Demystifying the ‘horrible phrasals’: a closer look at learner problems and the ways of approaching teaching multi-word verbs
by Małgorzata Bryndal

The ‘horrible phrasals’

There is a general consensus that the focus on vocabulary right from the very early stages of language learning is a prerequisite for later proficiency (cf. Thornbury 2002, Nunan 1995, Rivers 1983). Still, certain areas of vocabulary remain underrepresented in teaching materials and avoided by teachers and students. Multi-word verbs (MWVs thereafter) are prime example of this. Despite their high frequency in English (hence great communicative value)(1), MWVs are not promoted in learning early enough. From my learning and teaching experience it seems that they often begin to surface in textbooks and are formally addressed by teachers at intermediate or higher level. Suddenly students are being flooded with them (especially in exam course books), which causes confusion, deters both students and teachers and creates the myth of the ‘horrible phrasals’, as my students call them. These ‘horrible phrasals’ become “…one of the major sources of bewilderment and frustration in the process of learning English”(Marks 2005, p.1).

Adding to this bewilderment are deeply instilled (in learners and teachers) misconceptions about MWVs in English, such as, e.g., the belief that they are unique to the English language or that they are all informal or colloquial, and illogical. Yet, there is enough evidence from comparative linguistics, corpus linguistics or semantics to contest such claims and prove that MWVs are no different than other categories of vocabulary in English. Marks (2005a) explains that MWVs are part of a broader lexical formation process of combining verb elements with a limited number of particles which is common in Germanic languages just as much as it is in Slavonic and Romance languages(2). These combinations are semantically motivated and not arbitrary (cf. Moon 2005, and discussion in paragraph 2.2), and as the data in Longman’s language corpora indicates, the distribution of MWVs across different text types is roughly the same as the distribution of English verbs in general(3).

My learners, despite being exposed to MVW from the beginning of their course(4), have recurring problems with them. This made me realise that MWV needed to be addressed more systematically: students needed even more exposure, more consciousness-raising exercises and more guidance with organising their internal lexicons.

Linguistic analysis of MWV

2.1 Form – See Appendix A.

2.2 Meaning and Use.

In MWVs the verb and particle(s) function as inseparable parts of a single unit of meaning, i.e. they constitute a lexeme. In many MWVs, the combination of verb and particle is motivated by the inherent meaning of these components, and so the meaning of a lexeme they constitute is not random, or illogical. These verbs retain the meaning of their individual parts and can be understood quite literally.

A lot of MWVs, however, are more semantically opaque or metaphorical(5) (Moon 2005) and their meaning cannot be easily deduced from an understanding of the constituent parts, e.g. give in=surrender (Gairns & Redman 1986, Parrot 2000). It is this latter category that creates most difficulty and contributes to the mystique that surrounds MWVs for many EFL learners. To make things worse, polysemy is common amongst MWVs and within the range of meanings of one MWV some can be literal bring up the paper, some semi-idiomatic (metaphorical) bring up a subject, and some idiomatic bring up children (Thornbury 2002).

Students and teachers often believe that MWVs should only be used in ‘colloquial’ contexts. It is partly true, everyday talks are full of lexical chunks such as chill out, pop into, hang out, which are very informal indeed. This belief is further reinforced by the fact that many MWVs have single-word ‘equivalents’ (or synonyms), which are thought of as more formal, e.g.: pick up – accelerate, put out – extinguish. Students assume that MWVs should be used mainly in speaking rather than writing, whereas their ‘formal’ single-word equivalents are more appropriate in writing. Fletcher (2005) points out that this is an oversimplification and can lead to unnatural or over-formal language use. MWVs are used across all types of text, even when the writer or speaker has the option of choosing a single-word alternative. They tend to enter the language through casual speech, but gradually become accepted across a wider range of texts, reaching even the most technical or conservative text types. In fact, there are situations in which a multi-word verb may be more appropriate than a single-word equivalent; there are cases where it is the multi-word verb that is neutral and has a wider range of contexts, whilst its equivalent is extremely formal (e.g.: slow down – decelerate). Also, not all MWVs have the single-word equivalents so they are used even in very formal written registers (e.g. look forward to), (Parrott 2000, Fletcher 2005).

