The Types of Lexical Phrases That Appear on the Test for English Majors Band 8 (TEM-8)

Categories: Language Acquisition


As a branch of linguistics, lexical phrases are a ‘chunk’ of language of varying length. Unlike conventionalised or frozen forms such as idioms and cliches, lexical phrases are treated as variable units in language learning since they are used to perform certain functions (Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992). This assignment is motivated to analyse different types of structure of lexical phrases in TEM-8 (Test for English Majors grade eight) in China.

TEM-8 is a large-scale, nationwide test developed and administered by the NACFLT (National Advisory Committee for Foreign Language Teaching) on behalf of the Higher Education Department, Ministry of Education, P.

R. China. Translation is tested in TEM-8 as one of the major language skill (Jin & Fan, 2011). However, the language of passage in translation part is unnatural to some extent, most often, the passage in translation part are taken from the literatures’ (Yang, 2017. P1231).

Lexical phrases are prefabricated form/function composites, Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) believe that they are crucial intermediaries between the level of lexis and grammar.

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However, lexical phrases are always been neglected in language analysis and language teaching (Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992).

The reason for this phenomenon lies in the fact that a part of language teachers in China tend to adopt traditional translation teaching methods such as simplex lexical and grammar translation methods to teach translation; while they neglect that lexical phrases appear with the development of language which should be attach importance to (Yang, 2017).

This inconsistency requires TEM-8 participants’ accumulation of lexical phrases and teachers’ attention on lexical phrases.

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Based on the importance of lexical phrases and the current gap of teaching and learning, this assignment is motivated to conduct language analysis of the lexical phrases in translation part of TEM-8 from 2011 to 2018. The aim of the assignment is to measure the frequency of different types of lexical phrases are tested in the translation part of TEM-8 by classifying them according to Nattinger and DeCarrico’s (1992) categorisation of the structure of lexical phrases.

More specifically, after analysing the translation part in TEM-8 from 2011 to 2018, the lexical phrases in the texts will be classified into four categories: polywords; institutionalised expression; phrasal construction and sentence builder. In particular, the assignment seeks to answer the question that What type of lexical phrases are more frequently tested in the translation part of TEM-8 from 2011 to 2018?

This assignment will analyse the texts based on Nattinger and DeCarrico’s (1992) classification of the structure. The reason for using the classification of the structure instead of function lies in the fact that the research question in this assignment aims to explore different structure types of lexical phrases in TEM-8. 2.

Literature Review

Definition of lexical phrases Kjellmer (1991) proposed a hypothesis that learners use ‘individual bricks’ rather than “prefabricated sections’ as their building materials. However, Becker (1975) is the first scholar who puts forward the concept of ‘chunks’, which is a similar concept with lexical phrases.

He maintains that the smallest units of language are not words, but those fixed and semi-fixed prefabricated structures. Based on this concept, Becker (1975) proposes that the understanding of the use of phrases is the basic to the understanding of language as a whole. Similarly, Bolinger (1976) highlights that the use of prefabricated structure embodies the specialty of a language which worthy of being put emphasis on.

Then, Pawley and Syder (1983) propose that the use of lexicalised sentence stems are the reason for native speakers’ language fluency. Later, with scholars’ exploration in this area (such as Nattinger and DeCarrico, 1992; Cowie, 1998; De Cock, 2000; Cortes, 2004), the definition of lexical phrases become increasingly concrete and systematic. Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) define lexical phrases as collocations, such as how do you do?

And for example, that have been assigned pragmatic functions, and consist of two main types: strings of specific (non-productive) lexical items and generalised (productive) frames. In addition, emphasis should be placed on the issue that lexical phrases are different from collocations: collocations have not been assigned particular pragmatic functions by pragmatic competence while lexical phrases have the pragmatic function (Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992).

