The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

10 ways to tackle coronavocab: #8 Phrasal Verbs

Love 'em or hate 'em, phrasal verbs get everywhere and the coronavirus pandemic has been no exception. At the end of last year while working on the new edition of the Collins COBUILD Phrasal Verbs Dictionary, I had a hand in adding a new entry for lock down and its noun form lockdown. At the time, it was mostly being used in the context of mass shootings and terrorist incidents … little did I know the significance it would take on just a few months later … and how glad I'd be to have included it!

I recently wrote a post about how ease up/off/out of (lockdown/ restrictions) has spiked in use. In the post, I explored why phrasal verb forms are often used in preference to the simple verb, ease, which means much the same without a particle. The answer seems to lie somewhere in the more emphatic/dramatic/conversational nature of phrasal verbs when compared to single-word verbs which can feel rather formal and unemphatic. The phrasal verb ramp up, for example, was much used by UK politicians to emphasize their efforts to do more of everything, especially testing. Compare: We're ramping up testing. and We're increasing testing. And it was much criticized (at least in the sorts of social media circles I move in!) as empty hyperbole, alongside roll out and double down.

Whilst those subtle nuances of register and connotation might be too much for all but the most advanced ELT students, some of these trending phrasal verbs could be used as a way of engaging students with an otherwise slightly dry (and often frustrating) aspect of vocabulary. Personally, I'm not a big fan of presenting lots of phrasal verbs together, especially not new ones, as I think they're too potentially confusing. These especially lead themselves to short 10-minute activities focused on just a couple of items. One or two of the phrasal verbs here could be used as a hook to revise more familiar phrasal verbs with which they share characteristics or to highlight the meaning often carried by particles. Zoomed out is a fun one where the particle indicates that you've had enough of something/reached your limit (think partied out). And as we start to think to the future, we're seeing more combinations with back (meaning return/again) proliferate; bounce back leads the way, but there are also the optimistic snap back, spring back, flock back, jump back, race back, rush back and the more tentative inch back, ease back, phase back, transition back, trickle back, venture back. Not to mention the slightly odd to my ear but surprisingly common return back and revert back.

Some examples in context:
The country successfully contained the virus by locking down its borders and its economy.
The coronavirus pandemic shut down U.S. sports in mid-March. 
They've been supporting the elderly during the coronavirus outbreak by delivering care packages. 
High-traffic facilities are doubling down on ways to make their spaces safe and virus-free.
The contact-tracing app will be tested locally before it is rolled out to the wider public. 
Wipe down all surfaces you have touched after use.
By the end of the day, I find myself a bit Zoomed out - it's easy to let the constant screen time consume your day.
Here's what you can expect when you're ready to venture back into stores.
Some airlines are hopeful they can bounce back if they set up new safety procedures.
We can't allow hotspots to flare up* and effect our communities.
Now they're cooped up in their homes, unable to go out anywhere, except for groceries.
*I missed that one as part of Monday's fire metaphors!

  • Pick out one or two of the meaningful particles and get students to explain what phrasal verbs with the same particle have in common. For example, ramp up, flare up (up = increase); lock down, shut down, close down (down = stop activity); bounce back, venture back, etc. (back = return). Start off with a few example sentences to establish the meanings first, of course, or better still pick them out of a short text if you can find one.
  • Look at how phrasal verbs often have noun equivalents (lockdown, shutdown, rollout, outbreak, flare-up). Get students experimenting with sentence transformations or checking which combinations exist – you can talk about a roll-out, but can you have a ramp-up? They could use a dictionary to check which ones are listed or a simple corpus tool like SkELL.
  • Zoomed out presents all kinds of possibilities for students to create their own phrasal verbs to describe things they've had enough of; homeschooled out, Netflixed out
  • Get more advanced students to group some of the back combinations above into optimistic and tentative categories. Explore the imagery a bit (bounce, spring, snap are sudden movements like a branch that's been bent over, race and rush conjure up a crowd of people running, inch and trickle describe slow movements). Elicit possible contexts and collocations (tourists/visitors flock back, businesses/the economy bounce/snap back).

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