Multiword expressions can have both idiomatic and literal occurrences. For instance pulling strings can be understood either as making use of one’s influence, or literally. Distinguishing these two cases has been addressed in linguistics and psycholinguistics studies, and is also considered one of the major challenges in MWE processing. We suggest that literal occurrences should be considered in both semantic and syntactic terms, which motivates their study in a treebank. We propose heuristics to automatically pre-identify candidate sentences that might contain literal occurrences of verbal VMWEs, and we apply them to existing treebanks in five typologically different languages: Basque, German, Greek, Polish and Portuguese. We also perform a linguistic study of the literal occurrences extracted by the different heuristics. The results suggest that literal occurrences constitute a rare phenomenon. We also identify some properties that may distinguish them from their idiomatic counterparts. This article is a largely extended version of Savary and Cordeiro (2018).