the prepositional use in, e.g.:
        I put it on my head
    and the adverbial use in:
        I put my hat on
    There is no mystery here and learners are not served well by being told that put on is a phrasal verb in this case.
    For teaching purposes, it is naturally quite easy to start with those phrasal verbs that have a clear transparent meaning because then you can focus on the structural issues of which patterns (1 to 4, above) are allowable.  Later, when the patterns are mastered, the focus can shift to idiomatic meaning.
    Transparent phrasal verbs do not have to be learned as chunks at all but the structural characteristics do need to be learned.
  2. Idiomatic, extended or metaphorical meaning
    However, in:
        He looks confident but he's only putting it on
    we have a metaphorical use of the adverb and in this case, even though some learners may be able to deduce the meaning of the phrase by thinking about the prototypical meaning of the adverb, it does make some sense to analyse put on as a phrasal verb to mean simulate or feign.
    Similarly, for example:
        I have lost my car keys but I am sure they will turn up
    we have a real intransitive phrasal verb, turn up, with an opaque idiomatic meaning of appear.  Phrasal verbs like this often have one-word equivalents and knowing the meaning of the verb and the adverb individually cannot usually lead one to understanding the meaning.
    The issue is one of non-compositionality and it makes teaching sense to treat the combinations as chunks to be learned because analysis of the elements is often fruitless.
  3. Aspectual meaning
    There are two sorts to consider (because English has two particular aspects to signal).
    1. With some adverb particles, most usually up, out and down, a completed aspect of the verb is signalled.  For example:
          We used up all the food
          She filled out the forms
          The battery ran down

      all denote that the verb is to be understood as perfective or completed in some way (the food is finished, the form is completed and the battery is exhausted).
      In this respect, the adverbs up and down often carry the same meaning, because it is aspectual not semantic.  So, for example:
          They shut the house up = They shut the house down
    2. The adverb particle on, on the other hand, denotes an uncompleted, progressive or ongoing event as in, for example:
          They played on in the rain
          Please go on with your explanation

          We worked on until nightfall
      Alerting learners to the aspectual meanings of some particles can be helpful.

Dividing meaning so neatly into these categories is superficially attractive but, of course, there is a cline between wholly transparent meanings and those which are partially or fully opaque.  The cline looks like this with some examples using the adverb on:

Aspectual meaning is placed towards the transparent end of the cline because, once alerted to the aspect of the verb implied by on, up, out, down, learners are often able to see the meanings immediately of phrases such as write on, work on, use up, tidy up, run out, fade out, nail down, track down and others, providing only they are aware of the meaning of the main verb.

Reference has been made quite frequently in this guide to the fact that the meanings of (especially) phrasal verbs cannot be extracted by understanding their constituent parts.  So, for example:
    He fell out with his family
    She came through the operation
    The project ran into problems

are either wholly opaque in meaning or require a leap of imagination to see how the verbs and associated adverbs or prepositions are being used in an extended or metaphorical sense.
This will lead some to class the third example above as a phrasal verb when, in fact, it is simply a figurative use of the verb run to mean encounter followed by a prepositional phrase.
Many other examples are transparent in meaning and require no particular effort of imagination or guesswork to arrive at their meanings especially when there are co-textual clues, so, for example:
    She talked us carefully through the process
    He touched on the topic briefly
    They ran over the safety regulations again

are all comprehensible with a little thought.
The problem for learners is that this does not work in the other direction.  Although a prepositional or phrasal verb may have a meaning which is transparent, it is difficult to guess which adverb or which preposition one should use to express the meaning one intends.

It is often asserted for these reasons that the meanings of the particles are somehow random and that we can't teach them.  However, there are patterns if we look carefully enough.  If we do not consider patterns of meanings carefully, we will inflate the list of phrasal verbs in English to the point at which learners will be bewildered and discouraged.
Here is an example of what is meant.
The verb clean off is a transitive phrasal verb insofar as we can have:
    I cleaned it off
    I cleaned the mud off
    I cleaned off the mud

but not
    *I cleaned off it
The sense of off here combines with the verb to form the meaning of remove.
That's fine so far but to teach all such forms as individual phrasal verbs which have to be learned separately is a waste of your and your learners' time because we can equally well have:

brush off
chip off
chop off
cut off
dust off
hack off
knock off
polish off
rub off
scour off
scrape off
scratch off
scrub off
slice off
sponge off
sweep off
wash off
wipe off

and the sense of the particle combines with the verb to produce exactly the same sort of meaning.  The adverb here follows its prepositional counterpart in, for example:
    He took the mud off the object.
Once a learner is familiar with the sense of the verb take off meaning remove as in, e.g.:
    I took the mud off
the rest will follow.
It will also allow learners to comprehend and produce intransitive phrasal verbs such as:
    He walked off with my money
    She ran off immediately
    They hurried off
    She raced off

    They sauntered off casually
etc. because the sense here is of removing oneself and is unchanged.
With some imagination, this may even allow learners to comprehend (although probably not produce) figurative uses of the verbs such as
    He walked off his headache
    She ran off her cramp
because the sense of remove is still apparent.