3. Typical difficulties for learners.

In my teaching experience the problems for learners with MWVs often start with comprehension, i.e. inability to recognise the multi-word form/meaning of the verb in spoken and written texts. This issue is directly related to learners’ ability of lexical chunking(6), i.e. perceiving and storing new language not only on a word-by-word basis, but also in a more holistic way: in multi-word units, or lexical chunks, which semantically and/or syntactically form a meaningful and inseparable unit.

To be understood (and used) correctly, MWVs have to be noticed and interpreted as lexical chunks. Learners who tend to translate a written or spoken text word-for-word often fail to notice MWVs. They often assume that each word in an utterance contributes to the meaning independently, e.g.: when coming across a chunk such as look up to (your teacher), learners might think that look up refers to looking in a particular direction. And while this approach might work with some more literal MWV, it will not be useful with idiomatic MWV.

The inability to chunk a text meaningfully leads to even more problems with separable MWVs. It might seem that learners will recognise these MWVs easier, as the particles stand out more clearly. However, the problem with separable MWVs (in spoken and written discourse) is that if learners chunk a text word by word, they tend to focus on the verb part only, ignoring the particles when deducing the meaning and, in result, misunderstanding the message (7). Such problems with recognition are often typical of learners whose L1 belongs to Latin languages branch (e.g. Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian) who are inclined to use words that resemble words in their L1s in place of multi-word forms e.g. tolerate for put up with, connect for put through. In fact, ICLE(8)and LINDSEI (9)data suggest that learners whose L1s do not have typical MWVs use fewer English MWVs than those whose L1s have similar lexical items (Germanic branch of languages, e.g. German, Dutch), (De Cock, 2005).

Sometimes learners are unaware of the range of meanings MWVs can have, and having noticed the form they automatically assume the verb has the meaning they already know(10). More adventurous learners try to infer the meaning of a MWV by looking at the inherent meaning of its particle(s). While they are usually successful with literal MWVs, the verbs with metaphorically used particles can be tricky for them, especially when the particles have more than one meaning hence more than one metaphor(11).

Turning to the problems with production of MWVs, the most common difficulties concern different manipulations on the particles. And so, the learners:

    • leave out the particles altogether (especially when the particle appears not to have an intrinsic meaning itself), e.g.: * He brought this subject during the meeting. In case of phrasal-prepositional verbs learners like to leave out the second particle * I look forward our meeting. Such omissions can be influenced by L1 interference, especially when a prepositional verb in English is not a prepositional verb in students’ L1, e.g.: Polish learners often say I listen radio as in Polish you listen something/someone – the verb is not prepositional.
    • add an unnecessary particle creating a MWV, where a simple verb is needed: *The task involved picking up strawberries; using such idiosyncratic MWVs is usually a strategy learners employ to cope with gaps in their English vocabulary; it can also be a result of intralingual confusion, i.e. when an English verb is used both with a particle (as phrasal or prepositional verb) and as a verb that does not require the use of a preposition, and the two forms have different meanings, learners can confuse them (e.g.: *She attended to English classes. In this example attend to – serve, was confused with attend – go to).
    • choose the wrong particle, especially when the particle does contribute to the meaning, learners tend to use one with similar meaning to the correct one *She wanted to put away the exam date; or when in learners’ mother tongue there is a multi-word verb with equivalent meaning, but it uses a different prepositional/adverbial particle, e.g. German speakers might prefer to say *participate at something, rather than participate in something, French and Polish speakers might say *it depends of…;
    • avoid splitting the verb from its particle in separable MWVs when the object is a pronoun: *She decided to give up it, or insist on splitting inseparable MWV: *He looked the children after very well.
    • avoid ending sentences with prepositions/MWV particles, especially in passive constructions, relative and infinitive clauses, as in: This is the problem that cannot be worked out;

(Cf. Parrott 2000, De Cock 2005)

When it comes to spelling, I have noticed that some learners (in particular those whose L1 uses a different scrip type, e.g.: Pakistani, Chinese) might want to spell MWVs with a hyphen (e.g. *put-up), as if they wanted to emphasise that the parts belong together and constitute one meaning. Such (mis)spellings have syntactic, semantic and phonological consequences as they indicate nouns derived from MWVs e.g.: take-off, take-away.

