Multi-word verbs are verbs which consist of a verb and one or two particles or prepositions (e.g. up, over, in, down). There are three types of multi-word verbs: phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs and phrasal-prepositional verbs. Sometimes, the name ‘phrasal verb’ is used to refer to all three types.
Phrasal verbs have two parts: a main verb and an adverb particle.
The most common adverb particles used to form phrasal verbs are around, at, away, down, in, off, on, out, over, round, up:
bring ingo aroundlook upput awaytake off
Phrasal verbs often have meanings which we cannot easily guess from their individual parts. (The meanings are in brackets.)
The book first came out in 1997. (was published)
The plane took off an hour late. (flew into the air)
The lecture went on till 6.30. (continued)
It’s difficult to make out what she’s saying. (hear/understand)
For a complete list of the most common phrasal verbs, see the Cambridge International Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs.
Phrasal verbs are often, but not always, less formal than a single word with the same meaning.
more formal single word
We need to sort the problem out.
We need to solve/resolve the problem.
The team only had an hour to put the stage up before the concert.
The team only had an hour to erect/construct the stage before the concert.
Phrasal verbs and objects
Many 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 (me, you, him, us, etc.).
(p = particle; o = object [underlined])
particle before the object
particle after the object
She brought[P]up[O]three kids all alone.
I brought[O]my children[P]up to be polite.
Do you want me to take[P]off[O]my shoes?
Come in. Take[O]your coat[P]off.
If the object is a personal pronoun (me, you, him, us, etc.), we always put the pronoun before the particle:
I’ve made some copies. Would you like me to handthemout?
Not: Would you like me to hand out them?
Oh, I can’t liftyouup any more. You’re too big now!
Not: I can’t lift up you any more.
We usually put longer objects (underlined) after the particle:
Many couples do not want to take onthe responsibility of bringing up a large family of three or four children.
We can use some phrasal verbs without an object:
The taxi broke down on the way to the airport and I thought I nearly missed my flight.
We’d better set off before the rush-hour traffic starts.
What time did you wake up this morning?
A good learner’s dictionary will tell you if the phrasal verb needs an object or can be used without one.
Prepositional verbs have two parts: a verb and a preposition which cannot be separated from each other:
break into (a house)
get over (an illness)
cope with (a difficult situation)
look after (a child)
deal with (a problem)
look forward to
Prepositional verbs and objects
Prepositional verbs always have an object, which comes immediately after the preposition. The object (underlined) can be a noun phrase, a pronoun or the -ing form of a verb:
Somebody broke intohis car and stole his radio.
I don’t like this CD. I don’t want to listen toit any more.
Getting to the final depends onwinning the semi-final!
Some prepositional verbs take a direct object after the verb followed by the prepositional phrase.
associate … with
remind … of
protect … from
rob … of
provide … with
thank … for
(do = direct object; po = object of preposition [both underlined])
Hannah reminds[DO]meof[PO]a girlfriend of mine.
How can we protect[DO]childrenfrom[PO]dangerous material on the Internet?
I’d like to thank[DO]everyonefor[PO]their kindness.
Prepositional verbs or phrasal verbs?
Not all phrasal verbs need an object. Prepositional verbs (e.g. listen to, depend on) always have an object after the preposition:
I’ve got a great new CD. Shall we listen toit?
Not: Shall we listen to?
With phrasal verbs the object can come before or after the particle if the object is not a pronoun. With prepositional verbs, the object is always immediately after the preposition.(Objects are underlined.)
Do you always look upevery new word in a dictionary?
Do you always lookevery new wordup in a dictionary?
Phrasal verb: the object can come before or after the particle up.
Could you look aftermy bag while I go and buy the tickets?
Prepositional verb: the object is after the preposition.
Not: Could you look my bag after …
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.
Verb + particle + preposition
catch up with
get on with
look out for
come up against
listen out for
look up to
do away with
look down on
put up with
face up to
look forward to
watch out for
get away with
look in on
Ken’s just chatting to a friend. He’ll catch up with us in a minute. (reach, join)
Do you get on with your neighbours? (have a good relationship with)
We look forward to meeting you on the 22nd. (anticipate with pleasure)