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Language and meaning


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Language and meaning

Most people, when asked what language is for, reply that the function of language is to express and communicate meanings. Certainly this ability to express meanings is an indispensable aspect of language. Most of the other functions of language would scarcely be available to us if our utterances were not capable of carrying meanings. But what sort of things is a meaning? How do we recognize a meaning when we see one? This is not a simple question. Indeed, there is perhaps no other question touching on language to which the answer is less obvious or more controversial. The study of meaning is called semantics, and semantics has for generations been the branch of linguistics in which, more than any other, it has often seemed maddeningly difficult to make any progress at all. Very often semanticist hove not even agreed about which questions ought to be asked, let alone about what the answers might be. In the 1950s, many linguists in the USA became so exasperated with the whole messy business of semantics that they simply defined the subject of linguistics as one excluding semantics, on the ground that the study of meaning was just too much of a swamp to be examined profitably with linguistics techniques. Fortunately, this discouraged view has not prevailed, and semantics is today one of the liveliest areas in all of linguistics. But the questions are still very hard. In this chapter well be looking at just a few of the ways meanings are expressed in language. Conceptual meaning

If a group of language learners are shown three of four examples of a drinking vessel and told that each one is a coup, they will quickly establish some of the features that constitute a cup in English. Indeed, for most learners this will simply involve attaching a new name to a familiar object for which there is an equivalent word in their own language, so recognizing and naming other cups on subsequent occasions should not, in principle, be difficult. However, unlike a word such sun or moon, which refers to a single fixed entity, cup is relatively indeterminate in meaning. Subtle differences in material, shape or function are all sufficient for the object to cease being a cup (in English). Languages rarely divide up the world the world in exactly the same way, and so we should not be surprised if we find students using the word cup to describe an object which is in fact a glass, a mug or even a bowl. Even students whose mother tongue categorizes this group of objects in the same way as English, cannot be sure that this is the case until they have learnt it. To understand a word fully, therefore, a student must know not only what is refers to, but also where the boundaries are that separate it from words of related meaning.


The importance of recognizing the boundaries between lexical items is further illustrated by a brief at look at polysemy. We use this term to describe a single word form with several different but closely related meanings. In English for example, we can talk about the head of a person, the head of a pin, or the head of an organization. Knowing that a single word denotes a particular set of things in one language is, however, no guarantee that it will denote the same set of things in another language. A Spanish student complaining of a problem on one of the fingers of his foot is probably neither a contortionist nor physically deformed, but simply guilty of the erroneous assumption that dedos (fingers) will denote the appendages to the hands and feet in English as it does in Spanish. Unfortunately for him we have two different words. An English student learning Portuguese might encounter the same problem in the assumption that the Portuguese word janela (window) can be used in the same context as it is in English. In Portuguese, however, a window in a house is called a janela but a window in a shop is called vitrine.

HOMONYMY When a single word form has several different meanings which are not closely related, we use the term homonymy e.g. a file ∕fail ∕ may be used for keeping papers in, or it may be a tool for cutting or smoothing hard substances. This absence of relatedness makes homonymy less of a problem, although at a receptive level misunderstandings can still arise as shown by the following exchange which we overheard:

Teacher: If you go to a football match in England its better to buy a stand ticket.

Student: Yes, OK, but is it possible to sit as well?

Strictly speaking, this is an example of partial homonymy, as the confusion arises from the different meanings of the word when used in a different grammatical form i.e. stand as a noun and verb. Nevertheless it is perplexing to find that the noun denotes that part of a stadium that is usually covered and furnished with seats, in apparent contradiction to the meaning of the verb.


Another difficulty with meaning arises with groups of words that shares a general sense and so may be interchangeable in a limited number of contexts, but which on closer inspection reveal conceptual differences. Consider the following sentence: The company has decided to extend its range of products.