The same kind of exercise can be undertaken with many other common adverbs such as: (a)round, away, down, in, off, on, out, over and up.

The fact that some prepositions also function as adverbs explains much about phrasal-verb meaning.  For example, using up as a preposition in something straightforward such as:
    I passed the book up to him
leads quite naturally to unpacking the meaning of the adverb particle in
    I brought up the subject of money
    He wrote his address in the box at the top
allows one very readily to understand
    He filled in the form.
Many other ostensibly opaque meanings of particles in phrasal verbs can be explained by reference to what the word means when it is used as a preposition and employing a little imagination to see how the meaning is more or less the same or slightly extended, but not fundamentally altered.

Think about the meanings of in, out, off, on, up and down using the technique of thinking of the prepositional meaning and then extrapolating it to make reasonable assumptions about the adverb particle meaning or the extended meaning of the preposition in, for example:

and then click here for a list.



Polysemy and the meaning of the verb

Polysemy (the phenomenon of a word having different but connected meanings) is a source of confusion and error with multi-word verbs because the uses of an item may, depending on the possible meanings, be variable.  You will have seen above that it has often been necessary to define the sense in which a verb is being used in the examples.

An allied issue is that people will often disagree concerning whether one use of a verb is in fact a distinct meaning from another.  For example, some will suggest that there are two meanings of go down in:
    The submarine went down
    The price went down
despite the fact that in both cases, the verb just means move lower.
Whether this is an example of polysemy is slightly debatable.  If it's polysemy, we need to teach two separate but related meanings but if it's hyponymy, it's a word with two unrelated meanings.  The latter does not seem a sensible course to follow.
It is pointed out in the guide to polysemy, linked below, that:

the problem of distinguishing between homonymy and polysemy is, in principle, insoluble.
Lyons, cited in Laufer, in Schmitt and McCarthy (1997:152)

When we have cases of undeniable polysemy, the effect is fourfold:

  1. A verb may change category (from verb + prepositional phrase, prepositional to phrasal and the reverse).  For example:
    1. She got off the boat (a verb followed by a prepositional phrase) which cannot be separated:
          *She got it off
      She got off the paint (a phrasal verb meaning remove) which does allow:
          She got it off
    2. He looked up the tree (a prepositional verb meaning look upwards) which does not allow:
          He looked it up
      He looked up the tree on Google (a phrasal verb meaning find in a reference source) which does allow:
          He looked it up on Google
    3. He won't stand for her interference (an inseparable phrasal verb meaning tolerate)
      He won't stand for chairman (a prepositional verb meaning present oneself for election)
  2. A verb may remain in the same category but have multiple senses.  For example:
    1. She took off the stamp carefully (a phrasal verb meaning remove)
      She took off her boss (a phrasal verb meaning ridicule by imitation)
    2. She put on her coat (a transparent phrasal verb meaning don)
      She put on an air of innocence (an idiomatic phrasal verb meaning feign)
  3. A verb may be transitive in one meaning and intransitive in another (i.e., the verb has different colligational characteristics in different senses).  For example:
    1. They carried on with the meeting (a transitive or intransitive prepositional verb meaning continue)
      They are carrying on (an always intransitive phrasal verb meaning have an affair)
    2. The sandpaper wore off the paint (a transitive phrasal verb meaning erode)
      The anaesthetic wore off (an intransitive phrasal verb meaning diminish in strength)
    3. The plane took off (an intransitive phrasal verb meaning begin to fly but also used figuratively to mean leave quickly)
      I took the label off (a transitive phrasal verb meaning remove which has a range of near synonyms including scrape off, wash off, clean off, cut off and so on)
  4. A phrasal verb may be separable in one sense and inseparable in another.  For example:
    1. The company laid the workers off (a transitive, separable phrasal verb meaning made redundant)
      I decided to lay off cigarettes for a week (a transitive, inseparable phrasal verb meaning desist from or stop)

Certain verbs (often referred to as delexicalised) exhibit a good deal of confusing polysemy.  For example, the verb get can be:

