As verbs consisting of two or three separate parts, often with idiomatic meanings, phrasal verbs can be challenging for non-native speakers. And yet in everyday speech, one should be able to use phrasal verbs such as pick up, look down, put out or hold off. But how common are they in academic writing, and how are they used? Read on to find out.

Phrasal verbs in academic writing vs other genres

A common feature of phrasal verbs is that they are colloquial: think belt out (sing very loudly), harp on (complain repeatedly about something), pig out (eat a lot of food), etc. They can be commonly replaced by single verbs, such as:

make up => constitute
put forward => propose
carry out => execute

Our analysis of the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows that phrasal verbs are considerably more frequent in other genres than academic writing: up to 11 times more frequent in TV and movies subtitles, and close to 10 times more frequent in blogs/webpages and fiction.

Since academic writing is anything but colloquial, this isn’t surprising. But the difference is striking.

What are the top phrasal verbs in academic writing?

Despite this, phrasal verbs shouldn’t be completely avoided in academic papers. Most phrasal verbs are neutral rather than informal, and it’s sometimes more appropriate to use a phrasal verb than a single verb. For example, carry out a study is much more frequently used than do a study or perform a study.

The question is which phrasal verbs should you avoid, and which should you use? The following is a list of the top 10 phrasal verbs used in academic writing, extracted from our corpus analysis. You may have seen these in papers already, and considered them in your own writing.

  1. Point out ('The authors pointed out that solid evidence was lacking')
  2. Carry out ('All procedures were carried out according to the guidance')
  3. Go on ('A number of initiatives have been going on to tackle the problem')
  4. Make up ('Total exports made up 54% of the GDP')
  5. Set up ('A strategy was set up to train the software for automated analysis')
  6. Take on ('The legislation will take on an important role in shaping policies')
  7. Turn out ('This turned out to be due to errors in the distribution data')
  8. Bring about ('There were successful attempts to bring about societal change')
  9. Give up ('Countries pledged to give up chemical weapons')
  10. Find out ('A review was done to find out factors affecting disease outcome')

On the other hand, phrasal verbs you should avoid are those that are informal, or commonly replaced by single verbs in other papers. For example in medical papers investigating the effect of physical exercise, the verb exercise is used instead of the phrasal verb work out. So you should avoid using the latter.

Difference in phrasal verb usage between academic subjects

What’s interesting is that not only does phrasal verb usage vary across genres, but also across disciplines within the genre of academic writing. Compare the top 10 phrasal verbs used in humanities vs science and technology, in decreasing frequency order:

                             Humanities             Science/Technology

                                1. Point out                   1. Carry out

                                2. Go on                        2. Point out

                                3. Take on                    3. Set up

                               4. Set up                        4. Make up

                               5. Make up                    5. Turn out

                               6. Turn out                   6. Go on

                               7. Take up                     7. Pick up

                               8. Carry out                  8. Take on

                               9. End up                      9. Find out

                              10. Open up                  10. Come up

Our COCA analysis shows that while carry out is more than twice as frequent in Sci/Tech as in Humanities, the opposite is true for point out. Of course such results are best understood in context. But it’s likely that phrases such as carry out an experiment are more common in Sci/Tech papers, and point out an argument in a Humanities paper.

Mastering phrasal verbs in academic writing

Because phrasal verbs aren’t so common in academic writing, you should think carefully before using them - but not discard them completely. Pay close attention to when and how they’re used in the papers you read.

First, always make sure that they aren’t informal in style. You can check this in an online dictionary, for example.

Second, consider the single-verb alternative(s) and decide which is better to use in the context of your subject area, and specific sentence. You can see which other authors choose by searching the web or Google Scholar. See if (and how) a phrasal verb is used in other papers, and compare with the use of the single-verb alternative(s) in context.

About the author
Mélodie Garnier is an Applied Linguist at Writefull.

Writefull webinars
Looking for more academic writing tips? Join our free webinars hosted by Writefull's linguists!