The general sense of extend here is to enlarge or make bigger, and in this context the word could be replaced by increase or expand. In practice these notions of enlargement are still variable and there remain overlapping areas, particularly in the case of extend versus increase, and increase versus expand.

Words may also be ostensibly identical in meaning yet have a different reference.

Umpires and referees perform identical tasks but whereas cricket and tennis have umpires, most other sports have referees. And why should lawn tennis be played on a court and football on a pitch?

One of the most exasperating examples of this for learners of English concerns the numeral 0, as can be seen from the following:

My phone number is six o two seven.

Italy beat Spain two nil in the football match.

You must subtract nought point seven.

It was ten degrees below zero in Canada yesterday.

John McEnroe is leading forty love in this game. (tennis)

Teaching implications

The problems outlined in the preceding section may seem to present teachers with an extremely daunting task. If learners can only achieve a clear and comprehensive understanding of a lexical item through an exhaustive analysis of the conceptual boundaries that separate it from related items, teachers may be wondering when they will find the time to teach anything but vocabulary. In practice, there has to be a compromise, and before embarking on a lengthy analysis the teacher must first be convinced that the time will be well spent. For example: is the item of particular importance for the students? Is there a likelihood that a cursory explanation will lead to immediate or later confusion? Is the item required for productive purposes? Are the surrounding items that may be drawn into the teaching point also useful? If the teacher is satisfied that none of these questions will yield a positive answer, he should not feel guilty about glossing over some of the features of the item that may be essential for effective productive use. Returning to an earlier example, it does seem appropriate with beginners or elementary students to teach glass alongside cup. Both items are likely to be useful productive items, and their conceptual similarity makes it imperative that the distinction between them is clearly drawn. Mug on the other hand, is a lower frequency item and the meaning is quite adequately covered by knowledge of cup. Time spent refining the concepts and highlighting the differences is therefore unnecessary.

The position we have taken with regard to cup and mug reflects the widely held view that lower levels should be spared lexis that is superfluous to immediate need, or involves conceptual difficulties that may not easily be conveyed without using language of comparable complexity. Translation is obviously one way round the problem of explaining difficult concepts, although a suitable mother-tongue equivalent is not always available and the teacher may be forced into lengthy mother-tongue explanation to clarify a concept. For important items this is justifiable, but there is the danger of the lessons being dominated by the mother tongue; in the long term this may not be a desirable development.

Without translation at their disposal, teachers would certainly be wise to give careful consideration to abstract items before entering into lengthy and possibly futile explanations. Unfortunately it is unrealistic to try and extend this protection to a point where elementary students are only exposed to concrete unambiguous items. Learners will almost certainly require conceptually difficult vocabulary to meet their own language needs, regardless of whether they are beginners or extremely advanced. Items such as training and experience are potentially very difficult for certain nationalities but may well be essential lexis at a very low level, particularly with business students. When these situations occur, teachers should not be worried about giving an item the detailed attention it deserves, and neither should they feel guilty about making the best possible

use of bilingual dictionaries.

If you decide that an item does not warrant serious attention your teaching should still be informed by an awareness of the potential problems. The students may be quite satisfied with a quick mime to illustrate shiver, but you should not be surprised if they then shiver with fear or excitement in their compositions. Had the possible confusion with tremble and shake been anticipated, these student errors could have been avoided by the briefest of explanations. Anticipating the problems though, is not easy, and there is no substitute for the classroom experience that enables teachers to know when and where problems are likely to occur. Dictionaries offer some guidance, although a more effective reference source is often the Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English, as it groups items within semantic fields and so brings together words that may well have conceptual similarities. First Certificate and Proficiency course books are another useful source, not because they necessary solve the problems for you, but they do at least draw attention to many areas of common confusion. Affective meaning

We are using this term to cover the attitudinal and emotional factors which can be expressed in an item of vocabulary. These are often referred to as connotation.An apparent synonym may on examination prove to have a similar or identical denotation but a different connotation. That is to say, it may have reference to an identical object or action, but the emotional or other overtones attached to its use may differ.(Palmer, 1976)

For instance, Joanna is a single woman differs from Joanna is a spinster in that spinster has a series of evaluative and emotional associations for an English native speaker which would not be true of single woman. These associations may include old, isolated, on the shelf, a sad figure, etc.; in other words, hardly complimentary. The conceptual meaning of both items is, however, identical i.e. an unmarried adult female.

