Upper Intermediate learners come to grips with multi-word
by Sandra Bradwell
of a wide range of idiomatic expressions, and the ability
to use them appropriately in speech and writing, are among
the distinguishing features of a native-like command of
Cowrie, A.P. and Makin, R.(1993:422) Oxford Dictionary of
communicative approaches to language teaching learners are
generally exposed to multiword verbs ( ) from a very early
stage in their learning. In any beginner course, learners
describe their daily routine and are exposed to wake up, get
up as lexical items. A lot of classroom language includes
multiword verbs: listen out for the expressions, take out
a pencil and paper, and in these early stages they do not
cause many problems because they are relatively straight forward
as their meaning is literal or the context in which they are
used is very clearly understood. As learning continues learners
meet more complex forms: get on with
, look forward
, which they understand and can use in controlled
situations but which they tend to avoid in freer situations.
At First Certificate level, course books focus on 'phrasal
verbs' in each unit. Different course books classify them
in different ways. It is at this stage that confusion really
sets in because both learners, and teachers, feel overwhelmed
and decide that multiword verbs are impossible to understand
and learn. This is a great pity because they are a common
feature of informal spoken and written English and the distinguishing
feature of an excellent command of the language. Learners
who do make an effort to use them and manage to use them naturally
have the edge on those who do not.
why are they such a problematic area of L2 teaching?
first problem is one of terminology for the teachers - deciding
what exactly a 'phrasal verb' is. The many reference books
can leave you feeling more perplexed than ever. All mention
three basic combinations of verb, adverbial particle and preposition:
Verb + preposition
Verb + adverb + preposition
refer to six patterns, others to four types (see Appendix
1). Parrott classifies the intransitive verb + adverb and
the transitive (separable) verb + adverb as 'phrasal verbs'.
I have decided to refer to these, the prepositional and phrasal-prepositional
verbs as multiword verbs as he does so as not to confuse students
with too much jargon.
Moon (1997:44) mentions three important criteria for helping
distinguish multiword items from other lexical chunks, 'institutionalisation,
fixedness and non-compositionality' (see Appendix 2). She
explains 'the criteria are not absolutes but variables, and
they are present in differing degrees in each multiword unit.'
This points us to some of the problems facing learners. How
are learners to know how 'conventionalised' items are within
the language or how 'fixed' multiword verbs are or how 'literally'
they can be interpreted?
occasions verbs are freely interchangeable: phone up, ring
up. Sometimes, the particle does not affect meaning: phone,
can be used instead of phone up yet hang up, cut off are more
fixed, the verb changes its meaning without the particle.
idiomatic meanings of some verbs perplexes learners. The meanings
may vary on a cline from transparent to very obscure: she's
on the phone meaning she has got a phone is a lot more difficult
for learners to grasp than she's on the phone meaning she's
talking on the phone at the moment. Learners feel safer saying
she hasn't got a phone which is more easily comprehensible.
whose L1 has Latin-based items of vocabulary feel more confident
using a single Latin-based verb in English than a multiword
verb, even though the register may be inappropriate and too
formal. Spanish learners prefer connect to put me through.
Rosamund Moon (1997:46) comments 'phrasal verbs are motivated
and not arbitrary combinations.. ..off can be combined with
the verbal use of most nouns which designate barriers: hence
fence off and so on'. Richard Side also argues
in favour of grouping multiword verbs according to the particle.
It would seem obvious to do this where appropriate and relevant
yet the logic of some particles is not always easy to explain,
they have to be learnt as a set expression.
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