Generally, verbs are words that describe actions. Run, play, talk, learn, sit, go, read, eat, watch, stand, choose, drink, etc. are all action verbs. They tell us what somebody is doing.
Sometimes, however, verbs rely on the nouns that accompany them for their meaning. When this happens, we call such verbs ‘delexical’ (or ‘light’) verbs. This means that the verbs lose their traditional meaning, and instead form a collocation with the noun. They have no meaning of their own in these phrases. For example, we have a coffee; do exercise; make a cake; take a photograph. “In linguistics, a light verb is a verb that has little semantic content of its own and forms a predicate with some additional expression, which is usually a noun” (wikipedia).
In one of the examples above – ‘have a coffee’ – we are referring to the act of drinking the coffee, not the fact of ownership. Here, then, the verb ‘have’ does not carry the same meaning as when we say, for example, ‘I have many friends’ or ‘I have a car’. The notion of drinking is inferred from the noun that the verb goes with, in this case ‘coffee’.
However if we were to say ‘I’m going to have a phone’, it would not mean ‘I’m going to make a call’. The verb ‘have’ does not collocate with the noun ‘phone’. We need to learn which verbs go with particular nouns. The website www.roadtogrammar.com echoes the wikipedia entry when it states that “a delexical verb is a verb used in a context where the meaning is shifted onto the noun.”
It is very common for non-native English speakers to have difficulty when using these expressions. The biggest problem is arguably between using ‘make’ and ‘do’. When should we use each verb?
We use ‘make’ for the concept of creating, building or constructing. So we ‘make a mistake’ because we are (unintentionally) creating it. In the same way, we ‘make a choice’; ‘make money’; ‘make arrangements’; make noise’; ‘make friends’; ‘make an excuse’; and so on.
‘Do’ is often used for work, exercise and general activities. So we ‘do the shopping’; ‘do the cleaning’; ‘do our homework/composition’; ‘do business’; and so on.
Unfortunately there are no definitive rules governing when to use ‘make’ or ‘do’: we can only follow guidelines, and try to learn as many of the collocations as possible.
The same is true of the other delexical verbs mentioned above – ‘have’ and ‘take’. We generally use ‘have’ with food and drink, e.g. ‘have a coffee’; ‘have lunch’. We also use it for talking (‘have a chat’) and washing (‘have a shower’).
(Note however that it is increasingly acceptable to use the delexical verb ‘take’ when talking about coffee or a shower – ‘I’m going to take a coffee/shower’. This is probably more common in American English rather than British English.)
We also use ‘take’ for photographs, even though one could argue you are creating the photo (e.g. ‘Would you like me to take your picture?’). We don’t say that we ‘make a photo’.
Sometimes different delexical verbs can be used with a noun to give different meanings. If we ‘make’ a phone call, it means we are the person ringing somebody else (e.g. ‘I need to make an important call’); if we ‘take’ a phone call, it means we are the one answering (e.g. ‘I need to take this call.’)
A different (lexical) verb can often be used instead of its delexical counterpart. For example, instead of saying ‘I want to have a drink’ you could simply say ‘I want to drink’. Or maybe, instead of saying ‘He’s making the claim that he knows the president’, you could say ‘He’s claiming that he knows the president’.
Try our blog test to see how you do (not ‘make’!) with using delexical verbs.
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