When we examine lexical items from the learners point of view, we can identify three main areas of connotation which are likely to be of interest.

Firstly, certain items intrinsically have a positive or negative connotation. Complacent invariably carries a negative connotation, so the statement I find him very complacent can really only be interpreted as a criticism. Being described as dogmatic or nave is equally unflattering because of the negative connotations involved. Teachers will need to highlight this aspect of meaning, particularly in cases where the conceptual meaning alone does not make explicit the attitudinal force of a word.

The second area of connotation involves items which vary in affective meaning depending on the speakers attitude or the situation. Our understanding of the same item used by different speakers or the same speaker in different contexts may change radically.

One area in which this form of personal expression is very common is in social groupings and political language. Look at the following sentences and compare the use of the word liberal.

a)      Its probably the most liberal rgime in an area rife with dictatorships.

b)      I find the Thatcher governments policy on immigration far too liberal.

c)      Hes a typical liberal −says he supports the pay claim, but he wont come out on strike with us.

The speaker in (a) is using liberal in a positive sense, whereas in (b) and (c) both speakers are using the word pejoratively, albeit from politically different points of view. In other words, the affective meaning of an item can vary according to the context and speaker.

Thirdly, socio-cultural associations of lexical items are a further area of difficulty for foreign learners. Native speakers of a language have a whole series of associations with certain items and these associations are common to the society as a whole. Ask a British native speaker what the associations with Friday the 13th and he will almost certainly say bad luck, broken mirrors, walking under ladders and will list other such superstitions. These associations are extremely unlikely in many countries, though in some countries Tuesday the 13th might trigger a similar series of associations. These are examples of socio-culturally specific concepts; parts of the way of life of a cultural which may or may not be shared by foreigners.

Proper names and place names may well cause learners great problems and food, drinks, clothes and traditions have strong cultural associations. Within these areas, however, there are still likely to be variations of associations from person to person. While nearly every British English speaker would associate Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot and thrillers, some peoples associations would also include a good read on a winters evening, others would think of unsophisticated style or class prejudice.

Teaching implications

It is obvious that many items only have a conceptual meaning and in normal use have no emotional or evaluative associations attached to them. However, where an item has emotional or evaluative associations, we need to clarify this for learners. Since connotation is a feature common to every language, students will not have the process new, but will need to appreciate which item have added affective meaning over and above their conceptual meaning, and whether these are fixed or vary according to context.

Text work (i.e. reading and listening activities) is the most obvious vehicle for dealing with this aspect of vocabulary teaching, since a real context is essential. Even then, the information provided in the text may not be fully adequate.

At low levels, teachers and materials writers normally present items which are of immediate use to students. In the majority of cases, these items do not have strong emotional or evaluative associations. Students of a higher level will be expected to deal with a range of spoken and written language and this will demand an understanding of connotation. However, it may well be of interest or relevance to a low level student to appreciate the connotations of certain cognates and to compare the difference, for example, between an item such as radical in their own culture with the same item in American or British culture. A contrastive approach and the use of the mother tongue may be very suitable in these circumstances.

Style, register and dialect

Some of the more amusing errors a learner can make in a foreign language arise from a lack of awareness of the appropriacy of items. Here we have some examples:

Teacher: Are you going out this evening, Giovanni?

Italian student: No, I have to wash my underlinen.

Female teacher (walking into class): Hello, everyone.

Students: Hello.

Male student: Hi, baby.

