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Learners and phrasal verbs
by Dr Sylvie De Cock

• Introduction
• Phrasal verbs formed with adverbial particles
   1 Avoidance
   2 Style deficiency
   3 Semantic confusion
   4 Lack of collocational awareness
   5 Using idiosyncratic phrasal verbs
   6 Syntactic errors
• Phrasal verbs formed with prepositional particles
  1 The influence of the learner's mother tongue
  2 Intralingual confusion
  3 Style deficiency
• Practical applications: suggestions for teaching


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:
 •  adverbial particles such as up, in, out, off, down, and through
 •  prepositional particles such as at, for, to, and 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:
 •  experimental data, such as translation tests or multiple-choice tests in which learners have to select the most appropriate verb (phrasal verb or single-word verb) to fill in a gap in a sentence
 •  computer learner corpora, which are electronic collections of spoken or written texts produced by learners (such as essays or transcribed conversations)

On the basis of this evidence, we can identify a number of issues that seem to cause problems for many learners.


Phrasal verbs formed with adverbial particles

The following main problems have been highlighted in relation to phrasal verbs of this type:
1 avoidance
2 style deficiency
3 semantic confusion
4 lack of collocational awareness
5 using 'idiosyncratic' phrasal verbs
6 syntactic errors

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.


1 Avoidance

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.


2 Style deficiency

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:
 •  The state in its turn is responsible for its citizens' well-being and must help out when needed.
 •  . . . many people are constantly getting away from tradition, religion and moral values.
 • The Swedish well-meaning immigration policy is sometimes stopping people from getting into the society.

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.


3 Semantic confusion

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:
 •  He has to find out (discover) new means to fight against them.
 •  Students couldn't put on (wear) a scarf in winter.
 • He will find out (find) that the number of conventional families decreases.
 • Procedures must be taken in order not to let the disease spread out. (spread)
 • The impulse to build up (build) also springs up (springs) from the need . . .
 • . . . because infants grow (grow up) surrounded by them.
 • because sometimes he's like an actor: he dresses (dresses up) as different people

Learners use the right verb but the wrong particle:
 •  They fill up (fill in) many forms.
 •  It is a task which must be carried on (carried out) using the brain.
 • Sect members are told to refrain from talking to their parents and to keep out (keep away) from their friends.

Learners use the right particle but the wrong verb:
 •  We tried to come back to (go back to) Los Angeles.
 •  Saddam Hussein had the power to shut off (turn off) the heat in millions of homes.


4 Lack of collocational awareness

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:
 •  Even the majority of teachers also cut down pupil's creativity either in their lessons or in their exams.
 •  Religion was also a means of calming down eventual revolts and unrests.
 • . . . teaching them moral values and preparing them to set up their own families.

Native speakers of English would normally talk about stifling creativity, quelling revolts/unrests, and starting a family.


5 Using idiosyncratic phrasal verbs

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.
 •  These differences need to be levelled down. (ironed out)
 •  People who decide to marry are usually more responsible and they can trust each other more because they know that in case of problems they do not just split apart. (split up)


6 Syntactic errors

The evidence shows that learners sometimes make syntactic errors involving transitive phrasal verbs being used intransitively, and vice versa:
 •  The state should help parents to grow up better generations.
 •  He or she begins to look for another love, splitting up the relationship.

'I grew up in the countryside' (intransitive)
'Bringing up children (= helping them to grow up) is not always easy' (transitive)

'Jane and Shane have split up' (intransitive)
'They've ended their relationship' (transitive)


Phrasal verbs formed with prepositional particles

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:


1 The influence of the learner's mother tongue

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:
 •  I would also like to comment (comment on) the second part of the title (written by a French-speaking learner: in French you 'comment something')
 •  We don't have enough money to pay (pay for) a flight (Spanish-speaking learner: in Spanish you 'pay something you buy')
 • I am used to using computers or listening the radio (Italian-speaking learner: in Italian you 'listen something or someone')

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:
 •  While the others . . . tried to participate to (participate in) our discussions (Italian-speaking learner: in Italian you 'participate at something')
 •  Athletes that have the honour to participate at (participate in) these Olympic Games (German-speaking learner: in German you 'participate at something'.)
 • And that means to concentrate more in the national policy than in the European one (Spanish-speaking learner: in Spanish you 'concentrate in something'.)
 • It depends of our mental image of the matter (French-speaking learner: in French 'something depends of' something else.)

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:
   And at the same time he is courting to (courting) a lady (Spanish-speaking learner: the equivalent Spanish verb is a prepositional verb.)


2 Intralingual confusion

Sometimes an English verb can take more than one prepositional particle (with different meanings), and the learner confuses the two:
 •  The group . . . consists in (consists of) five students (= is made up of five students).
 •  Religious alienation consisted of (consisted in) the idea that religion send out the man outside of the real . . . (= has this idea as its most important or only aspect)
 • Only a few years back I felt that very few people seemed to care for (care about) the world we live in and the future our children will live in. (= be interested in it and think it is important)

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.
 •  A general feeling of emptiness prompted some students to doubt about (doubt) the value of their university degrees.
 •  Shaw doubts about (doubts) the existence of miracles and saints.
 • Children, in fact, must be trained to discuss about (discuss) violent events as well as about the happy ones they experience.
 • Recently in the Financial Times, the journalist, Joe Rogaly, discussed about (discussed) the possibility of making gun ownership illegal in every nation . . .
 • For years they have been discussing about (discussing) it.
 • We must contact with (contact) people in other countries.

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:
 •  You go to the university, attend to (attend = go to) classes but you don't learn anything about real world.
 •  Once, a shop assistant refused to attend (attend to = serve) her.
 • Some society doesn't approve (approve of = think it is right or suitable etc.) a single unmarried woman with a child. (Compare: Parliament approved the budget = accepted it officially)
 • In such cases, lying cannot be approved (approved of) and regarded as right.

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:
 •  She had consented to marry (consented to marrying) him only after he had conducted a thorough search . . .
 •  However, last year the Queen finally consented to pay (consented to paying) taxes and she will open Buckingham Palace to visitors.
 • So when women prove their skills, men object to appreciate (object to appreciating) them and give (giving) them their due.
 • While they wouldn't object to have (object to having) an 'ex-burglar' work for them . . .


3 Style deficiency

Learners sometimes use, in formal writing, prepositional verbs that are not typically associated with this type of text:
 •  Their communities ought to organize meetings to talk about (discuss) the epidemic.
 •  But the English version of the Treaty talked about (mentioned) land ownership.
 • The problem that I am interested in and I want to speak about (discuss) is the death penalty.


Practical applications: suggestions for teaching

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:
 •  whether or not certain phrasal verbs are more typical of speech or of writing
 •  the syntactic environment of phrasal verbs
 • the words that phrasal verbs tend to combine with

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:
 •  if the learners' first language (L1) does not contain phrasal verbs with adverbial particles, teachers should devote more time to verbs of this type so that the learners become familiar with the phenomenon
 •  if the learners' L1 does contain phrasal verbs with adverbial particles, teachers should raise learners' awareness of any stylistic differences between phrasal verbs in the L1 and in English
 • it is important to raise learners' awareness of any differences between verbs with prepositional particles in their L1, and similar combinations in English.