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Defining phrasal verbs for the learner of English 


Phrasal verbs are a common feature of the English language and one which learners encounter at a very early stage. Get up, take off, give up etc. would certainly appear in the vocabulary list of any course book for beginners. Their significance to learners even at lower levels is reflected in the UCLES vocabulary list for the Preliminary English Test which includes 81 phrasal verbs 'all of which are intended for productive use'. 

It is often said that phrasal verbs are largely informal or spoken in register (Cornell:1985:269) and that any learner who wishes to be familiar with the range of registers in English therefore needs to know them. Although many phrasal verbs are used primarily in informal or spoken contexts, (especially those which have entered the language more recently), it is misleading to emphasise this as one of their most distinctive features. If this were the case, it might be argued that their acquisition could come much lower down the list of priorities for learners of English. In fact, a phrasal verb is very often the normal or neutral way of expressing something. For example, the phrasal verb break in (as in, break in through the kitchen window) or put away (as in, put the toys away) are in no way marked in terms of formality. It may indeed be the case that there are more formal alternatives to many phrasal verbs, but this does not mean that those phrasal verbs are informal. 

It is also often stated that phrasal verbs can be replaced by a one word equivalent (Cowie:1993:38). Frequently, this is not the case. For example, there is no one word equivalent for the phrasal verbs draw up or wear out. An attempt to convey their meanings without using phrasal verbs results in unnatural sounding English along the lines of He arrived and stopped outside in a red sports car or If you wear those shoes all the time you'll use them too much and make them unusable. It is simply not possible to successfully and authentically convey these ideas other than by using the phrasal verbs draw up and wear out. Phrasal verbs then are , a normal and essential part of the English language and therefore of great importance to the learner. 

Phrasal Verbs and the Cambridge Corpus of Learner English 

Given the difficulties associated with phrasal verbs one might expect that learners would try to avoid using them. In fact, examination of the Cambridge Corpus of Learner English reveals that this is not the case. Learners appear to be keen to use them, even at lower levels of competence. This informs us that learners are aware of the importance of phrasal verbs. During recent piloting carried out in preparation for the forthcoming Cambridge International Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs a questionnaire aimed at learners of English confirmed this. In addition, it revealed that learners also perceive them as a difficult aspect of the language. A closer look at the Cambridge Corpus of Learner English shows us that learners are not mistaken in their belief that phrasal verbs are problematic for them. It can be seen that they do often make mistakes in their use of phrasal verbs. We were able to identify a range of commonly occurring learner-errors and were then able to use this information to inform the development of the phrasal verbs dictionary. 

Implications for a dictionary of phrasal verbs for the learner of English 

1. Syntax One of the most common errors seen was that of syntax. It was therefore decided that syntax patterns should be shown clearly, avoiding complex coding systems which often require an undesirable and unrealistic amount of effort on the part of the dictionary user. The aim was to present syntax as part of the entry for each phrasal verb and to convey any shift in meaning which is associated with a change in syntax. For example, an entry for the phrasal verb cut out would be presented in the following way: 

cut out sth or cut sth out 

1 (to remove with scissors) 

2 (to remove from text or film) 

3 (to stop doing imperative) 

cut sb out 

to exclude someone 

cut out (of an engine) to stop working 

With this information the learner can trace the sense shifts which are governed by changes in the phrasal verb's syntactic pattern. It is clearly conveyed that an intransitive use of cut out has an entirely different meaning from a transitive use and that a transitive use involving a human object is quite different from a transitive use involving a non-human object. At the same time, it is also clearly demonstrated that when the object of the transitive use of cut out is human, its position is fixed between the verb and the particle, but that when the object is non-human it may be moved. 

2. Object/subject restriction 

Object and subject restriction was also seen to be problematic for the learner and it was thought that this could best be shown through the definition in a way which also reflected the relative fixedness and frequency of particular objects and subjects. An entry for the transitive use of the phrasal verb draw up would appear as follows: 

draw up sth or draw sth up 

1 to prepare something [e.g. list, plan, document] 

2 to move something [esp. chair] near to someone or something 

3 to move your legs or knees closer to your body 

This indicates to the learner that in sense (1) there are many possible objects although they are all of the type shown, that in sense (2) there is one object which is more likely to occur than any other but that there are still other possibilities, and that in sense (3) the only possible objects are the two shown. 

3. Collocation 

It also became clear that explicit and easily accessible information should be provided on the collocational environment of phrasal verbs. An entry should clearly demonstrate which prepositions or which grammatical constructions commonly collocate with a phrasal verb while also conveying an idea of the relative frequency of these collocates. For example: 

join up 

to join with another person or organisation in order to do something (usually + with) Cranwell Design is planning to join up with a shoe manufacturer to create a new range of footwear

join with sb/sth 

to do or say something with someone or something else (often + in) Britain would join with other European countries in providing money for the project. 

join together 

to do something with someone or something else (often + to do sth) Communist trade unions had joined together to call a general strike

4. Other aids to learning phrasal verbs 

Learner dictionaries are increasingly considered as active tools for learning. In the questionnaires mentioned earlier, learners also expressed their need for assistance in knowing when and how to learn phrasal verbs. It seemed logical therefore to consider incorporating other features into the dictionary which would aid the learning process. 

To address the learner's difficulty in knowing which phrasal verbs to learn, it was decided that over 100 important phrasal verbs should be highlighted. The simple and practical message this conveys to the learner is that if they would like to learn some phrasal verbs, these are the ones they would benefit from learning first. 

Similarly we decided to present some phrasal verbs in groups according to their meaning. For example, a theme panel entitled 'relationships' could include phrasal verbs such as go out with, get along, settle down, split up etc. These would help the learner in their productive use of phrasal verbs, by providing them for example with neat, lexical groups for topic-based work. They also provide a logical and practical strategy for learning phrasal verbs which does not restrict them to those phrasal verbs which are formed with a limited group of base verbs. 

Finally, photocopiable exercise material are included in the dictionary. This has the two-fold purpose of providing not only useful practice of phrasal verbs but also a valuable opportunity to develop general dictionary skills. 

Conclusion By carrying out a detailed examination of the Cambridge corpora and by carefully taking into consideration the needs of learners in the ways described above, it is our belief that the Cambridge International Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs will provide its users not only with an accurate description of phrasal verbs, but also with effective strategies for getting to grips with them. 


This article was written by Glennis Pye Project Manager, ELT Reference, Cambridge University Press 


Cowie, A. 1993 Getting to grips with phrasal verbs. English Today 36, Vol 9, No4 

Cornell, A. 1985 Realistic goals in teaching and learning phrasal verbs. IRAL, Vol xxxiii/4 



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