We are using style in a very broad sense to include level of formality (i.e. slang, colloquial or informal, neutral, formal, frozen) as well as styles such as humorous, ironic, poetic, literary, etc. the following items are similar in conceptual meaning but differ in style:

children (neutral)

offspring ( formal, sometimes humorous)

nippers (colloquial, often humorous)

kids (colloquial)

brats(colloquial, derogatory)

Registers are varieties of language defined by their topic and context of use; the language of medicine, education, law, computers, etc. come into this category:

e.g. minor is the legal term for child

insolvent is the banking term for penniless

cardiac arrest is the medical term for heart attack

Dialect is used to describe differences in geographical variation (e.g. American English, Scottish English, etc.) as well as variation according to social class. We need not concern ourselves greatly with the latter. Geographical dialectal variety, on the other hand, will produce contrasts such as:

Sidewalk (US) =pavement (GB)

Wee (Scottish colloquial) =small (GB)

Gday (Australian) =Hello (GB)

Teaching implications

Style, register and dialect strongly affect the impression we gain of a learners competence in the language, and this is shown, amongst other things, in his choice of lexis. It is quite common for native speakers to be surprised at the level of apparent formality of foreign speakers, and there are particular problems for speakers of Romance languages through mother-tongue interference:

e.g. There isnt sufficient milk for breakfast, where the speaker simply means not enough.

It can be equally surprising for native speakers to hear foreigners using colloquial language which is either inappropriate (as in hi, baby) or which sounds distinctly odd unless the foreigner is an extremely competent speaker.

Although stylistic appropriacy is clearly important, low level general English learners have a particular need for vocabulary items with wide coverage ; items which are not neutral are likely to be more specialized and perhaps of less immediate value to a beginner. At later levels, it may become necessary for learners to acquire knowledge of a variety of styles, and a particular register or dialect appropriate to their present or future needs. The teachers role here is to select language items carefully and highlight any special features for the learners. Some EFL dictionaries can be useful in this respect to both teachers and learners as they often indicate all three aspects. Bilingual dictionaries are often a notorious source of deception in this area.

Style particularly will affect all learners, although the decision to teach certain stylistic values for productive use must be governed by students need. Colloquial language, slang or literary style, for instance, may be of value receptively to many learners; this would be particularly true in the case of colloquial language for students learning in an English speaking country. They will need to be able to respond appropriately to such utterances as:

Do you fancy a drink?

However, productively these items have very limited use for all but the most competent speakers. It is also worth remembering that many learners need English to converse with other foreigners, and in such cases, a more neutral style will be most useful.

There is a great deal of completely unjustified snobbery surrounding certain dialects of English. Whether a student should learn boot of a car (GB), or trunk of a car (US), or both, is governed by the people with whom he will wish to communicate. On the whole, though, dialect is not a major issue in vocabulary teaching. Students who are learning their English for specific purposes will, of course, need vocabulary of particular registers e.g. medical, banking, legal, etc.

Sense relations

The meaning of a word can only be understood and learnt in terms of its relationship with other words in the language. In our native language, we can easily identify the relationships between words; we know that:

Revolting can be a synonym for disgusting in certain contexts.

Sharp is the antonym for blunt in certain contexts.

Hatchet, pickaxe and chopper are all types of axe, and can be sharp or blunt.

If Bernard is Jeffs employee then Jeff is Bernards employer.

In this section, we will explore these and other sense relations in greater depth.


Earlier in the chapter we discussed several examples of conceptual synonymy, or rather, partial conceptual synonymy e.g. umpires / referee, and increase / extend / expand. It is rarely the case that two words will be synonymous on every occasion. So, when we use the term synonymy we are actually talking about partial synonymy, and the following examples illustrate how synonymy may differ:

flat = apartment different dialect i.e. GB versus neutral

kid = child different style i.e. colloquial versus neutral

skinny = thin different connotation i.e. skinny is more pejorative

conceal = hide as transitive verbs, but hide may also be intransitive

As long as these differences are highlighted, the use of synonyms is often a quick and efficient way of explaining unknown words. A more complex classroom example than the ones above involves synonyms with collocational restrictions. The verb commit may be defined as do or make in the examples to commit a crime or commit an error, but it would need to be pointed out that commit only collocates with certain nouns and is not generally synonymous with do or make.