Using MWVs appropriately can cause problems as well. In my teaching experience, the learners either avoid using MWVs and substitute them with single word equivalents (e.g.: the receptionist connected me to the manager’s office), or are more adventurous and try to use them regardless of register and connotation constraints (this is sometimes called ‘style deficiency’ (De Cock, 2005), e.g.: in a formal letter of complaint: …I was extremely cheesed off by your rude staff…) or collocational restraints ( i.e., lack of collocational awareness, e.g.: *the lesson was called off). The use of MWVs can also be affected by semantic confusion (wrongly assumed meaning of the verb), especially with idiomatic MWVs (cf. De Cock, 2005).

4. Approaches to teaching MWV

Bearing in mind the difficulties learners can have with MWVs discussed earlier, it makes sense to teach MWVs as lexical chunks, together with their syntactic, contextual and collocational features rather than in isolation. This is best achieved in a contextualised approach, in which MWVs are linked thematically, presented through semi-authentic texts such as narratives or dialogues(12). In authentic texts, the relationship between the verbs is often looser than in typical lexical sets, thereby reducing the chances of confusion for students (cf. Thornbury 2002, Steele 2005). In my teaching and learning experience, grouping vocabulary by topic makes the lexis easier to remember, plus lexical sets can be expanded as the learners’ vocabulary develops.

Inductive in its principles, this approach allows the students to use context to infer meaning and learn to notice that many verbs in English are composed of a verb+particle(s) instead of the single verb item. They also learn to notice other syntagmatic and paradigmatic sense relations(13)that exists among words, which helps them develop their collocational awareness and draws their attention to the frequency and usefulness of MWVs. If learners perceive the use of MWVs in natural stretches of discourse they will have models of natural language use to follow.

4.1 Practice activities(14)

To help learners feel comfortable using MWVs after the meaning and form have been presented(15), teachers need to create opportunities for learners to practise and ensure multiple exposures to target vocabulary. As Summers (1988) notices it is only by repeatedexposuresthat a word can enter a person’s active vocabulary, whether in first or subsequent language acquisition. This is where regular recycling and revision of vocabulary through emotionally and cognitively engaging tasks(16)comes into play. In case of MWVs it is very tempting to give students tasks involving a lot of matching (particles to verbs, meanings/definitions to MWV), categorising (transitive, intransitive), sorting (separable, inseparable), grouping (into lexical sets). While there is nothing wrong with challenging our learners, we have to be cautious not to make tasks too complex, as this might actually have an adverse effect, discourage our students and even instil negative attitude towards MWVs (if they don’t have it already). Instead, it is more reasonable to focus on one or two properties of MWVs at a time, giving our students tasks that will not only involve them cognitively but will also help them organise their mental lexicon by building networks of semantic associations (e.g.: topical cross-words with MWVs).

It is also important to help our learners keep a record of MWVs (or vocabulary in general). We need to cater for different learning styles and strategies, giving our learners a choice of recording formats, e.g.: category sheets, index cards, field diagrams, grids, pictures to label, labelling things at home etc. Some learners may not be prepared to organise lexical items in different ways, so the most helpful guidance teachers can give is to show learners how to be systematic in whatever system they adopt.

Students also need encouragement to take responsibility for their own vocabulary development. This not only entails active involvement with new vocabulary in class, but also building strategies for acquiring vocabulary independently out of class (e.g.: context guessing, using a dictionary, memorising techniques such as ‘key word’ or mnemonics etc.(17)). Encouraging learner autonomy could be the most effective way of helping our learners with the task of vocabulary learning.

4. Conclusions

Teaching and learning MWVs do not have to be daunting. It is unrealistic to expect all students to change their fearful attitude towards these lexical items, but by choosing the appropriate approach and activities teachers can do quite a lot to lower this anxiety.

