Figuring out the frequency of two word verbs

The December 2011 TESOL Quarterly contains a wonderful study by Dilin Liu analyzing the frequency of phrasal verbs across several corpora. This is a really useful article for teachers and materials writers, with lots of great information in it and a valuable companion to his 2003 corpus study on the most common spoken American English idioms.

Some of the findings are fairly predictable and confirm what we already think we know about phrasal verbs (sometimes known as two-word verbs.) You won’t be surprised to learn that some of the most frequently used phrasal verbs are go on, pick up, come back, go back, and find out.

But, as a teacher who lives in the United States, but has also spent time in the United Kingdom, I was fascinated by the differences found in the frequency of some verbs that are common in American English, but not in British English and vice versa. For instance, Americans use the following terms much more frequently than the British: grow up, figure out, show up, check out, pull out, and reach out.

On the other hand, these expressions were more commonly used in British English: carry on, fill in, hand over, sort out, and pass on. One of the big differences, of course, is that while Americans fill out a form, the British fill in a form.

There are implications here for the classroom. If we are wondering which expressions are most useful for our students, this research can help us know how often the phrasal verbs are likely to be encountered. If you are a subscriber to TESOL Quarterly you can see the full article here by entering your user name and password.

So come on! Pick up a copy of this article and find out which phrasal verbs are most common. This way you won’t need to look them up each time, and you can more easily point out to your students the most useful ones.

About Joe McVeigh

Joe McVeigh
Joe McVeigh works independently in the field of English language teaching as a consultant, author, and teacher trainer. For over 25 years he has taught at universities in the United States, including the California Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. He has lived and worked in countries including China, India, Chile, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia. He has taught students from more than 50 countries. He is co-author with Ann Wintergerst of Tips for Teaching Culture: Practical Approaches to Intercultural Communication (Pearson Longman) and a co-author with Jennifer Bixby of two books in the Q: Skills for Success series (Oxford University Press). In addition to writing and consulting, Joe speaks at conferences and workshops, and maintains a blog and website on issues of interest to teachers of ESL. You can also find him on Twitter: @JoeMcVeigh. Joe is a past chair of TESOL's Intensive English Programs Interest Section and served on the TESOL Board of Directors from 1995-1998. He lives with his wife and son in Middlebury, Vermont, USA.
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2 Responses to Figuring out the frequency of two word verbs

  1. mura nava says:


    readers may be interested in what is essentially updated version of Liu’s study with the most common meanings of the phrasal verbs, the list can be accessed here –


  2. Rosilda says:

    Very nice and creative article. I really liked the end of your text with the phrasal verbs examples!

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