In light of the definitions above, it is true that attempts have been made to clarify the concept of these ready-made memorised combinations including ‘idioms’, ‘chunks’, ‘fixed expressions’, ‘word-combinations’. In order to solve the terminological and definitional issue, this paper mainly uses ‘lexical phrases’ to encompass the wide range of phenomenon variously labelled in the published literature.

Categories of lexical phrases Becker (1975) presents the beginnings of a taxonomy for lexical phrases. He classifies lexical phrases from two aspects: structure and function. There are six major categories in his classification: polywords; phrasal constraints; deictic locutions; sentence builders; situational utterances and verbatim text.

These categories are listed to increase the size of lexical phrases (Becker, 1975). After approximately two decades, Howarth (1998) proposes a phraseological categories which divide word combination into functional expressions and composite units. It is true that this classification take the variability of lexical phrases; however, the subdivision of this classification is relatively a simple two-way division which decrease the effectiveness of the classification (Howarth, 1998).

Until 1992, Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) classify lexical phrases in an accepted and clear way. In the first place, they distinguish lexical phrases from collocations and syntactic strings. Then, they claim that there are a good deal of variation exist among the lexical phrase unit themselves.

Therefore, Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992. P37) classify lexical phrases ‘in terms of their structural and functional characteristics’. Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) explore four structural criteria characterise these phrases: the first to do with their length and grammatical status; the second with whether the phrase has a canonical or non-canonical shape; the third, whether the phrase is variable or fixed; and the fourth, whether the phrase is continuous or discontinuous.

In addition, Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) divide lexical phrases into three categories according to their function:

  1. social interaction to describe social relations;
  2. necessary topics to mark topics about which learners are often asked;
  3. discourse devices that connect the meaning and structure of the discourse.

Considering the classification below, it is true that Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992)’s classification separate the structure and function of lexical phrases clearly. Therefore, Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992)’s classification will be applied in the analysis of the corpus.

Previous research about lexical phrases The empirical study of lexical phrases tends to be concerned with the relationship of lexical phrases and language proficiency. Genre-based approach for the instruction of lexical phrases and the effectiveness of teaching strategies of lexical phrases, have also been explored to some extent.

These research will be introduced in detailed in the following part. Eyckmans and Lindstromberg (2016) propose the instruction method and techniques of lexical phrases’ teaching and found that teaching alliterations is an effective method of teaching lexical phrases, however, finding the differences between L1 and L2 is relatively ineffective.

Besides, Cai and Cai (2014) and Cai (2016) highlight the importance of genre in the teaching of lexical phrases. Cai (2016) conducted an invention study using genre-based approach over a semester in an intact writing classroom with Masters students in China. The findings show learning lexical phrases by genre-based approach is helpful for students’ gaining of knowledge. Similarly, Cai and Cai (2014) apply genre-based approach to conduct a project in a southern China’s tertiary level institution.

By the analysis of rewriting, genre analysis assignment, in conjunction with a weekly interview and learning journals, it was found that participants’ awareness of lexical phrases was raised noticeably and favourably number of phrases were used throughout the instructional period. Both of the research clarify the importance of combining genre-based approach with lexical phrases’ teaching practice.

Apart from that, Eyckmans and Lindstromberg (2016) propose the instruction method and techniques of lexical phrases’ teaching and found that teaching alliterations is an effective method of teaching lexical phrases, however, finding the differences between L1 and L2 is relatively ineffective. Cortes (2004) conduced a quantitative research to explore to what extent learners’ language proficiency is related to their use of lexical phrases.

Although most research are focus on lexical phrases’s effectiveness on writing, Liu and Wang (2009) explore the use of lexical phrases in spoken English After analysing previous research in the area of lexical phrases, strangely, it is difficult to find any research that specially analyse lexical phrases in examination papers. In addition, seldom studies focus on the structure differences of lexical phrases. These factors further support the proposed meaningfulness and relevance of the present research investigating lexical phrases in TEM-8’s translation part.


Research objectives This assignment attempts to analyse the translation part of TEM-8 examination from 2009 to 2018.  By collecting different types of lexical phrases in the texts, which types of lexical phrases is the most frequently tested will be probed; thus, the research question could be answered.