Having done the research for this paper I have realized that, to be effective, teaching MWVs must be systematic, conscious, and not random. I intend to approach it as a process in its own right, and not a mere add-on to my skills or grammar lessons. Remembering that vocabulary learning is item learning but also network building, I will try to develop students’ awareness of word-grammar and ability to notice multi-word items in discourse (i.e. meaningful chunking) by implementing contextualised teaching approach. I intend to allocate more time for vocabulary recycling, ensuring maximum exposure to vocabulary in question, and creative and personalised activities to help students memorise new lexis. I also plan to work on increasing my students’ autonomy and encourage them to take responsibility for vocabulary learning. I will introduce them to the idea of a lexical notebook and will help them organise it by suggesting possible recording formats.

1. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English mentions that multi-word verbs make up 2% of conversation and 1% of academic prose.
2. Marks (2005a) quotes examples of such verb+ particle(s) combinations in German, Swedish, Polish, Italian, Spanish and French
3. According to the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, multiword verbs occur: - 1900 times per million words in fiction, -1800 times per million words in conversation, -1400 times per million words in newspapers, -800 times per million words in academic - they are especially rare in academic writing (but by no means entirely absent). Similar statistics can be found in McMillans’ Phrasal Verbs Plus Dictionary.
4. Classroom language lends itself perfectly for this purpose, as it is abundant with verbs such as: sit down, put your hand up, write this down, etc.
5. Moon (2005) notices that a lot of phrasal verbs are metaphorical and to be able to understand their meaning we have to understand the metaphors they use. When the verb part of a multi-word verb is used metaphorically, it is usually quite obvious; when the particles are used in a metaphorical way it is usually more difficult to recognise. Still, there is a clear connection between the literal meanings of the particle and its metaphorical use. E.g. up used literally describes movement towards a higher position, and metaphorically it has meanings referring to increases in size, number or strength (e.g.: turn up the volume).
6. Fluency is achieved largely by combining chunks, thus reducing processing difficulty. A great part of the learner’s task is to chunk unfamiliar material in meaningful ways and create more effective lexical phrases. Lewis (1993) claims that introducing the idea of chunking to students and providing them with materials which encourage the identification of chunks should be one of the central activities of language teaching.
7. E.g. drop the parcel is not the same as drop the parcel off.
8. ICLE – The International Corpus of Learner English – made up of formal argumentative essays written by upper-intermediate and advanced EFL learners from a variety of mother tongue backgrounds.
9. LINDSEI – The Louvian International Database of Spoken English Interlanguage – a spoken counterpart of ICLE, made of informal interviews between students and native speakers of English.
10. E.g. if they know pick up means – lift they assume the sentence He picked the woman up in the bar refers to physically lifting the woman up.
11. For instance, the particles up and down can have opposite meanings and relate to the opposite ideas of ‘high’ and ‘low’ respectively, and so MWV such as go up – go down are antonyms. But up has another meaning to do with the idea of completion, and down has a meaning to do with ending, and so the following pair of MWVs, although perceived by students as antonyms, mean almost the same thing: break up – break down, wind up – wind down (Moon 2005).
12. Other approaches to teaching MWVs include grouping by the root verb, grouping by the particle, and grouping by the type. They have been discredited in the literature on the subject matter – see Appendix B.
13. Hedge (2000) defines syntagmatic relations as those between items in a sentence (collocations, fixed and semi fixed expressions) and paradigmatic relations as those between items in the whole lexical system (e.g. synonyms, antonyms etc.).
14. Examples of activities, resources and materials in Appendix D
15. Examples of presentation techniques in Appendix C
16. The more decisions learners need to make about words, the greater cognitive depth of the task, and the better chances of these words to be remembered (Nattinger 1988).
17. More examples of learner strategies for learning vocabulary in Appendix E.


Allen, V. French (1983) Techniques in teaching vocabulary. New York: Oxford University Press.
Carter, R., McCarthy, M.
(1988) Vocabulary and Language Teaching London: Longman.
De Cock, S.
(2005) Learners and phrasal verbs. MED Magazine, Issue 35, February 2006. URL:

Felder, R.M., Henriques, E.R.
(1995) Learning and teaching styles in foreign and second language education. Foreign Language Annals.Vol. 28, No. 1, pp.21-31.
Fletcher, B.
(2005) Register and phrasal verbs. MED Magazine, Issue 33, September 2005. URL:

Gairns, R., Redman,
S. (1986) Working with Words: a Guide to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary , CUP.
Hedge, T.
(2000) Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers. Oxford: OUP.
Honeyfield, J.
(1977) Word frequency and the importance of context in vocabulary learning. RELC journal 8: 35 – 42
Johnston, M. (1985) Syntactic and Morphological Progression in Learner English. Canberra: Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs.
Lewis, M.
(1993) The lexical approach. The State of ELT and the way forward. Language Teaching Publications.
Marks, J.
(2005) Phrasaled out? Don’t worry help is at hand. MED Magazine, Issue 32, July 2005. URL:

Marks, J.
(2005a) Phrasal verbs International. MED Magazine, Issue 33, September 2005. URL:

Moon, R.
(2005) Metaphor and phrasal verbs.MED Magazine, Issue 31, June 2005. URL:

Carthy, M. (1991) Discourse analysis for language teachers. Cambridge: CUP.
Nation, I.S.P
(1990) Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Heinle and Heinle Publishers.
Nattinger, J.
(1988) Some current trends in vocabulary teaching. In : Carter and McCarthy, Vocabulary and Language Teaching London: Longman.
Nunan, D.
(1995) Language Teaching Methodology. Prentice Hall.
Parrott, M.
(2000) Grammar for English Language Teachers. CUP.
Potter, E.
(2005) The syntactic behaviour of phrasal verbs.MED Magazine, Issue 32, July 2005. URL:

Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S.
(1973) A University Grammar of English. Addison Wesley Longman Limited.
Rivers, W.
(1983) Communicating naturally in a second language. CUP
Steele, V.
(2005) MWV: Methods and approaches. URL: June 2005.
Stevick, E.
(1976) Memory, meaning and method. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.
Summers, D.
(1988) The role of dictionaries in language learning in Carter and McCarthy, Vocabulary and Language Teaching London: Longman.
Swan, M.
(1995) Practical English Usage. Second Edition. OUP.
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(1997) About Language. CUP.
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(2002) How to teach vocabulary. Longman.
Underhill, D. (2005) Pronunciation and phrasal verbs. MED Magazine, Issue 43, October 2005. URL:

Reference books:
Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., Finegan, E.
(1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Longman

Materials and resources focused on Multi-Word Verbs:
Allsop, J.
(2002) Test your phrasal verbs. Longman. Dainty, P. (2002) Timesaver Phrasal Verbs and Idioms: Pre-intermediate - Advanced (Timesaver). Mary Glasgow Magazines.      
Flower, J.
(2005) Phrasal Verb Organiser with Mini-Dictionary. London: Thomson.
Goodale, M.
(2002) Collins Cobuild: Phrasal Verbs Workbook. Collins Cobuild.
Hardinge, M. (
1998) Get ahead with phrasal verbs. Prentice Hall.
McCarthy, M., O’Dell, F.
(2004) English Phrasal Verbs in Use, CUP.
Morgan, J., Rinvolucri, M.
(1986) Vocabulary. Resource books for Teachers. OUP.
Parkinson, D. (Ed)
(2002) Really learn 100 phrasal verbs, OUP.
Root, C., Blanchard, K
. (2003) Zero In!: Phrasal verbs in context. Chicago, University of Michigan Press.
Rudzka-Ostyn, B., Ostyn, P.
(2003) Word Power: Phrasal Verbs and Compounds: A Cognitive Approach. Mouton de Gruyter.
Watcyn-Jones, P.(
2001) Penguin Quick Guides: English Phrasal Verbs (Penguin Quick Guides). Longman.


Małgorzata Bryndal has been involved in English language teaching for ten years.  She has taught in schools in Poland and the UK.  From 2005 she has been an Assistant Examiner for Cambridge ESOL upper main suite examinations and an Oral Assessor for Cambridge ESOL Skills for Life speaking and listening exam.  She is currently working for English in Chester and occasionally as freelance interpreter and translator.

Małgorzata’s qualifications include a PhD in Linguistics from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland; an MA in Linguistics and Information Science from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland, the RSA Cambridge Diploma (DELTA), and the RSA CELTA (A).

Her professional interests include teacher development and teacher training, L1& L2 phonology and idiomaticity.

You can contact Małgorzata at:

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