It would not be accurate to say that fruit equals orange, but we can say that the meaning of fruit is included in the meaning of orange, as it is in the meaning of apple, pear, and plum. We express this sense relation by saying that fruit is a superordinate and that orange, apple, pear and plum are all hyponyms of fruits. In the same way, cow, horse, pig and dog are all hyponyms of the superordinate animals.


There are a variety of different forms of oppositeness which are relevant to learners and teachers; these include complementarity, converseness, multiple taxonomy and gradable antonymy. We feel that it is worth examining these relations in greater depth as they may help to highlight the difficulties students sometimes experience if they are asked the ubiquitous question, Whats the opposite of ?

Note that not all linguists use the same terminology to describe the semantic relations which follow, and alternative terminology has therefore been in brackets.

Complementaries (also binary antonyms or binary taxonomy)

These are forms of antonyms which truly represent oppositeness of meaning. They cannot be graded and if one of the pair is applicable, then the other cannot be. They are said to be mutually exclusive. If a human being or animal is male, then clearly it cannot be female. This is a clear-cut area of opposition and a safe one for the very common teachers question, Whats the opposite of ?


With certain pairs of lexical items, there is another form of oppositeness, called converseness, and two examples follow:

1 a) Julia is Martins wife.

b) Martin is Julias husband.

2 a) The picture is above the fireplace.

b) The fireplace is below the picture.

In the examples above, (a) and (b) paraphrase each other, and we can see the relationship between the pairs as being reciprocal. Family and social relations provide many examples of converses, as do space and time relations.

While there are many cases where the technique of asking for opposites would be clear and effective, there are obviously cases, especially where no context is given, when confusion can arise. A teacher who asks, Whats the opposite of children? might be given the answer adults or parents and both would be fully justifiable. With converses, therefore, it is safer to define clearly and the following technique is useful:

Sue and Jon are Charlotte and Davids parents so David and Charlotte are

Some of these converses may not transfer to other languages. Family relations are a notorious minefield where, for examples, in Spanish, hermanos may mean brothers or brothers and sisters, and cousin has a masculine and a feminine form. Another common problem occurs with borrow and lend, and for a learner whose language does not have two lexical equivalents, there may be great difficulty in visualizing this sense relationship.

Gradable antonyms (also gradable opposites, polar opposites and antonyms)

Sues house is big.

Marys house is small.

Are big and small opposites? Most of us would use opposition to teach these two adjectives, but they are not opposites in the same way as male and female are. In the place, Sues house is relatively big, compared with her old house, considering how many people live with her, in relation to her income and status; Marys house may be relatively small in the light of the same factors. In fact, Sue and Mary might live in identical houses next door to each other, but the sentences are obviously subjective and depend on the speakers opinion. Secondly, big and small form part of a scale of values which will include some of the following: huge/very big/big/quite big/medium-sized/quite small/small/tiny.

Another feature of gradable antonyms is that with many examples, particularly to do with size and age, only one of the pair is commonly used as the unmarked term e.g. How long is the room? (not How short is it?) Its six metres long (not six meters short). This is the case with antonyms such as old / young, old / new, high / low, etc.

Multiple incompatibles (also multiple taxonomy)

These are sets of miniature semantic systems which are of interest to teachers and learners as they are easily memorable, and many occur in other languages. Some of this are closed systems (i.e. having a strictly limited number) while others are open systems (i.e. covering a much wider field, often an indeterminate number). Here is an example of closed system: spring, summer, autumn, winter. Using one item from the set excludes all the others in the same system.