Data collection Lexical phrases which includes four different categories will be collected from the translation parts in TEM-8 from 2009 to 2018 according to the classification of lexical phrases developed by Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992). Due to the size of the material is relatively small, all the lexical phrases in these ten years translation part will be collected for analysis.

Data analysis To address the research question, the frequency of the use of lexical phrases in translation part of TEM-8 from 2009 to 2018 will be measured quantitatively according to the classification of lexical phrases developed by Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992). After analysing the lexical phrases, several interesting themes emerge inductively.

Firstly, polywords suggest to be the most frequent type of lexical phrases among the four categories, even more common than sentence builders and institutional expression which seen as two most frequent lexical phrases in Liu and Wang (2009) and El-Dakhs and Ijaz, A (2017)’s research. In addition, there are various types of lexical phrases in the texts which represent lexical phrases’ importance in translation in TEM-8.

Result Between 2009 to 2018, there are ten translation texts which include 1163 words in TEM-8. The information in table 4.1. presents the frequencies of lexical phrases. In total, lexical phrases account for 32.42% of the texts, which is a relatively large proportion. The most frequently used type of lexical phrases is polywords. There are seventy-eight polywords in TEM-8’s translation part in the decade which occupies 20.03% of the whole texts.

The phrasal constraints are the second most frequently used type, with a percentage of 5.85. It is obvious that although phrasal constraints rank as the second most frequent type of lexical phrases, it only a quarter of the proportion of polywords. Institutionalised expression and sentence builder, however, only account for slightly more than 3% of the whole text (3.18% and 3.35% relatively).

Discussion on the distribution of lexical phrases Concerning the frequency of four types of lexical phrases, table 4.1. suggests that polywords is the predominant type of lexical phrases in TEM-8’s translation part which accounts for slightly over 20%; however, other three types of lexical phrases take up relatively less proportion (less than 6%).

El-Dakhs and Ijaz, A. (2017) and Liu and Wang (2009)’s research suggest that sentence builders and phrasal constraints are two predominant types of lexical phrases for native speakers of English; however, in this analysis, polywords is the leading type of lexical phrases. It might suggest that the content of translation part in TEM-8 is not totally ‘authentic’, it means that the translation text in TEM-8 is not like advanced English users’ language habits. As for the reasons for this phenomenon, it might relate to the characteristic of TEM-8’s translation part.

In previous studies, most of the research study spoken or writing texts instead of translation texts. Most of the translation texts in TEM-8 are from Chinese literature works or novels (Jin & Fan, 2011) and these texts always involve old-fashioned vocabulary and polywords. For example, in TEM-8 (2017)’s translation part, ‘for that matter’ is a polyword serves as a relator in this sentence.

Therefore, polywords is ubiquitous in the translation part of TEM-8 in the previous ten years. As for the reasons for the scarcity of institutionalised expressions and sentence builders in the texts, it is related to both the features of the two types of lexical phrases and the characteristics of TEM8’s translation part mentioned above.

Institutionalised expressions including mostly expressions of spoken English (Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992) such as “how do you do’ and ‘nice meeting you’; therefore, it is reasonable that in translation examination which requires formal English, institutionalised expression’s proportion is not so large.

Regard to sentence builders, in China’s TEM-8 examination, it is true that students and markers tend to regard longer and more sophisticated sentence format is better than short one (Yang, 2017; Jin & Fan, 2011). Thus, fewer sentences lead to fewer sentence builders. The unequal distribution of different types of lexical phrases might be instructive and meaningful to the teaching of translation for English majors in China; however, this might be a disadvantage of the design of TEM-8 translation part.

The neglect of sentence builder, phrasal constrains and institutionalised expression might decrease students’ interest and enthusiasm on accumulating these lexical phrases. While these three types of lexical phrases are also important in students’ acquisition of English. Especially for English majors who might use English as a tool of working and earning (Cai, 2016), all types of lexical phrases should be paid attention to.

