Multi-word verbs


Multi-word verbs are lexical units, formed to create singular meaning, i.e. Lexeme (Thornbury 2002:6). Often idiomatic and with a seemingly endless string of particles with just as many varieties of meaning (Gairns & Redman 1986:35), multi-word verbs are tricky.

Thornbury suggests that there is no reason to believe that a rule driven approach to presenting multi-word verbs is any more effective than with composite words (Thornbury 2002:125) and presentation in a suitable context, on an item-by-item basis where syntactic behaviour is clearly demonstrated, is optimal (Thornbury 2002:125).

Essentially, our learners should work it out for themselves, i.e. how these language chunks behave and their key features, e.g. this one cannot be separated, this one does not take an object, etc.

It should be stressed that any information our students can deduce is based on a given context and that many multi-word verbs are polysemic in nature (McCarthy 1990: 22), and the form can change:

  • I broke down.
  • My car broke down.
  • I broke down the argument.
  • I broke the argument down.

Through a guided discovery of the semantic characteristics of multi-word verbs, our learners should be able to classify this language under four main characteristics of form: intransitive phrasal verbs, transitive phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs and phrasal-prepositional verbs (Carter & McCarthy 2006: 432-436).

If you would like some boardwork which exemplifies these characteristics, you can download a PDF copy here: Boardwork. Multi-word verbs

Need some lesson materials? You may be interested in these:

  • Phrasal verb maze generator II
    • Input sentences and multi-word verbs.
    • Leave blank to auto-generate different sentences.
    • 8 different mazes with an answer key.
    • Printable.
    • Competitive, collaborative and gamifies learning.

Multi-word verb maze generator II

Multi-word verbs (weather)


Carter, R; McCarthy, M. Cambridge Grammar of English. 2006. CUP

Gairns, R; Redman S. Working with Words. 1986. CUP

McCarthy, M. Vocabulary. 1990. OUP

Thornbury, S. How to Teach Vocabulary. 2002. Longman

Image by Dean Page from Pixabay


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