Here are some examples of open-ended systems. These are, of course, further examples of superordinates and hyponyms.

Vehicle: car, bus, lorry, van, etc.

Flowers: lily, daffodil, pansy, geranium, etc.


There are further sets of relations between items which are less easily definable but have to do with cause and effect. The reason for their importance in language learning is that these relationships may offer vital clues when learners are unfamiliar with items and need to guess from context. Also exploited here is the learners knowledge of the world and the need to acquire a good understanding of connectives.

In addition, there are paired sets which express directional opposition e.g. up/down, arrive/depart, come/go.

Part−whole relations

This differs from hyponomy in that while a cow is a kind of animal, an eyebrow is not a kind of face but part of the face.

Items commonly associated with

With this type of relation we are drawing on our knowledge of the world. Ask a native speaker what items he commonly associates with kitchen and he will probably list the appliances, gadgets and general content. Although a certain amount of individual variation is inevitable, the lists compiled by native speakers of the same language are likely to be similar. There is, however, the possibility of sometimes quite dramatic discrepancies from culture to culture. Few British kitchens have waffle irons, and few Argentinian contain kettles.

Teaching implications

In language learning and teaching, sense relations are of a paramount importance. In the classroom, grouping items together by synonymy, hyponymy, antonymy and other types of relations will help to give coherence to the lesson. As a means of presentation and testing, these relationships are extremely valuable, and can provide a useful framework for the learner to understand semantic boundaries: to see where meaning overlaps and learn the limits of use of an item. Their usefulness in terms of organizations clearly extends beyond the classroom; as a coherent record for the student they are very effective.

One final but extremely important function of sense relations is that they help us to make deductions about unknown items. The examples below illustrate how vital sense relations are in contextual guesswork. In each case, the item in italics is assumed to be unknown to the learner.

The village had most of the usual amenities: a pub, a library, post office, village hall, medical centre and school.

You may wish to make explicit to the learner how, in this case, the superordinate term (amenities) signals the examples of the type which follow. The punctuation is also an important clue here. The following examples could be used in a similar way:

Co-educational schools (i.e. mixed sex schools) are more common than they used to be. (synonym)

He was incredibly untidy; the bed was covered in a pile of trousers, shirts, ties, socks, and underwear. (hyponym)

I expect him to be very hard-working but in fact he was very idle. (antonym)

He passed me a knife so that I could carve the meat. (notional relation)

Visual aids, diagrams and trees which make sense relations explicit are also a helpful teaching and learning device. With text work, students can be asked to underline the items which have some kind of sense relationship, such as all the items associated with driving. They could also be asked to find antonyms in a text for a given list of adjectives. Another way of introducing items is to give students a list of co-hyponyms:

carve pare dice slice trim

and ask students to find out how they are related by using their dictionaries.

We have seen how a clear understanding of sense relations can provide greater precision in guiding students towards meaning, and in helping them to define the boundaries that separate lexical items. It should also be evident that the ubiquitous classroom practice of saying its the same as, or its the opposite of, is not always an adequate explanation. Carried to extremes this can erode credibility; if subsequent lessons constantly undermine the validity of previous explanations, the students may lose faith in their teacher. For this reason it is advisable to warn your students if you are using synonymy or antonymy loosely, and give your reason. Telling the students that an excruciating film means a terrible film is perfectly acceptable if your aim is simply to convey a general understanding without causing an unnecessary digression in the lesson; it will probably allay their fears over the new item and allow you to pass over a low frequency item swiftly and conveniently.

Multi-word verbs

We are using this term to describe the large number of English verbs consisting of two, or sometimes three parts:

a)      A base verb + preposition e.g. look into (investigate), get over (recover from).

b)      A base verb + adverbial particle (phrasal verb) e.g. break down (collapse), call off (cancel).

c)      A base verb + adverbial particle + preposition e.g. put up with (tolerate).