  1. A simple verb followed by a prepositional phrase meaning move into a large vehicle (so not an example of a multi-word verb at all) as in, e.g.:
        She got on the bus
  2. A phrasal-prepositional transitive verb meaning continue as in, e.g.:
        Let me get on with my work
  3. An intransitive phrasal verb with a similar meaning, e.g.:
        I need to get on
  4. An intransitive phrasal verb meaning make progress as in, e.g.:
        How is he getting on?
  5. Another intransitive phrasal verb with the allied meaning of form a relationship as in, e.g.:
        They got on well together

Polysemy naturally affects transparency of meaning so, for example, the verb drive is transparent in meaning when followed by a prepositional phrase (so not functioning as a multi-word verb at all) as in, e.g.:
    They drove up the hill
but is less transparent in meaning when it functions as part of a phrasal verb as in, for example:
    A car drove up and the driver called me over
in which both drive up and call over are phrasal verbs, the first intransitive, the second transitive.
Similarly, the verb take on can be a separable, transitive phrasal verb as in, e.g.:
    She agreed to take on the work
in which the meaning is quite easily guessed or an intransitive phrasal verb with an obscure meaning as in, e.g.:
    Don't take on so!

We saw above that the adverb particles can represent a range of meanings (although the assertion was that meaning is not random, often being inferable from the meaning of the preposition).  This adds to the issue of polysemy, of course.
The following makes no claims to be complete but exemplification usually helps.  Below are some of the most troublesome phrasal verbs which have more than two common meanings.
All of these are transitive and separable except those shaded as follows:
transitive but inseparable

Verb Meaning 1 Meaning 2 Meaning 3
take off remove
I took off the label
He took off the Prime Minister perfectly
leave rapidly
They took off in a hurry
set up establish
They have set up a working group
make better
The fresh air and exercise set me up
implicate dishonestly
They police set him up as the robber but he was innocent
set off begin a journey
We set off very early
cause activity
They set the bomb off
make attractive
The flowers set off the table decorations very well
take on begin to have
The hills take on a purple colour in the evenings
compete or fight
The soldiers took on the enemy
be upset
Don't take on so!
take to begin to like
I have really taken to the neighbour's dog
begin a habit
I've taken to playing golf at the weekends
go / escape to
They took to the streets
put off postpone
They put off their holiday
Raw fish puts me off
Can you put the light off?
put out extinguish
I put the fire out
Will it put you out if I am a bit late?
He put his hand out to stop the bus
go on continue
He went on speaking
What's going on?
Going on the figures, it seems we are broke
get on * form a relationship
She got on badly with her father
make progress
They are getting on well
grow older
She's getting on in years
do up seal
Do up your jacket
I'm doing up the spare room
She did up the presents beautifully
work out succeed
The plan worked out
calculate or design
We need to work out a better way to do this
He works out at the gym every day
* In some analyses, this is considered a phrasal-prepositional verb.  See above for the assertion that it is, in fact, simply an intransitive phrasal verb followed by a prepositional phrase with the preposition, with, performing its usual function of denoting accompaniment.



Style and multi-word verbs

It is often asserted that multi-word verbs are informal, colloquial and to be avoided in all formal writing and speaking.
Here's an example from the web:

Phrasal verbs are more informal and are found in informal texts and in spoken language.
Lindsay Clandfield

That is, along with much else we find in this area, half true at best.

It is, of course, the case that many phrasal verbs are informal, but then again, so are many other lexemes in English.  We would not, naturally, expect to find phrasal verbs such as bump into, knock off, pop out and scrub out in formal texts .  Nor, of course, would we expect to find lexemes like junk, bug, shilly-shally, ratty and so on in formal writing and speaking but the truth is that most phrasal verbs are neutral in style and some multi-word verbs, especially prepositional verbs, are actually often more formal than we might expect.  Expressions such as embark on, account for, coincide with, conceive of, consist of, map out, narrow down and so on are neutral at least and some are considered quite formal.
Even some undeniable phrasal rather than prepositional verbs are actually rather formal in nature.  They include:
    carry out (an experiment, a survey etc.)
    point out (identify, note)
    follow up (findings, research etc.)
    phase in (innovations, systems etc.)
    set up (experiments, meeting etc.)
    go ahead (proceed)
and many more.
Some phrasal, prepositional or phrasal-prepositional verbs such as switch on, slow down, take off (clothes), deal with, consist of, die off, go through with, take to and others actually do not have a more formal Latinate equivalent at all or, if they do, have equivalents which are rare words like decelerate.
The prepositional verbs which are stubbornly transitive or stubbornly require a complement such as acquaint with, rely on and account for are also cases where it is not easy to find a one-word equivalent.

