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Verbs: multi-word verbs

from English Grammar Today

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

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 in go around look up put away take 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.


phrasal verb

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 hand them out?

Not: Would you like me to hand out them?

Oh, I can’t lift you up 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 on the responsibility of bringing up a large family of three or four children.

We can use some phrasal verbs without an object:

break down

get back

move in/out

carry on

go off

run away

drop off

hang on

set off

eat out

join in

wake up

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

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)

listen to

cope with (a difficult situation)

get on

look after (a child)

deal with (a problem)

get off

look at

depend on

go into

look for

do without

lead to

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 into his car and stole his radio.

I don’t like this CD. I don’t want to listen to it any more.

Getting to the final depends on winning 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]me of [PO]a girlfriend of mine.

How can we protect [DO]children from [PO]dangerous material on the Internet?

I’d like to thank [DO]everyone for [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 to it?

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 up every new word in a dictionary?

Do you always look every new word up in a dictionary?

Phrasal verb: the object can come before or after the particle up.

Could you look after my 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

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)

Phrasal-prepositional verbs and objects

The object (underlined below) always comes immediately after the preposition, and not in any other position:

She was a wonderful teacher. We all looked up to her. (respected)

Not: We all looked her up to. or We all looked up her to.

Some phrasal-prepositional verbs also take a direct object after the verb as well as an object of the preposition:

fix … up with

put … down to

put … up to

let … in on

take … out on

(do = direct object; po = object of preposition [both underlined])

She fixed [DO]us up with [PO]a violin teacher. We’re really grateful to her. (fixed us up with = arranged for us)

We just put [DO]the accident down to [PO]bad luck; there’s no other reason. (put down to = think the cause or reason is)

(“Verbs: multi-word verbs” from English Grammar Today © Cambridge University Press.)
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