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Separable and non-separable multi-word verbs

Do you know how to use verbs like pick up, turn down and look after?

Look at these examples to see how multi-word verbs are used.

When you join a gym, you have to fill some safety forms in before you can use the machines.
Let's catch up next time you're in Washington!
We need to come up with a solution to the customer's problem.

Try this exercise to test your grammar.

Grammar test 1

Separable and non-separable multi-word verbs: Grammar test 1

Read the explanation to learn more.

Grammar explanation

Multi-word verbs

There are a lot of multi-word verbs (sometimes called phrasal verbs) in English. Multi-word verbs are made up of a verb and a particle or, sometimes, two particles. The particle(s) act to change the meaning of the verb, so two phrasal verbs can look similar but be very different, for example come on and come in

Multi-word verbs fall into two categories:

  1. literal meaning
  2. metaphorical meaning.

If the multi-word verb has a literal meaning, it is easy to guess (e.g. He picked up the pencil). People often think metaphorical multi-word verbs are less easy to guess (e.g. I picked up Italian quite easily when I lived there). But if you think about it, 'pick up a pencil' means to acquire it and 'pick up a language' also means to acquire it, so there is a connection that might help you remember them. Of course, you can always look them up in a good dictionary too. When you record new multi-word verbs in your notebook, always write them in context, as that will make the meaning clear.

There are two main types of multi-word verbs: separable and non-separable. Because phrasal verbs can have several meanings, it's important to remember that some meanings will make the verb separable and some will make it non-separable. When you know if a multi-word verb is separable or non-separable, you'll be able to use it accurately in a sentence.


With separable verbs, the verb and particle can be apart or together.

He cut the tree down because it was blocking the sunlight.
He cut down the tree because it was blocking the sunlight.

Can you turn the radio down? It's too loud.
Can you turn down the radio? It's too loud.

However, when we use a pronoun instead of the object, it must come between the verb and the particle. In other words, if it is separable, you must separate it when you use a pronoun. 

He cut it down. (NOT He cut down it.)

Can you turn it down? (NOT Can you turn down it?)

Italian was hard but I picked it up in six months. (NOT I picked up it in six months.)

I'm bringing up my children to be polite but I'm also bringing them up to be assertive. (NOT I'm bringing up them to be assertive.)


In non-separable verbs, you cannot separate the verb and particle.

Who looks after the baby when you're at work? (NOT Who looks the baby after?)

I came across your email when I was clearing my inbox. Sorry I didn't reply earlier! (NOT I came your email across.)

I've got over my operation but I still feel really weak. (NOT I've got my operation over.)

Therefore, even when there is a pronoun, the verb and particle remain together.

Who looks after her when you're at work?

Some multi-word verbs are non-separable simply because they don't take an object.

I always think I'm right so I never back down in an argument.
I get up at 7 a.m.

With two particles

Multi-word verbs with two particles act like non-separable multi-word verbs. In these examples, you can't move the object from after the multi-word verb to between the verb and the particle. If you use a pronoun, you also put it after the particles.

Who came up with that idea? I wish I had thought of it myself.
I don't know how you put up with the noise here. How do you stay calm?
I really look up to my grandmother. She was the first woman to go to university in her village.
I really need to cut down on sugar. It's so bad for you!

Do this exercise to test your grammar again.

Grammar test 2

Separable and non-separable multi-word verbs: Grammar test 2

Language level

Upper intermediate: B2