delexical verbs 1

Delexical verbs are verbs that need nouns to take true meaning. Verbs like run, study or know can carry meaning on their own…

  • He runs very fast.
  • It’s time to study.
  • – Hurry up! It’s late.   – I know.

… or they can accompany a noun or noun phrase.

  • to run a race
  • to study a lesson
  • to know the answer

In most cases verbs like have, get, go, take, make, give or do carry little meaning on their own. They mostly rely on a noun or noun phrase for true meaning. Here is a list of the twenty most common verbs in English in order of frequency. Six of the seven verbs above rank amongst the top nine most common verbs in English.

  1. be
  2. have
  3. do
  4. say
  5. get
  6. make
  7. go
  8. know
  9. take
  10. see
  11. come
  12. think
  13. look
  14. want
  15. give
  16. use
  17. find
  18. tell
  19. ask
  20. work

It seems logical to devote time as teachers to devise activities that can explore and practice common collocations with these verbs. And here is a very simple teaching idea.

Find a reading passage that is suitable for your learners level of English. You may be familiar with Newsela or E-News. Both sites are regularly updated with news stories that are written and arranged by language level. Worth checking out!


Once you have decided which news story you would like to present your students with, copy and paste it onto a word document. I will be choosing According to Amazon, the future of shopping is all about the app from Newsela as an example.

Next, run a search for a delexical verb like take, for instance (or possible variations such as took, taken or taking). Microsoft Word has a search tool placed at the top right corner or you can use the shortcut CTRL + F, which will open the search box. The search tool found two occurrences of the verb take in the article.

take 1

take 2

All you have to do now is replace the verb with a dotted line and let your students figure out the missing word.

An easier way to do this would be to simply print the article from the Internet and use a pen to cross out any delexical verbs that you may notice and then print copies for the students. If you want to be eco-friendly and you have an interactive whiteboard or a projector and a screen set-up in the classroom, show on the screen for the students to determine what the missing delexical verbs might be. In this case, I would not personally ask the students to read the full article, as reading requires moving at one’s own pace. I would simply direct attention to the gaps and ask the students about the missing words. And, once again, if you have this technology up and running, why not explore “take something off the shelf” on Twitter and show an example?

off the shelf.JPG

You may also ask your students, “What other verbs besides take combine well with off the shelf?” A search on Twitter with “off the shelf” with inverted commas will render many examples with grab, pull, pick or fall.

In my view, the most productive part of this activity does not really lie on the language items that the students may take with them but rather in raising awareness of the ubiquity and importance of delexical verbs in English.

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