South African students’ use of delexical multiword units: The trouble with high-frequency verbs

Ruth Scheepers


This article describes a corpus-linguistic investigation of undergraduates’ production of delexical multiword units (MWUs) comprising high-frequency verb + noun combinations. The aim was to shed more light on the difficulties these deceptively simple combinations pose for writers in a multilingual South African context. Two corpora of learner writing from different areas of English studies (literature and communication for law) and a reference corpus of scholarly writing were compared, focusing on the frequency of MWUs in the student corpora and errors in these combinations. That these MWUs and the common verbs they feature are “error-prone” (Altenberg and Granger 2001:179) in learner language is well attested in current research. This study found that student writers did indeed have difficulty producing error-free delexical MWUs. A detailed analysis of their errors found that these were caused mainly by the verb in the combination, particularly verb collocation. These findings highlight the difficulties these combinations pose for South African learners. Such combinations are common in everyday language and academic writing, and the findings underline the importance of a sound knowledge of high-frequency verbs and their collocations for students writing in an academic milieu.


delexical multiword units; high-frequency verbs; South African student writing; error analysis

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ISSN 2223-9936 (online); ISSN 1027-3417 (print)

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