Multi Word and Phrasal Verbs

Written by: Larry Walder



Time to read 3 min

When our TEFL or ESOL students finally get the opportunity to visit an English-speaking country they are often shocked at how often native speakers use phrasal verbs which don’t seem to have the same meaning as the verb itself. Moreover, the phrasal verb often has more formal synonyms which could not be guessed from the verbs they are hearing. How can ‘Take Off’ mean to impersonate somebody on some occasions but also refer to a plane flying into the sky? We can forgive our students for thinking that English isn’t logical! When they have begun to understand phrasal verbs, they might come across a phrase like ‘care for’ (somebody), and wonder why in this case the entire phrase seems to keep the meaning of the original verb.

In this article, we will present a quick summary of the differences between Phrasal Verbs and other Multi Word Verbs. In the free download at the end of the article, we will provide some practical ideas and activities for covering this subject in the TEFL/ESOL classroom.

Are you feeling ‘Mixed Up’?

As with many things in English Grammar, there is sometimes confusion or vagueness about the difference between Multi Word and Phrasal Verbs. Though the terms are often used interchangeably, multi word verbs are a wider category of verbs which include prepositional verbs and phrasal-prepositional verbs. We will now ‘look at’* all three categories in a bit more detail. (*We could also say, look into, delve into, check out or perhaps even, pore over…)

Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs such as ‘look up’, ‘get over’ or ‘get on with’ consist of a basic verb + another word or words. The two or three words that make up a phrasal verb form a short ‘phrase’, which is why we call them "phrasal verbs". But a phrasal verb is still a verb. ‘Take’ is a verb. ‘Take Up’ is a phrasal verb. They do not have the same meaning, and they behave differently grammatically. Phrasal Verbs need to be learnt individually in the same way your students learn other verbs or vocabulary lists.

Phrasal Verb Examples

  • The song first came out in 2003. (was published)

  • I came across one of my old diaries. (found by chance)

  • David and Fiona broke up last week. (ended their relationship)

  • He spoke so softly that I couldn’t make out what he said. (hear/understand)

    (Make-out can have a different meaning in American English!)

Some phrasal verbs take an object. In most cases, the particle may come before or after the object if the object is not a personal pronoun.

“Come in. Take off your coat.” Or, “Take your coat off.”

Many websites publish lists of the most common phrasal verbs which are useful for printing out and making cards with. For a more comprehensive list of frequently used phrasal verbs, you could check out the Cambridge International Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs.

Multi Word Verbs

While the meaning of a phrasal verb as a whole is usually different from the meaning of the main verb within it, Multi Word Verbs are verbs plus prepositions and/or adverbs which don’t always change the meaning of the verb being used. There are two main types; Prepositional Verbs and Phrasal Prepositional Verbs.

Prepositional Verbs 

Prepositional Verbs have two parts: a verb and a preposition which cannot be separated from each other. The preposition does not change the meaning of the main verb. Unlike some phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs always require an object.

Prepositional Verb Examples

Prepositional verbs always have an object, which comes immediately after the preposition. The object can be a noun phrase, a pronoun or the -ing form of a verb:

  • Somebody broke into her room and stole her laptop.

  • I don’t like this song. I don’t want to listen to it.

  • I work for a company that provides English courses.

Phrasal Prepositional Verbs

Phrasal Prepositional Verbs have three parts: a verb, a particle and a preposition. The particle and the preposition cannot be separated. Many of these verbs are often used in informal contexts, and their meaning is difficult to guess from their individual parts. They normally follow the pattern; Verb + particle + preposition.

Phrasal Prepositional Verbs Examples

  • He is so unfriendly. I don’t know how you put up with him. (tolerate)

  • Do you get on with your neighbours? (have a good relationship with)

  • We look forward to meeting you at the interview next week. (anticipate with pleasure)

TOEFL/ESOL Activity Downloads

We have not attempted to cover all the grammatical complexities and nuances of Multi Word and Phrasal verbs here, but rather to provide a short and simple summary highlighting the main differences between Multi Word and Phrasal Verbs. In reality, as stated earlier, these English phrases are often grouped together under the heading of phrasal verbs. The important thing is how to teach these phrases and help our students to remember them. To that end, we have compiled a list of activities and lesson ideas which you can download below for free. Most of the activities in this download could be used for all multi word verbs although the descriptions emphasise phrasal verbs in particular. We hope you find them useful.