Learners and phrasal verbs
It is well known that phrasal verbs are a challenging area of English-language learning and teaching. In this section, we will identify and offer some solutions for the main problems that learners experience when they try to use phrasal verbs in their own speech and writing. We will focus on combinations of high-frequency verbs, with which learners ought to be familiar (such as go, take, put, and give), with:
There are two types of evidence that help with understanding the kinds of problem that learners have when they use phrasal verbs. These are:
On the basis of this evidence, we can identify a number of issues that seem to cause problems for many learners.
The following main problems have been highlighted in relation
to phrasal verbs of this type:
The following sections are essentially based on data from the International Corpus of Learner English (ICLE) and from the Louvain International Database of Spoken English Interlanguage (LINDSEI). The ICLE and LINDSEI projects are based at the Centre for English Corpus Linguistics, Université catholique de Louvain. ICLE is made up of formal argumentative essays written by upper-intermediate and advanced EFL learners from a variety of mother-tongue backgrounds. ICLE's spoken counterpart LINDSEI consists of informal interviews between students and native speakers of English.
The evidence suggests that learners who lack phrasal verbs in their mother tongue (such as French-speaking or Spanish-speaking students) tend to avoid using phrasal verbs in English. This does not mean that they do not use phrasal verbs at all, but rather that they use fewer phrasal verbs and more single-word verbs than native-speakers of English performing similar tasks. Learners who do have phrasal verbs in their mother tongue, on the other hand, do not avoid using these in English. In fact, Dutch-speaking and German-speaking EFL learners tend to use more phrasal verbs than native speakers in written discourse.
Learner corpus research has shown that EFL learners tend
to be 'stylistically deficient': that is, they appear to be largely unaware
of the differences between informal speech and formal writing. Their formal
writing sometimes contains speech-like features, whereas their informal
spoken language often sounds rather formal and bookish. Learners' use
of phrasal verbs is no exception to this.
Phrasal verbs are often presented as characteristic of informal spoken English. Although this is an oversimplification (phrasal verbs can be found even in the most formal types of text) (see Bryan Fletcher's article in the September 2005 edition of MED Magazine on this topic (ed.)), it is nevertheless true that native speakers of English use approximately half as many phrasal verbs in formal writing as in informal speech. EFL learners, on the other hand, have a tendency to use more phrasal verbs in formal writing than in informal speech. What is more, learners can also be seen to use phrasal verbs that are not typically associated with formal writing. Consider the following examples from learners' formal essays:
Besides style deficiency, one of the possible reasons why learners tend to use more phrasal verbs in writing than in speech is that a writing task usually gives learners more time to plan and encode their messages, and actually consider the possibility of using a group of verbs that they are generally not very comfortable with or confident about using.
In some cases, learners' over-reliance on phrasal verbs in formal writing can be directly traced to the influence of their mother tongue, and more specifically to the fact that in some Germanic languages (for example Dutch, German, and Swedish), phrasal verbs are not marked for style and can be used equally in informal speech and formal writing.
By far the most common errors made by learners when using phrasal verbs are semantic errors, reflecting an incomplete understanding of the meaning of phrasal verbs. All the sentences shown here are taken from the ICLE or LINDSEI data, and in each case a correct or more appropriate word is shown in brackets:
Learners confuse phrasal verbs and single-word verbs whose meanings are related:
Learners use the right verb but the wrong particle:
Learners use the right particle but the wrong verb:
Studies have shown that learners lack 'collocational awareness': that is, they tend to be unaware of the preferred relationships that exist between some words. Some words belong together with other words and occur more naturally with these words rather than with that of other words with the same meaning. For example, if you are using a camera, you do not make a picture but you take a picture. You do not say that 'scientists made an experiment', but 'they conducted or carried out an experiment'. Learners tend not to be aware of these special relationships, which means that they often combine words that do not normally occur in each other's company. Consider the following examples involving phrasal verbs:
Native speakers of English would normally talk about stifling creativity, quelling revolts/unrests, and starting a family.
Learners sometimes use phrasal verbs that do not actually exist in English, either because they mix up verbs, because they use the wrong verb or particle, or possibly also because they feel the need to create a new phrasal verb by combining a verb and a particle to cover a gap in the language.
The evidence shows that learners sometimes make syntactic errors involving transitive phrasal verbs being used intransitively, and vice versa:
'Jane and Shane have split up' (intransitive)
Phrasal verbs with prepositional particles (also called prepositional verbs) are a particularly frequent source of errors, even at an upper intermediate and advanced level. The major sources of error include:
The learner is unaware that a verb is a prepositional verb in English, as it is not a prepositional verb in his/her mother tongue:
The verb is a prepositional verb in English and in the learner's mother tongue, but the prepositional particles differ and are not direct translational equivalents:
The learner is unaware that, although a verb is a prepositional verb in his/her mother tongue, it is not a prepositional verb in English:
Sometimes an English verb can take more than one prepositional particle (with different meanings), and the learner confuses the two:
An English verb is not a prepositional verb (it is not followed by a prepositional particle) but the derived noun is used with a preposition. For example, you discuss something but you have a discussion about something; you doubt something but you have doubts about something; you contact someone but you are in contact with someone.
An English verb is used both as a prepositional verb and
as a verb that does not require the use of a preposition. The two forms
have different meanings, and learners sometimes confuse them:
An English verb is used as a prepositional verb, but learners fail to realize that the particle 'to' is a preposition and not the infinitive particle:
Learners sometimes use, in formal writing, prepositional verbs that are not typically associated with this type of text:
In view of all the evidence of the difficulties that phrasal verbs can cause for learners, it is quite clear that these verbs ought to be treated as 'chunks' – together with their syntactic, contextual, and collocational features – rather than in isolation. Providing learners with lists of phrasal verbs to learn by heart ought to be a thing of the past.
Corpus-based studies of phrasal verbs clearly show the need for a contextualized approach based on (semi-)authentic texts, as this will enable teachers to draw learners' attention to:
Dealing with phrasal verbs as they crop up in spoken and written texts (rather than giving learners lists of phrasal verbs with the same verb or the same particle) will also help learners not to feel overwhelmed or unnecessarily confused.
The learners' mother tongue should also be taken into consideration when teaching phrasal verbs. In particular: