Delexicalised verbs

In the first part of this two part article Shaun Dowling looks at delexicalised verbs, and the problems they cause for our students.

Delexicalised verbs - vocabulary article


  • Where they come from
  • Meaning
  • Delexicalised verbs and collocations
  • Learner perceptions of meaning and choice


I remember in one of my first classes a young law student who was studying with me saying that if I he didn't know what verb to use he would say 'get' as it is usually 90% of the time right. At the time we laughed and I said that this wasn't completely true and moved on quickly without giving him any help. As many teachers may know the word 'get' can seem to be a pretty complicated verb to deal with in your first few classes.

Of course, my student in this statement was generalising, but what he had done was to notice the use of what is probably one of the most common verbs in the language, the delexicalised verb. By telling me this, he had also shown me that he had realised the high frequency use of the verb and even the multiple meaning it has and I had unfortunately not.

With this in mind, let's look at 'get' further and the importance of the delexicalised verbs. Lets see how right, rather than wrong, my students was and how we can deal with these words in our day-to-day teaching.

Where they come from
Concordance programmes have helped us become far more aware of how the language is used and the choices native speakers make when selecting words. One of the most important findings is the use of delexicalised verbs:

  • Before we go any further, stop reading for a minute and see how many collocations you can make with 'get'.

    Did you think of many?
  • Try this with your students at any level and I'm sure you'll be surprised, especially at an intermediate level, how many they themselves know.
  • So here are some delexicalised verbs are.

    get go take make do have give set put


They are some of the most frequently used verbs in the language (if not the most frequent) and if you look in a dictionary you will see the multiple meaning each of them have. These meanings can make life difficult for the teacher but lets have a look at how this can be addressed.

Once again let us go back with 'get' and the problems a verb like this could cause our learners. For some reason we may feel it is the most complicated verb there is and difficult to teach. One example of this is demonstrated when you click on online dictionaries, such as the useful Cambridge online dictionary. Under the word 'get' you can scroll down pages of different meanings. It is enough to make your mind boggle. Do this same activity with the other verbs mentioned and you should find the similar results.

The problem here is that most dictionaries looks at this word in isolation (a single word) but as I asked you to do in the first 'get' exercise, in word combinations, dealing with multiple meaning is much easier. It is difficult for dictionaries to give definitions and examples of the many different delexicalised verbs and how they are used because there are so many different words that they collocate with.

Delexicalised verbs and collocations
It is almost impossible then to see delexicalised verbs by themselves. They must be seen with other words that form around them. The main form they can be seen in is collocations.

In the original 'get' task above, maybe you came up with the collocations

  • get married
  • get a divorce
  • get ready
  • get worse
  • get a drink
  • get angry
  • get home


If we look at this list, where is the main part of the meaning? Is it in the word 'get' or in the accompanying word(s)?

Yes, it is the second word that carries most of the meaning. Parrot (2000) calls these (the much easier to say and type) "empty verbs", rather than the tongue-twisting delexicalised verbs. "Empty" because as he states "they contribute little or no meaning to the expression". Therefore, the meaning must be carried in the whole collocation but it is mainly found in the words following our delexicalised verb.

Learner perceptions of meaning and choice
Where I work in Brazil, it is easy for learners to avoid the use of collocations with delexicalised verbs. Here are some examples of what they say in English, maybe you'll find it similar if you are teaching another Latin-based languages.

Here is an example:

"I think Brazil is progressing this year. One example is I visited the cinema last week and I arrived there and there was a big line of people to see Brazilian films."

Nothing grammatically wrong there you may think but it sounds a bit strange. You may choose to correct line for queue but the 'strangeness' the native listener may perceive is due to the avoidance I mentioned above of the speaker. A more realistic performance would have been:

"I think Brazil is making progress this year. One example is I went to the cinema last week and I got there and there was a big line of people to see Brazilian films."

From my work in the classroom my students make these choices mainly because of the problems with not just translation but the small amount of meaning delexicalised verbs carry. Let's now look at these problems I have discussed in this extract in closer detail to try and see why they occur.

  • 'Progressing' instead of 'making progress'
    This is because in my students' L1 it is more common to choose the verb 'progress' than make the collocation choice. 'Progress' has the meaning here, as stated before the delexicalised verb has little. Students choose words based on their meaning and as 'progress' has the whole meaning then the natural choice for them seems to be different from a native speaker choice of 'make progress'.

    It is like 'wash the dishes' instead of 'do' the dishes. It can seem very subtle but seem somewhat strange when being heard by a native speaker.
  • 'Visited' the cinema instead of 'went to' the cinema.
    This is similar to the next choice of 'arrive there' instead of 'get there'. 'Chegar' meaning arrive, is a straight Portuguese translation. This is not the choice a native speaker would say, they would say 'get there' late. Again the meaning was correctly chosen by the learner but if we are to improve their performance we must offer them the alternative that sounds natural. 'Arrive' (as with 'visit') gives the speaker the clear understanding of the sequence of actions. The meaning is not clear to someone who would be used to hearing 'get there' and so some level of adjustment would need to be made by the native speaker listener.


We can see then that these meaning and translation problems are something teachers must be aware of. In order to make our learners speech more authentic sounding, constant attention to the choices they make can help us do just that.

In the second part of this article I'll look more closely at a range of classroom activities that we can use to help our students with this area.

Further reading
'Grammar for English Language Teachers', Martin Parrot, CUP 2000
'Exploring Spoken English', Carter and McCarthy CUP 2000
'About Language', Scott Thornbury, CUP 1997
'Introducing Listening', Michael Rost, Penguin 1994
'Implementing the Lexical Approach', Michael Lewis LTP 1994
'Collocations Dictionary', OUP 2001

Shaun Dowling, Teacher trainer, Cultura Inglesa, Brasilia

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