‘Performed an experiment’ or ‘carried out an experiment’? ‘The authors point out’ or ‘the authors highlight’? Choosing between a phrasal verb and a one-word equivalent can be tricky. In this post, we give you some tips to help.

1. Don’t assume single verbs are always better

Yes, many phrasal verbs are informal in style. Think ‘hang out’, ‘fork out’ or ‘hit up’. But that doesn’t mean all of them are. Sometimes, they are the standard way of conveying a certain meaning, including in academic texts. Check out our blog exploring common myths about phrasal verbs and see for yourself!

2. Check each definition very carefully

Even if you’ve seen a phrasal verb used in lots of texts before and think you know its meaning, it’s always best to check a dictionary. This way, you’ll become aware of possible connotations and nuances of meaning. And crucially, of possible differences between the phrasal verb and one-word equivalent.

3. Make sure the phrasal verb isn’t informal

There is no place for colloquial language in academic papers, and the last thing you want is putting off readers with inappropriate vocabulary. Alongside definitions, any good dictionary will tell you if a word should be used in a formal or informal context (note 'infml' mention in the example below from Cambridge Dictionary online). If the phrasal verb is informal, choose the one-word equivalent.

4. Check if the phrasal verb belongs to the list of most frequently used in academic writing

Phrasal verbs like ‘point out’, ‘carry out’, ‘set up’ or ‘make up’ are very commonly used in papers, so are most likely familiar to you. Their respective own-word equivalents (‘highlight’, ‘perform’, ‘design’, ‘constitute’) may also work in the context of your sentence. But if a phrasal verb belongs to the 10 most frequently used list (or is listed in the table below), chances are it’s a good candidate.

5. Check our analysis of phrasal verb collocations

When choosing between a phrasal verb and a single verb, it’s important to consider the context. That is, which words come before or after them in your sentence. We’d recommend you take a look at our analysis of the most commonly used noun-phrasal verb-noun combinations in scientific texts. If followed by one of those nouns, the phrasal verb could be the right choice.

6. Check how both are used in sentences, ideally academic ones

This is the most important tip, and follows from the previous point. Many people do a simple Google search to compare the number of hits between two phrases (e.g. ‘perform an experiment’ vs ‘carry out an experiment’). So that results are targeted to scientific writing, try using Writefull’s Language Search instead.
Below are ‘compare in context’ frequency results from the Language Search, to help you decide between 'carry out' and 'conduct' for various noun combinations. Install Writefull now and see results for any phrasal verb/single verb comparison.

About the author
Mélodie is an Applied Linguist at Writefull.