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The phrasal verb (PV) plays an important role in the attainment of proficiency in English. However, research suggests that its use creates problems for learners of English worldwide, with the result that many learners appear to employ avoidance strategies when using this structure. The use of the phrasal verb has not been researched to any great extent in the South African context, a deficiency that this research study hoped to address. Using WordSmith Tools 8.0 to analyse a 5 603 404 token corpus of undergraduate writing, PV use by South African first- and second-language speakers of English was investigated and reported on. The results are in contrast to those of previous research in that they suggest that second-language speakers use phrasal verbs more in their first year of undergraduate study, and that this tendency tapers off as their studies progress. First-language speakers show a similar but less marked pattern of PV use. The results also indicate a preference for one-word alternative verbs by both groups, which is again in contrast to research conducted elsewhere, where the first-language speakers displayed a preference for PV use over one-word alternative verbs. It is suggested that further research is required to verify these results.