Revisiting ELT Mantras #8: 4 types of phrasal verbs

As a Native English-Speaking Teacher (NEST) who didn’t learn any English grammar at school, it wasn’t until I started training as a teacher and then teaching that I really started to get to grips with the English grammatical – and later lexical – system. In fact, I don’t think there’s ever been a point where I’ve felt I understand the whole system. That’s one of the great things about being a teacher – you keep learning.

When I first started out as a language teacher in the mid-1990s, I was using a coursebook which was, and continues to be, very popular round the world. And it was here that I made first contact with Grammar McNuggets.

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We used to use these in class, too.
 Cassette Sony by Esparta Palma CC BY-ND 2.0

One of the first of these, though part of the lexical, not grammatical system of English, was that of phrasal verbs. At the time it was a completely new term for me. So, being conscientious as I was (it was early days), I started to look into the area. To my delight, I found out that there were four types of ‘phrasal verbs’, each with its own ‘rule’, which meant that there was something ‘solid’ I could teach. The classification went something like this:

Type 1: intransitive, inseparable e.g. sit down

Type 2: transitive, inseparable e.g. look after the children 

Type 3: transitive, separable e.g. pick up the book

or: pick the book up

or: pick it up

but not: pick up it

Type 4: three-part phrasal verbs e.g. put up with your annoying sister

Now while there is some truth to this classification, it does focus attention on a rather limited way of classifying language, and in an unnecessarily complicated manner (for learners). In my experience, teaching ‘rules’ for ‘phrasal verbs’ in this way simply doesn’t help learners notice, recall and use them correctly. In fact, it’s not uncommon that I’ve seen that flicker of panic in the students’ eyes when they hear those two dreaded words, ‘phrasal verbs’.

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It’s OK buddy, it’s just a dependent preposition.
Scared BUT… by Vivek Joshi CC BY 2.0

So what can be done? Well first it’s worth re-examining what we mean by ‘phrasal verbs’. While it’s true that they not only exist but are very common in English, they’re really part of a much larger group of multi-word verbs. The term multi-word verb is often used synonymously with the term phrasal verb, though in fact multi-word verbs can include:

  • phrasal verbs – verb + adverb e.g. shut up!

Here the particle describes the verb, and so it’s an adverb. The  multi-word verb acts as a phrase in its own right as there’s no object (like type 1 above)

  • prepositional verbs – verb + preposition e.g. look up a word in a dictionary

Here, the particle links the verb to an object, so it’s a preposition (like types 2 and 3 above).

  • phrasal-prepositional verbs – verb + adverb + preposition e.g. get on with your sibling

This is a combination of the above, where there is phrasal verb which needs linking to an object – you could say ‘we get on’, but to introduce the object you need a preposition.

  • verb + dependent preposition e.g. apply for a job

In this case the preposition doesn’t change/alter the meaning of the verb, it serves a grammatical purpose.

  • multi-preposition words e.g. she sat down next to me

Many prepositional phrases use more than one word, which can add to the ‘unit’.

  • semi-modals e.g. ought to, have to

These are often grouped together and taught with pure modals, but don’t share all the same characteristics.

  • de-lexicalised verbs e.g. we got there early

These are verbs which have no meaning until collocated with other words (usually nouns) e.g. get, take, have, do, make. Though not traditionally classed as multi-word verbs, they are never used in isolation, so it makes sense to think of them in this way.

So where does this leave us as teachers/learners? If the ‘4-type’ classification given above is so complicated for learners, then surely this will confound things and overwhelm them even further?

Yes. I think it will. The answer, it seems to me, is to treat multi-word verbs simply as another type of lexis. Teach them in context, as part of meaningful phrases, as and when they come up. Little and often rather than trying to give an overview of the metalanguage used to describe them. When you teach beginners the phrase How are you? you don’t attempt to teach them what an auxiliary, subject, etc. is. You just teach it as a friendly greeting. While analysing the form of some pliable grammatical structures is useful, there doesn’t seem to me to be any reason why we should do the same with lexis.

Rather than looking for contrived ‘rules’ to give learners, train them to accept the arbitrary, to sit comfortably with the fact that that there may not be a point where the whole thing ‘clicks’. The desire to keep learning (whether it be about language or whatever) is something we all share in the classroom, after all, as both learners and teachers.

Further reading

Greenbaum, S, Leech, G, Quirk, R, Svartvik, J 1985 A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language Longman

Lewis, M. 1993 The Lexical Approach LTP

Thornbury, S, 1997 About Language: Tasks for Teachers of English CUP

Thornbury, S. 2010 G is for Grammar McNuggets http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/g-is-for-grammar-mcnuggets/(Last accessed 12/10/14)

Willis, D, 2003  Rules, Patterns and Words – Grammar and Lexis in English Language Teaching CUP

Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - https://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00EG71K1Q). I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

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