Just like everything else lexical, multi-word verbs need handling on a case-by-case basis and it is unhelpful (and slightly unprofessional) to give learners the idea that all multi-word verbs are less formal than the one-word equivalents, even when such things exist.



We can summarise MWVs in three ways: by type, by separability and by transitivity.
If you would like these summaries as a PDF document, click here.

Summary 1: by type, for the big picture


It is as well to treat phrasal-prepositional verbs as a subset of prepositional verbs because the structural characteristics are parallel.
Intransitive phrasal verbs are very simple in structure and can be taught at low levels because they are often common, and have transparent meanings.
The problem, as we have seen is that transitive but inseparable phrasal verbs appear in a different section of the analysis but structurally behave like prepositional verbs.  We have cast a good deal of doubt in this guide concerning whether in fact the category of inseparable phrasal verbs really exists.
By the same token, however, this factor complicates the following two summaries because phrasal verbs make multiple appearances.

Summary 2: by separability:

summary 3 

By our analysis only phrasal verbs are separable.  It is one of the tests for adverb vs. prepositional particles.  A few verbs are always separated but the vast majority are optionally separable by a noun phrase, obligatorily by a pronoun.

Summary 3: by transitivity

summary 4 

Only phrasal verbs can be intransitive multi-word verbs in our analysis.  We have argued that prepositional verbs are intransitive but have dependent prepositions which leads some to refer to them as two-part transitive verbs.  While it may be the case that, for pedagogical purposes, we treat them as learnable items with their prepositions, that does not alter the analysis.
It is just as simple and more consistent to treat them as strongly collocating verb + preposition pairs and teach them that way.

Summary 4: clause constituents

This is a summary of the diagrams above all in one place to see how clauses with verbs really work in terms of what grammatical function the constituents perform.

Not multi-word verbs or prepositional verbs / verbs with dependent prepositions

not mwvs

Phrasal or phrasal-prepositional verbs

all phrasal

The guide to teaching MWVs, linked in the list of related guides at the end, contains lists of the core verbs that learners need to know.  Go there if you need a summary of the most important verbs and want to select what to teach.



The pronunciation of multi-word verbs

It is sometimes averred that the pronunciation of phrasal and prepositional verbs is stable and straightforward.  The rule of thumb is that the second element receives the stress.
It's a workable rule of thumb but unfortunately not always a reliable one.

Prepositional verbs
Because these are simply verbs with prepositions, we can use the familiar rule and leave the preposition unstressed and, often, as a weak form realisation of the word.  For example:
    He cared for his aging parents → /hi ˈkeəd fə ɪz ˈeɪdʒ.ɪŋ ˈpeə.rənts/
in which the preposition for is pronounced /fə/ and the stress falls on the verb.
    He looked at the moon → /hi ˈlʊkt ət ðə ˈmuːn/
in which the preposition at is pronounced /ət/ and the stress again falls on the verb.
In fact, one test of whether we are dealing with a preposition or an adverb is the fact that prepositions may be realised as unstressed or weak forms but adverbs rarely are.
Phrasal verbs
Here the rule of thumb is more reliable.  The main stress will usually fall on the adverb particle and the verb will receive a secondary stress.  For example:
    I found out the reason → /ˈaɪ ˌfaʊnd ˈaʊt ðə ˈriː.zən/
where the main stress falls on the particle out and a secondary stress falls on the verb.
Even when the particle is separated from the verb, the rule applies:
    I found the reason out → /ˈaɪ ˌfaʊnd ðə ˈriː.zən ˈaʊt/
    I found it out → /ˈaɪ ˌfaʊnd ɪt ˈaʊt/
Verbs with noun-phrase objects
However, there is a difference, as the examples show, depending on whether the separation of the verb is made with a noun phrase or a pronoun.
In the former case, the noun retains the stress, especially if it is seen as important as in, for example:
    Look the price up → /lʊk.ðə.ˈpraɪs.ʌp/
but when the pronoun does the separation, it is not stressed so we get
    Look it up → /lʊk.ɪt.ˈʌp/
When there is no separation, the adverb particle can maintain its stress (albeit as a secondary stress in most cases) so we get, e.g.:
    I looked up the word → /ˈaɪ.lʊkt.ˌʌp.ðə.ˈwɜːd/
but, again, if the word is unexpected or carries a marked meaning, the noun carries the main stress:
    I looked up the proverb → /ˈaɪ.lʊkt.ʌp.ðə.ˈprɒ.vɜːb/
Here's another example of this in action.
Although put off is a phrasal verb, in a sentence such as:
    You can't put off the meeting
the pronunciation may well be
    /ju kɑːnt ˌpʊt ɒf ðə ˈmiːt.ɪŋ/
with the stress back on the verb and its object rather than on the particle because the emphasis the speaker wishes to communicate is the importance of the meeting.
Phrasal-prepositional verbs
Here the rule still applies and the adverb is stressed while the preposition is unstressed.  For example:
    She'll make up for it → /ʃil ˌmeɪk ˈʌp fər ɪt/
with the stress on the adverb up and the preposition, for, is produced as a weak form with a secondary stress on the verb.
If the object is a noun phrase, we may mark it if we choose by stressing it.  This is slightly uncommon but normal enough to be teachable.  We could have, therefore:
    I'll make up for my stupidity
as either:
where the verb carries secondary stress and the noun phrase carries the main stress, or
where the verb retains the secondary stress but the adverb is stressed with only secondary stress on the noun.
Weak forms
One of the tests for a phrasal rather than prepositional verb or verb followed by a prepositional phrase is the avoidance of weak forms on adverb particles but their frequent use when the particle is prepositional.  We have therefore, for example:
    He came to the house
as verb + prepositional phrase pronounced as:
but as an intransitive phrasal verb in, for example:
    He came to after the operation
the pronunciation of to is usually the full form and it may be stressed:
and in a phrasal-prepositional verb, for example:
    He faced up to the issue
the weak form of to is again in evidence and is not stressed:
This is not a fully reliable rule and will not work with two-syllable particles such as about, away or across in which the first vowel is almost always /ə/.
It is also the case that many particles such as down, by and off do not have weakened forms.