As our examples illustrate, there are verb + preposition combinations which share with many phrasal verbs the fact that the meaning is not clear from the individual parts; this probably explains why certain grammar books and course writers include semantically opaque prepositional verbs in their treatment of phrasal verbs. The distinction does not pose the significant teaching problem, but if you wish to pursue the difference we would refer you to one of the grammar books listed in the bibliography. For our purposes we will use the term phrasal verb when referring specifically to verb + adverbial particle, and multi-word verb to include semantically opaque prepositional verbs as well.

In some cases phrasal verbs retain the meaning of their individual verb and particles e.g. sit down, while in others the meaning cannot be deduced from an understanding of the constituent parts e.g. take in (deceive/cheat somebody). It is this latter category which creates most difficulty and contributes to the mystique which surrounds multi-word verbs for many foreign learners. Also contributing to the mystique is the fact that many phrasal verbs have multiple meaning e.g. pick up can mean lift, acquire, collect, etc.

Grammatically, students need to know whether a transitive multi-word verb is phrasal or prepositional. This is because phrasal verbs are separable:

e.g. take off your hat take it off

take your hat off (but not take off it)

while prepositional verbs are not:

e.g. look after the children

look after them

(but not look the children after, look them after)

Finally, there is the question of style. Some common phrasal verbs are informal, and have one-word equivalents which are preferred in more formal contexts (e.g. putt off / postpone; get along / manage). Students will need to be made aware of restrictions of this kind.

Teaching implications

We have already mentioned the obsession with multi-word verbs which seems to grip many foreign learners, particularly as they pass through the intermediate level. Unwittingly teachers and materials writers have contributed more than anyone to this irrational obsession by often ignoring multi-word verbs in the early stages of learning, only to unleash them in massive doses on students preparing for the Cambridge First Certificate Examination. Students are suddenly confronted with ten or fifteen different particles or prepositions accompanying put, or get, or take, with a seemingly infinite variety of meanings; no wonder they are confused.

With some phrasal verbs there is justification in starting with the adverbial particle, as there are instances where the particles performs a fairly consistent function with regard to the influence on the root verb. A good example of this is off which often implies a general sense of separation, more accurately described with various verbs as:

becoming detached e.g. to break off

being removed e.g. to take off

being disconnected e.g. to turn off

departing e.g. to set off

disappearing e.g. to wear off

Further examples include the particle up which often serves to emphasize the root verb and express a sense of completion e.g. do up, drink up, grow up; and on which sometimes adds a sense of continuation to the main verb e.g. go on, carry on, keep on, drive on. This last group of phrasal verbs could easily be presented together to a class of students and then practiced through a speaking activity in which the students give directions to each other about how to get to their house or some other destination.

Where the meaning of a multi-word verb cannot be deduced from the individual parts, it is sensible to treat the item as one would any other item of vocabulary and apply the same criteria in either selecting it or rejecting it for teaching purposes. A probable outcome of this approach is that certain multi-word verbs e.g. turn on / turn off, will be introduced at a very early stage and more will be added at regular intervals thereafter. Initially one need only teach grammatical features as they apply to individual items, and then, when the students have encountered a number of different types of verb, a more systematic analysis of the grammar can be undertaken.

There will be occasions when a number of multi-word verbs within a single semantic field from a coherent group for teaching purposes, but this are seldom practicable. The danger is that the teacher is forced to include some low frequency items in order to form a worthwhile lexical set. A similar danger applies to tackling a phrasal verb in all its senses − tidy and comprehensive though this approach may be different meanings of a phrasal verb rarely have equal usefulness for the students. Occasionally though, this may be a viable approach for revision purposes with advanced students.

