Phrasal verbs and collocation
Tuesday 11 October 2011
Our two books for Delta cover the topics of phrasal verbs and collocation, but of course, the topics often coincide. In Collocations for Natural English, we have a unit called ‘Collocations with phrasal verbs’, presenting collocations that consist of a phrasal verb plus a noun (usually) or an adjective (occasionally) – things like put on weight, carry out orders, come in handy and draw up a list.
Phrasal verbs do occur quite often as strong collocates of nouns, and it is important for students to be aware of this, and not to be afraid to use them. It’s fine for them to say ‘start a conversation’ or ‘have an idea’, but how brilliant if they can say ‘strike up a conversation’ or ‘come up with an idea’ instead!
Phrasal verbs are important as collocates in both informal and formal language. We kick up a fuss, pick up a bug and fork out money, but we also draw up an agenda, renege on promises and resort to violence. They are also used where the noun is the subject of the sentence. For example war breaks out and alarms go off.
My co-author, Liz Walter, and I have both worked for many years as ELT lexicographers, and during that time learners’ dictionaries have focused more and more on collocation. Identifying and incorporating collocation into dictionary definitions and examples has been greatly facilitated by access to larger and larger corpora and to ever-improving corpus analysis tools. For some years, we have been able to key in a word and be given a list of its most salient collocations. These lists are calculated using quite sophisticated algorithms that take into account factors such as the frequency of the collocation (i.e. the actual number of times it occurs), the relative frequency of the collocating word in the corpus (the rarer it is, the more significant it is deemed to be), as well as other considerations such as the stability of the relative position of the word and its collocate.
This is all very clever stuff. But one crucial thing that no system I have come across is yet able to do, is to include phrasal verbs in those collocation lists. Corpus tools can recognize ‘heavy’ as a collocation of ‘traffic’ in both ‘I was late because of heavy traffic‘ and ‘I was late because the traffic was so heavy‘, but they are not yet able to identify phrasal verbs as lexical units to be included in a collocation analysis. It’s easy to understand why – the frequency and polysemy of most particles make it a daunting task, but for ELT writers, and not just lexicographers, it’s a missing tool in our kit.
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