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Multi-word verbs: Learner problems

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Multi-word verbs are complex and present problems for learners both in terms of their grammatical form and their lexical meaning.

I find that learners around the world tend to panic at the mere mention of their name, and to avoid using them for fear of making mistakes. In this article I shall be looking at why this is and how as teachers we can try to encourage students to use them.

  • Various meanings
  • Collocation
  • Helping students with collocation
  • Particles
  • Pronunciation
  • Grammatical form
  • Conclusion


Various meanings
Many multi-word verbs carry more than one meaning. Thus, learners who are familiar with the meaning of "turn down" as in, "He turned down the radio", have problems interpreting the meaning of "He turned her down" (rejected her) .

  • I have found that it is best to deal with the meaning of the verb that is salient in the text. If the meaning of the verb in focus is to 'reject', then I teach this meaning, without going into the other possible meanings. I find this approach to be clearer and less confusing for students.
  • Richards states that "Knowing a word means knowing its different meanings (polysemy)." This is certainly our aim in teaching, but we must realise that such competence requires time.
  • It is only through reading, exposing learners to texts rich in multi-word verbs, that learners will become lexically competent. "The learner must be allowed to be vague about meaning at first; precision will come later". (Judd, quoted in Carter and McCarthy)


Many multi-word verbs carry a literal meaning, e.g."sit down"," stand up", though many have a non-literal meaning, e.g."I picked up quite a bit of Spanish on holiday last year."

  • If presented through texts, learners can sometimes interpret their meanings quite accurately, picking up clues from the theme of the text and the co-text, but isolated or even heard or read at sentence level, they can be very confusing for the learner.


Multi-word verbs present problems in terms of the words with which they collocate. McCarthy says that collocation is "a marriage contract between words, and some words are more firmly married to each other than others." Thus, "to call off", for example, collocates strongly with "match", i.e."The match was called off due to the rain", and it also collocates strongly with 'engagement', 'wedding', 'meeting'.

  • Students often understand the meaning, i.e. cancel, and then attempt to apply it to other nouns with which it in fact has no relationship. For example, "I called off my English class" sounds strange to L1 speakers, as generally we can only call off events which have been specifically arranged, or that are of a unique, one-off nature.


Helping students with collocation
I try to raise students' awareness of collocation by asking them to underline the nouns which follow certain verbs and then later filling in a collocational grid, matching multi-word verbs to their common collocations, e.g.'Call off', 'set up', 'put off" = 'a meeting'.

  • Alternatively, I have found that collocation bingo works well, as learners have a set of nouns on a card, which they cross off according to whether they think they collocate with the phrasal verb which I read out.
  • Odd one out tasks are also very useful as students are involved in a deeper level of processing, discussing why certain words don't combine.
  • Most of all though, it is through the language which occurs in the classroom that students can really see how the relationships between words matter, provided the teacher draws attention to this.


The meaning of the particles, i.e. 'up', 'on', 'in', can also cause problems as sometimes the particles can share meaning across a large number, but not all, multi-word verbs. For instance, the particle 'up', is often said to express the idea of 'increase', as in 'grow up', 'heat up', 'hurry up', 'cheer up', but this idea can not be applied to the verb 'split up' for example.

  • Many exercises exist which focus on particles and sensitise learners to the shared meaning of a group. I find these to be of value in increasing students' confidence in dealing with phrasal verbs, as they feel as though they have a tool with which to help them unlock the meaning of previously incomprehensible items.
  • As long as the teacher highlights the fact that the generalised meaning of the particle in question is not the same with all multi-word verbs, then these exercises can be useful in facilitating understanding of multi-word verbs, thus aiding memory and ultimately production.


Research shows that words which are difficult to pronounce are more difficult to learn. Phrasal verbs are not too problematic for learners in terms of pronunciation, though misplaced word stress is a common error.

Students are frequently reluctant to give stress to particles. In the sentence, "We did the kitchen up" for example, "kitchen" is stressed, though when we substitute the noun for a pronoun, "We did it up", the stress falls on the adverbial particle.
One way of helping learners is by using graphics, such as stress boxes ( a small black square) on the board, and getting them to mark the stress above words or syllables in the whole sentence and to practise reading it aloud.

Grammatical form
In terms of grammatical form, multi-word verbs present problems for learners as to whether,

a) they are separable or inseparable
b) they are transitive or intransitive
c) they are formal or informal

In responding to these problems of form, teachers can either focus on the rules, i.e., whether they are Type 1 or 2 etc., or adopt a more incidental learning approach.

  • The latter consists of exposing learners to lots of examples, preferably in short contexts which demonstrate their syntactic behaviour.
  • Reading is considered a key means to vocabulary improvement, and research suggests that just using a language can be a potent way to learn it, even without explicit focus on linguistic forms.


Multi-word verbs are therefore quite problematic for learners. However, simply by anticipating and being prepared for problems students may have can do much to erase part of the fear and confusion that surrounds multi-word verbs.

Further reading
Vocabulary by Michael McCarthy
How to teach Vocabulary by Scott Thornbury
Vocabulary in Language Teaching by Norbert Schmitt
Techniques in Teaching Vocabulary by French Allen

Vanessa Steele, British Council, Barcelona