There is a little more on the quite complicated way that nouns and adjectives derived from multi-word verbs are stressed in English in the guide to word stress, linked in the related guides list at the end.



Word formation with multi-word verbs

Making nouns
Phrasal verbs, in particular, are a rich source of nouns.  For example:
    The car broke down on the motorway → I had a breakdown on the motorway
    Disease broke out → There was an outbreak of disease

When we make the nouns, the normal stress pattern is disturbed and the stress usually falls on the first element, regardless of whether it is the particle or the verb:
Simple verb + modifying adverb constructions are also a source of noun formations so we get, e.g.:
    We don't want anyone to come back to us on this → We don't want any comebacks
    She told everyone how to log on to the site → She gave everyone their logons
Making adjectives
This is a similarly rich source.  For example:
    He cheered her up → She felt cheered up
    They closed the site down → The site appeared closed down

We have chosen here to use pseudo-copular verbs, feel and appear but we can make the same forms with the real or colourless copula, be and then the sentences appear in the passive:
    He cheered her up → She was cheered up
    They closed the site down → The site was closed down
In these cases, the use of the verb is not adjectival but passive so the usual rule of stress on the particle is followed.  Even when the word is used more certainly as a predicative adjective, the rule applies, so, in:
    The kid seemed very mixed up
    The colour was washed out
the stress will usually fall on the particle as in:
When the adjective is used attributively (before the noun), stress tends to be more even:
    It was a burnt-out house in a run-down area.
in which the verb and the particle carry even stresses:
/ɪt wəz ə ˈbɜːnt ˈaʊt ˈhaʊs ɪn ə ˈrʌn.ˈdaʊn ˈeə.riə/
A few verb + adverb structures can also be used to form compound adjectives as in, e.g.:
    We need to turn this around quickly → We need a quick turnaround time
Very informally, a few multi-word verbs can form adjectives with the -able suffix, e.g., unputdownable to mean gripping, getatable to mean accessible or lockupable to mean securable.


Related guides
teaching multi-word verbs the obvious next place to go which contains lists of the verbs which are central and important to know
a categorised list of MWVs for a PDF document
the Lexical Approach for more about delexicalised verbs
polysemy and homonymy for more on extended meanings, metaphor and figurative uses of language
anticipatory there and it for more about endweighting in English
the passive voice for a guide which has more on ergative verbs and  how prepositions are used in the passive
verb and clause types for more on the range of verb constructions in English
word stress for a little more on how MWVs derived adjectives and nouns are stressed
lesson a short lesson in phrasal and prepositional verbs for low-level learners
colligation for a guide to a useful way of seeing, in particular, prepositional verbs or verbs with dependent prepositions
the essential guide to MWVs for a simpler guide to the area

A useful reference list of multi-word verbs is described in: Garnier, M and Schmitt, N, 2015, The PHaVE List: a pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses, Language Teaching Research, 19 (6). pp. 645-666. ISSN 1477-0954
The PHaVE list seems to be freely available at
The PHaVE users' manual is also available at:
Schmitt, N and McCarthy, M, 1997, Vocabulary - Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press