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Helping Upper Intermediate learners come to grips with multi-word verbs
by Sandra Bradwell

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Knowledge 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 English.
Cowrie, A.P. and Makin, R.(1993:422) Oxford Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs

In 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 to …, 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.

So why are they such a problematic area of L2 teaching?

The 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 + adverb
Verb + preposition
Verb + adverb + preposition

Some 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.

Rosamund 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?

On 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.

The 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.

Learners 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 block off, …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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