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Demystifying the ‘horrible phrasals’: a closer look
at learner problems and the ways of approaching
teaching multi-word verbs
by Małgorzata Bryndal
- 1

The ‘horrible phrasals’

There is a general consensus that the focus on vocabulary right from the very early stages of language learning is a prerequisite for later proficiency (cf. Thornbury 2002, Nunan 1995, Rivers 1983). Still, certain areas of vocabulary remain underrepresented in teaching materials and avoided by teachers and students. Multi-word verbs (MWVs thereafter) are prime example of this. Despite their high frequency in English (hence great communicative value)(1), MWVs are not promoted in learning early enough. From my learning and teaching experience it seems that they often begin to surface in textbooks and are formally addressed by teachers at intermediate or higher level. Suddenly students are being flooded with them (especially in exam course books), which causes confusion, deters both students and teachers and creates the myth of the ‘horrible phrasals’, as my students call them. These ‘horrible phrasals’ become “…one of the major sources of bewilderment and frustration in the process of learning English”(Marks 2005, p.1).

Adding to this bewilderment are deeply instilled (in learners and teachers) misconceptions about MWVs in English, such as, e.g., the belief that they are unique to the English language or that they are all informal or colloquial, and illogical. Yet, there is enough evidence from comparative linguistics, corpus linguistics or semantics to contest such claims and prove that MWVs are no different than other categories of vocabulary in English. Marks (2005a) explains that MWVs are part of a broader lexical formation process of combining verb elements with a limited number of particles which is common in Germanic languages just as much as it is in Slavonic and Romance languages(2). These combinations are semantically motivated and not arbitrary (cf. Moon 2005, and discussion in paragraph 2.2), and as the data in Longman’s language corpora indicates, the distribution of MWVs across different text types is roughly the same as the distribution of English verbs in general(3).

My learners, despite being exposed to MVW from the beginning of their course(4), have recurring problems with them. This made me realise that MWV needed to be addressed more systematically: students needed even more exposure, more consciousness-raising exercises and more guidance with organising their internal lexicons.

Linguistic analysis of MWV.
2.1 Form – See Appendix A.
2.2 Meaning and Use.

In MWVs the verb and particle(s) function as inseparable parts of a single unit of meaning, i.e. they constitute a lexeme. In many MWVs, the combination of verb and particle is motivated by the inherent meaning of these components, and so the meaning of a lexeme they constitute is not random, or illogical. These verbs retain the meaning of their individual parts and can be understood quite literally.

A lot of MWVs, however, are more semantically opaque or metaphorical(5) (Moon 2005) and their meaning cannot be easily deduced from an understanding of the constituent parts, e.g. give in=surrender (Gairns & Redman 1986, Parrot 2000). It is this latter category that creates most difficulty and contributes to the mystique that surrounds MWVs for many EFL learners. To make things worse, polysemy is common amongst MWVs and within the range of meanings of one MWV some can be literal bring up the paper, some semi-idiomatic (metaphorical) bring up a subject, and some idiomatic bring up children (Thornbury 2002).

Students and teachers often believe that MWVs should only be used in ‘colloquial’ contexts. It is partly true, everyday talks are full of lexical chunks such as chill out, pop into, hang out, which are very informal indeed. This belief is further reinforced by the fact that many MWVs have single-word ‘equivalents’ (or synonyms), which are thought of as more formal, e.g.: pick up – accelerate, put out – extinguish. Students assume that MWVs should be used mainly in speaking rather than writing, whereas their ‘formal’ single-word equivalents are more appropriate in writing. Fletcher (2005) points out that this is an oversimplification and can lead to unnatural or over-formal language use. MWVs are used across all types of text, even when the writer or speaker has the option of choosing a single-word alternative. They tend to enter the language through casual speech, but gradually become accepted across a wider range of texts, reaching even the most technical or conservative text types. In fact, there are situations in which a multi-word verb may be more appropriate than a single-word equivalent; there are cases where it is the multi-word verb that is neutral and has a wider range of contexts, whilst its equivalent is extremely formal (e.g.: slow down – decelerate). Also, not all MWVs have the single-word equivalents so they are used even in very formal written registers (e.g. look forward to), (Parrott 2000, Fletcher 2005).

1. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English mentions that multi-word verbs make up 2% of conversation and 1% of academic prose.
2. Marks (2005a) quotes examples of such verb+ particle(s) combinations in German, Swedish, Polish, Italian, Spanish and French
3. According to the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, multiword verbs occur: - 1900 times per million words in fiction, -1800 times per million words in conversation, -1400 times per million words in newspapers, -800 times per million words in academic - they are especially rare in academic writing (but by no means entirely absent). Similar statistics can be found in McMillans’ Phrasal Verbs Plus Dictionary.
4. Classroom language lends itself perfectly for this purpose, as it is abundant with verbs such as: sit down, put your hand up, write this down, etc.
5. Moon (2005) notices that a lot of phrasal verbs are metaphorical and to be able to understand their meaning we have to understand the metaphors they use. When the verb part of a multi-word verb is used metaphorically, it is usually quite obvious; when the particles are used in a metaphorical way it is usually more difficult to recognise. Still, there is a clear connection between the literal meanings of the particle and its metaphorical use. E.g. up used literally describes movement towards a higher position, and metaphorically it has meanings referring to increases in size, number or strength (e.g.: turn up the volume).

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