Bilingualism: Language and Cognition

Research Article

Explicit and implicit semantic processing of verb–particle constructions by French–English bilinguals  *


a1 McGill University


Verb–particle constructions are a notoriously difficult aspect of English to acquire for second-language (L2) learners. The present study investigated whether L2 English speakers are sensitive to gradations in semantic transparency of verb–particle constructions (e.g., finish up vs. chew out). French–English bilingual participants (first language: French, second language: English) completed an off-line similarity ratings survey, as well as an on-line masked priming task. Results of the survey showed that bilinguals’ similarity ratings became more native-like as their English proficiency levels increased. Results from the masked priming task showed that response latencies from high, but not low-proficiency bilinguals were similar to those of monolinguals, with mid- and high-similarity verb–particle/verb pairs (e.g., finish up/finish) producing greater priming than low-similarity pairs (e.g., chew out/chew). Taken together, the results suggest that L2 English speakers develop both explicit and implicit understanding of the semantic properties of verb–particle constructions, which approximates the sensitivity of native speakers as English proficiency increases.

(Received April 13 2011)

(Revised September 26 2012)

(Accepted October 10 2012)

(Online publication February 15 2013)


  • bilingualism;
  • phrasal verbs;
  • priming;
  • sentence processing;
  • word order


c1 Address for correspondence: Laura M. Gonnerman, School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University, 1266 Pine Avenue West, Montreal, QC, Canada H3G 1A8


*  This research was supported by two graduate research awards to the first author, from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and from the Fonds québécois de recherche sur la nature et les technologies (FQRNT), respectively. We would like to thank three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier drafts of the paper. We would also like to thank Dr. Debra Titone and Dr. Karsten Steinhauer for their feedback and editorial help, and the participants for their time and efforts.