Similarly, sentence builder is absent in 2011, 2014 and 2018. All the four types of lexical phrases can bring some benefits to students’ second language acquisition (Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992). For polywords, the content of translation in TEM-8 is highly related to Chinese culture and literature (Yang, 2017); thus, these lexical phrases have specific culture features which requires specific polywords.

For example, ‘the Butterfly Lover’in 2018’s TEM-8 translation section represents a traditional story of China. Also, polywords such as ‘Chinese knot’ and ‘in the feudal society’ are common in translation part of TEM-8. Therefore, by extracting and applying of these polywords, students could translate the text more fluently and combining different words show no trace of stiffness (Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992).

Institutionalised expressions and sentence builders serve as a framework for translation (Liu & Wang, 2009). For example, in 2018’s TEM-8 translation part, students can extract the framework “the …er X, the …er Y’from the water in books is clearer, and the sky seems bluer’.

In this case, the next time they come across comparative degree, they can use this framework quickly. Sentence builders function in the same way. Therefore, institutionalised expressions are helpful to students’ accumulation of the basic structure of a paragraph or paragraphs. Phrasal constraints are significant in translation part in TEM-8 because there are some phrasal constraints cannot be produced without reserve them in advance.

Evidence can be seen from TEM-8 translation part in 2012— ‘(as) fire singes one’s eyebrows’ was tested. Without these knowledge reserves, students might translate the sentence by using Chinese thinking mode which might lead to ‘Chinglish’ (Yang, 2017). Thus, the accumulation of phrasal might help students translate in a more coherent and cohesive way.

Implications Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) maintain that the principal aim of language teaching is to have students understand the communicative value of linguistic items in discourse, and that an effective way to do this is to have them learn the form/function composites we call lexical phrases. The knowledge of discourse form, sentence-based perspective and process-centred discourse perspective are three vital parts of in a writing task (Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992).

Translation is one type of writing (Malmkjær, 1998), so the concept is applicable to the teaching of translation. Lexical phrases is beneficial to students’ acquisition of the knowledge of discourse form, sentence-based and process-centred writing (Cowie, 1998).

Therefore, it is true that lexical phrases play an important role in the learning and teaching of translation. Lexical phrases’ implication for students and teachers are presented in the following part. For students The accumulation of lexical phrases function as a ready-make framework which help learners the saving effort in processing (Becker, 1975).

It means that once the learner’s brain is familiar with a linguistic format; it by-passes the processing route that was used to learn it, rather than just navigating it more quickly (Liu & Wang, 2009). Therefore, when students can accumulate lexical phrases as the preparation for the examination, it will be easier for them to construct the translation texts.

The results suggest that polywords is the most frequent type of lexical phrases in TEM-8’s translation part; however, institutionalised expressions, phrasal constraints and sentence builders account for relatively lower proportion. Therefore, it is a guidance for students who will take part in TEM-8 examination, which means students could attach more importance on the accumulation of polywords instead of other three types if they want to get a better grade in the examination.

This is because polywords is the most frequently tested type of lexical phrases in TEM-8’s translation part. From the view of getting a higher grade, it is a simple and convenient method to prepare the translation part in TEM-8.

However, it is true that is an examination-oriented or grade-oriented learning method which should be careful enough to apply in students’ learning (Jin & Fan, 2001). In addition, different students have different English proficiency and learning goals (Pawlak, 2012). Therefore, students should consider their current level including what types of lexical phrases they have mastered and what kind of lexical phrases they should attach more importance to when they accumulate lexical phrases.

Learning goals should also be taken into consideration which means students should know what types and functions of lexical phrases they want to learn. It totally related to their individual needs but the results of this assignment could help them specify what they should learn more systematically. It means that students’ know different types of lexical phrases and could find out what aspect they are unfamiliar with, in this case, they can learn lexical phrases more targetable.

