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irregular or no longer insuperable?
are phrasal verbs difficult?
There is another kind of composition more frequent in our language than perhaps in any other, from which arises to foreigners the greatest difficulty. We modify the signification of many verbs by a particle subjoined; as to come off, to escape by a fetch; to fall on, to attack; to fall off, to apostatize; to break off, to stop abruptly; to bear out, to justify; to fall in, to comply; to give over, to cease; to set off, to embellish; to set in, to begin a continual tenour; to set out, to begin a course or journey; to take off, to copy; with innumerable expressions of the same kind, of which some appear wildly irregular, being so far distant from the sense of the simple words, that no sagacity will be able to trace the steps by which they arrived at the present use.
These sentiments have frequently been echoed in more recent times. Gairns & Redman, for example, write of “the mystique which surrounds multi-word verbs for many foreign learners.”
In this final article I want to review some approaches to teaching and learning phrasal verbs.
Teachers and materials writers make use of various approaches to selecting and grouping phrasal verbs for teaching purposes. These approaches are also reflected in the strategies learners use for learning phrasal verbs, associating them with each other and storing them in their heads and/or in their vocabulary notebooks.
In an influential book on vocabulary teaching, Gairns & Redman are critical of the principle of grouping phrasal verbs formed from the same verb, since the items are likely to be unrelated in meaning, and not memorable for learners. This is clearly a danger to be aware of. They use these examples to illustrate their point:
to put something on
But in fact there is a basic relationship of meaning shared by these and by many other phrasal verbs formed from put, including, for example:
I don’t know who’s been putting
these rumours about.
The ‘focus on the verb’ approach can be used to provide data for learners to look for common features of meaning in groups of phrasal verbs. In this group, for example, they should be able to see how the basic physical meaning of put is extended metaphorically, and how the particles also extend various concepts of physical movement.
Similarly, in this group:
The manager announced he is stepping
Here the connection with the physical meaning is clear
in each example, and grouping them together could be an approach which:
Gairns & Redman have the same reservations about using the particle as an organising principle, giving these examples:
to take something up
These do indeed represent different meanings of up. But they also note that if the particle “does perform a more consistent function with regard to its effect on the meaning of the root verb e.g. ‘up’ adding a sense of completion [...] then the approach is clearly more valid.” This perfective use of up could be exemplified, among many others, by:
In a different set of phrasal verbs with up, the meaning of the particle is ‘beginning to happen, exist, or appear’, e.g.:
Several problems cropped up
just as we were finishing.
Focusing on individual uses of particles, and then perhaps at a later stage mixing different uses for comparison and contrast, can encourage learners to look for and identify systematic features of meaning in the way particles are used.
The third approach Gairns & Redman consider is grouping by a contextual link, for example:
to ring somebody up
Such a link “often allows the teacher better opportunities for further practice and possibly makes the verbs more memorable for the students” but can lead to “the inclusion of verbs which are either of little practical use or are inappropriate to the level”.
The fourth approach is to gather together different meanings of one verb, such as:
to take off clothes
Gairns & Redman consider that this approach “is perhaps best suited for revision purposes with more advanced students.” At lower levels, the different meanings are unlikely to be equally useful.
All four approaches have merit if used judiciously. Here are a few additional principles of teaching/learning phrasal verbs that can be invoked:
1 As well as phrasal verbs, don’t forget to teach phrasal nouns such as outlay and layout, and phrasal adjectives such as outstanding and mixed-up.
2 Use similar approaches to ‘particle + verb’ verbs such as outlast, upset, and the nouns and adjectives derived from them, not forgetting that the same principle of combining particle + verb has also created thousands of words. So provide learners with opportunities to investigate the meanings of elements such as pro, con, di and gress in, for example:
3 Foster an awareness of any similarities between English and the learners’ L1. For speakers of Romance languages, the Graeco-Latin vocabulary of English is transparent, by and large, though of course the English meanings are not always exactly what learners would expect. Speakers of Germanic and Slavonic languages can benefit from noticing less obvious correspondences see Phrasal Verbs International in MED Magazine Issue 33.
4 Start right from the beginning. Teach plenty of phrasal verbs at elementary level, in the context of general vocabulary teaching. Don’t suddenly try to start teaching hundreds of them all together at higher levels.
5 Don’t isolate phrasal verbs from other types of vocabulary. Encourage learners to look for similarities of meaning in sets of vocabulary items like these:
I scraped my elbow when I fell
Similarly, in working on phrasal verbs associated with a theme or topic or situation, mix them in with other useful relevant vocabulary:
to ring somebody up
6 Look for opportunities to illustrate abstract phrasal verbs in cartoons; some learners will produce good ones themselves. For instance, come up with a good idea could be illustrated by a cartoon of a diver coming up to the surface with a shining lightbulb representing the good idea.
7 And, of course, bear in mind all the general recommendations for the teaching and learning of vocabulary: the importance of exposure, recycling, personalisation and so on.
By implementing these suggestions, we can help learners to understand and use particular phrasal verbs, and also to appreciate the hidden systematicity behind the apparent chaos of forms and meanings, and thereby become more independent in dealing with unfamiliar phrasal verbs.
It remains true, nevertheless, that the meanings of some phrasal verbs are not at all obvious, and that learners will in some cases have doubts about word order, stress patterns and register, so that good reference sources are essential. Samuel Johnson was aware of this in compiling his Dictionary:
These [phrasal verbs] I have noted with great care; and though I cannot flatter myself that the collection is complete, I believe I have so far assisted the students of our language, that this kind of phraseology will be no longer insuperable; and the combinations of verbs and particles, by chance omitted, will be easily explained by comparison with those that may be found.
Subsequent developments in scholarship and technology, applied in the spirit of the good Dr. Johnson, have led to the appearance of recent specialised dictionaries of phrasal verbs, such as the Macmillan Phrasal Verbs Plus.
Most of the examples in this article have been taken from
Verbs Plus, published by Macmillan Publishers Limited. Text ©
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 2005 and © A&C Black Publishers Ltd
I’m grateful to Michael
Rundell for alerting me to the quotation from Samuel Johnson.