Teaching particle meanings for phrasal verbs

Monday 24 October 2011

by Liz Walter

Is there any value in trying to teach students the meanings of adverbs and prepositions commonly used in phrasal verbs? Could it help them understand phrasal verbs they have never met before?


I was thinking about this the other day when a friend told me she was ‘Hoxtoned out’, by which she meant that she had stayed at the Hoxton hotel in London so many times that it had begun to lose its appeal. Native speakers do this sort of thing all the time. We have no trouble processing the information that an actress ‘corseted up’ to star in a period drama or that a dancer ‘tangoed off’ into another room.


In our book Phrasal Verbs for Natural English, there is one unit on this topic, in which we cover on in the sense of continuing (struggle on, keep on), up in the sense of making things better, more attractive, etc. (perk up, liven up), off in the senses of dividing something (chop off, cordon off) and getting rid of someone or something (frighten off, sell off), and out in the sense of giving something to lots of people (hand out, dish out).


We included this unit because we felt that it was useful to introduce students to the idea that the meanings of particles are not always random, and that it can be helpful for them to look out for patterns in the phrasal verbs they learn.  However, my own feeling is that this is quite a tricky thing for students to do at anything other than a very advanced level, and that too much emphasis on teaching particles is likely to be confusing.


One of the things that is so difficult about many phrasal verbs is the juxtaposition of common, polysemous verbs and common, polysemous particles.  There are no chapters with headings like ‘Phrasal verbs with give and go‘ in our book – we felt that this (quite common) approach is only likely to confirm students in the idea that they will never master phrasal verbs. Rather than look for patterns, which are often tenuous at best, it is much better, surely, to teach phrasal verbs as single lexical items in common and relevant contexts, particularly for those phrasal verbs we wish our students to use productively.


For comprehension, rather than focusing on the particle, it is almost certainly easier for students to glean meaning by analogy to a complete phrasal verb that they already know.  So, for example, if they have been taught ‘eat up’ or ‘swallow up’ in the sense of using up an amount of something such as money or time, they are much more likely to be able to cope with ‘gobble up’ in the same sense than if they have only been taught that ‘up’ is commonly used for using the whole of something.


In the vast majority of cases, the core of the meaning of a phrasal verb resides more in the verb than the particle. Of course, the choice of particle is never random – my friend could not have said she was ‘Hoxtoned up’ with the same meaning – but if a student can understand the meaning of the verb, the context of use will usually be of much more importance in understanding the whole phrasal verb than trying to work out the sense of the particle. The student who is able to produce ‘Hoxoned out’ is way beyond the level of our book!


2 responses to Teaching particle meanings for phrasal verbs

  1. […] Walter has some interesting thoughts. Share this post: Bookmark on Delicious Digg this post Recommend on Facebook Google Buzz-up this […]

  2. […] particle meanings for phrasal verbs? Posted on 26 October, 2011 by Simon Thomas Liz Walter has some interesting thoughts.Share this post:Bookmark on DeliciousDigg this postRecommend on FacebookGoogle Buzz-up this […]

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