For teachers and paper compliers For teachers who teach students’ TEM-8’s translation section, there are some implications based on the analysis of TEM-8’s translation texts. The combination of explicit and implicit teaching is important (Rose & Kasper, 2001.).

Yu (2009) maintains that the explicit teaching of lexical phrases could help students acquire more declarative knowledge compared with those students who acquire lexical phrases by repetition and reception. However, students acquire lexical phrases by repetition and recitation outperformed the explicit instruction group in procedural knowledge. In this case, teachers should apply both the explicit and implicit teaching method to help students acquire the knowledge of lexical phrases.

In addition, the results suggest that teachers could pay more attention to polywords in their teaching of translation for the preparation of TEM-8. It is obvious that polywords take up the largest part of lexical phrases in TEM-8’s translation part (see table 4.1.), so teachers could distribute more time and effort on the teaching of polywords in translation part in TEM-8; it might benefit students’ performance in translation part of TEM-8 to some degree.

However, Howarth (1998) maintains that in the teaching of lexical phrases, teachers have traditionally concentrated their attention on the extreme ends of the spectrum: free combination and idioms. It is true that most of the Chinese teachers are divided lexical phrases into the two extreme ways (Cai, 2016; Jin & Fan, 2011; Liu & Wang, 2009).

Howarth (1998) also maintains that the greatest challenge of the teaching of lexical phrases lies in differentiating between combinations that are free and those that are somehow limited in substitutability. It is similar to Nattinger and DeCarrico’s (1992) concept of canonical and non-canonical. Therefore, teachers in China could pay more attention to help students distinguish these concepts clearly which will be helpful for their application and understanding of different lexical phrases.

In addition, for the compilers of the paper of TEM-8, the result of this assignment could give them insights on how to optimise this examination. The uneven distribution of four types of lexical phrases might lead students’ and teachers’ to a stereotype that polywords are much more important than other lexical phrases. This misunderstanding will become a hinder for students’ improvement in their English proficiency.

Limitation Although the classification of lexical phrases in TEM-8’s translation part is based on Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992)’s categorisation as precisely as possible, it is inevitable to have subjective factors which might influence the classification of the lexical phrases.

In addition, another limitation lies in the fact that TEM-8 started in 1991 (Jin & Fan, 2001), but this essay only analysed the previous ten years’ texts. The size of analysing is relatively small — 1163 words. Therefore, to some extent, this analysis cannot fully categorise the characteristic of lexical phrases in TEM-8’s translation part. 8. Conclusion Lexical phrases play an important role in the translation part of TEM-8.

By categorising different types of lexical phrases according to Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992)’s classification, it is true that polywords are the most frequent type of lexical phrases in TEM-8’s translation part; while the other three types of lexical phrases account for a relatively small proportion. Based on the results, the reasons for this phenomenon and the benefits of the four types of lexical phrases were explored.

This assignment may also give Chinese English majors and their teachers’ insights regarding the teaching and learning of different types of lexical phrases. They can put them the emphasis on different types of lexical phrases according to their need, in this way, both students and teachers’ translation competence can be improved. However, this assignment also has limitations which caused by subjectivity and the size of texts.

Future Research The limitations of the assignment require further research on this topic. In the first place, in order to explore the four types of lexical phrases’ distribution in TEM-8’s translation part more accurately, researchers could analyse the texts translation part of TEM-8 from 1991, which might make the results more reliable. In the second place, longitude research could be conducted in a Chinese TEM8 teaching classroom in order to testify whether the result of the analysis is effective and efficient for students’ preparation of the examination.

Hence, it is true that this topic is worthy of being studied in the future. Finally, further studies should concentrate on different ways to bridge the gap between the teacher’s teaching practice and examinations’ testing target, not only in the use of lexical phrases, but in the use of a wide variety of linguistic features in order to complete a better description of translation.


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The Types of Lexical Phrases That Appear on the Test for English Majors Band 8 (TEM-8). (2021, Oct 06). Retrieved from

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