Our reluctance to treat multi-word verbs in the classroom as a separate and independent lexis area (unless there is a very clear semantic or grammatical reason for doing so) should not be construed as an attempt to minimize their value. Used appropriately and accurately these verbs certainly contribute to a colloquial ease and fluency which is clearly a great asset. Equally, it should not be forgotten that many foreign learners will not use their English with native speakers but with other foreign learners who may neither use nor understand a wide range of multi-word verbs. Even foreign learners who do use their English with native speakers may find that these verbs, while being essential at a receptive level, are not a prerequisite for effective spoken English. The place and purpose of study is therefore an important factor in deciding the priority given to this area of vocabulary.


An idiom is a sequence of words which operates as a single semantic unit, and like many multi-word verbs the meaning of the whole cannot be deduced from an understanding of the parts e.g. never mind, hang on, under the weather, etc. The other feature of idioms is that they are often syntactically restricted e.g. someone can have a chip on their shoulder, but not a shoulder with a chip; and sometimes grammatically restricted e.g. you can have a white elephant, but the adjective cannot take the comparative form and become a whiter elephant.

Although we have defined idioms as being semantically opaque we might also include a wide range of expressions that are in fact deducible from the constituent parts. If, for example, we say that somebody is under pressure, our students should have no great difficulty in deducing the meaning, but they would be unlikely to generate the expression themselves from their prior knowledge of the individual words. The same could be said of first of all, to begin with, to make matters worse, and out of danger. To this extent these expressions need to be consciously learned just as much as idioms that are semantically opaque.

Teaching implications

Many of the remarks we made about semantically opaque multi-word verbs will also be true of idioms. There is no sense in grouping them together on the basis of the individual words as they normally give little indication of the sense of the unit; and idioms rarely come in sufficient numbers at respective levels to warrant being a self-contained lexical set. In other words, they should be treated as individual items, taught as they arise, and emphasized according to their usefulness.

Some students develop an immense appetite and enthusiasm for idioms, but often for less useful types of idiom e.g. a wolf in sheeps clothing. When this happens teachers should try to channel this enthusiasm into learning idioms that are useful; and in deciding what is useful, is it worth considering whether an idiom can be incorporated into the students productive vocabulary.


When two items co-occur, or are used together frequently, they are said to collocate. Items may co-occur simply because the combination reflects a common real world state of affairs. For instance, pass and salt collocate because people often want other people to pass them the salt. However, the collocation listed below have an added element of linguistic convention; English speakers have chosen to say, for example, that lions roar rather than bellow.

The most common types of collocation are as follows:

a) subject noun + verb e.g. The earth revolves around the sun.

The lion roared.

If we want to describe the movement of the earth in relation to the sun, then earth + revolve is a likely combination. It would be less common, for example, to use circulate.

b) verb + object noun e.g. She bites her nails.

On the whole, we would not use eat here, though many other languages would.

c) adjective + noun e.g. a loud noise, heavy traffic

Notice how a different collocation (e.g. for noise, a big noise) would give an entirely different meaning.

d) adverb + past participle used adjectivally e.g. badly dressed, fully insured.

Collocational grids are a useful way of clarifying the limits of items. There are inevitably differences of opinion as to what represents an acceptable collocation in English. In the example below, we feel that a beautiful proposal, pretty furniture and a lovely bird are all possible collocations.

Teaching implications

Since there are no rules of collocation, this aspect of vocabulary learning is often dealt with on an ad hoc basis; it is difficult to group items by their collocational properties, so teachers and learners are generally more successful when they deal with common collocational problems in isolation or as they arise. Nevertheless, collocational can provide a useful framework for revising items which are partially known and for expanding the learners knowledge of them. Students at intermediate level commonly use the adjectives light, weak, strong, heavy and possibly mild, although they very often use them inaccurately (e.g. light coffee, where weak or mild was intended). By using different types of collocation exercises in class, teachers will be sensitizing learners to the general difficulties involved and this may help them to understand the principle in future. We need to be ready to teach the types of collocation with which the learners have the greatest difficulties. An item such as to do has an extremely wide range of collocations and it is therefore essential to limit the examples to those which are of most benefit to the learner.

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