Phrasal verbs are widely considered difficult for non-native speakers of English. In the first post of a series on phrasal verbs, we examine commonly held beliefs about these challenging multi-word combinations.

Phrasal verbs are commonly used in everyday speech


Previous corpus analyses have shown how frequent phrasal verbs are in everyday English. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English found that phrasal verbs occur almost 2,000 times per million words in conversation and fiction (the latter including everyday conversation through dialogues). As particles such as up, in or off have a physical/spatial aspect, phrasal verbs are difficult to avoid in here-and-now situations. There is no real equivalent to sit down, turn off (e.g. a light), or pick up (an object from the floor), for instance.

Phrasal verbs are too informal for writing


Firstly, written discourse isn’t necessarily more formal than spoken discourse. Think of the kind of language you use when writing to friends via emails or social media, and compare with the language used in oral presentations at academic conferences. Secondly, many phrasal verbs have a neutral register. Consider find out (e.g. the cause of a problem), fill up (a container with water), take on (an important role), and the examples above. In truth, phrasal verbs often are the most neutral or normal way of saying something.

Phrasal verbs have many different meanings


Many phrasal verbs are indeed polysemous, with the top 150 having 5-6 meaning senses on average. This makes them more difficult to master, as polysemy increases the learning load of a word. However, which meaning applies is usually obvious from the context of the sentence. For example, the meaning of make up in Total exports made up 54% of the GDP is ‘comprise’, not ‘reconcile’. And luckily, just two meaning senses cover over three-quarters of occurrences of each of these top 150. A little (semantic knowledge) goes a long way.

If in doubt, use the one-word equivalent


Many phrasal verbs have one-word equivalents of Latin origin, e.g. make up/comprise; find out/discover; go on/continue, etc. These tend to be more formal, as well as a safe choice for people whose native tongue is also of Latin origin and lacks the phrasal verb structure. But they can actually be too formal, while phrasal verbs are the neutral or expected choice. There can also be nuances of meaning or connotations in phrasal verbs, making them not quite strict synonyms (e.g. come by suggests difficulty or dishonesty in obtaining something).

Phrasal verbs should be avoided in academic writing


You’ve probably come across articles warning against using phrasal verbs in your scientific text. A common ‘academic English’ myth, it is wrong for the reasons mentioned above. Yes, phrasal verbs are considerably more frequent in other genres than academic writing. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid them completely. Some are frequent because they express meanings that are unavoidable in a research paper (e.g. carry out a study, authors pointed out). Notice them (and surrounding words) in papers you read, and use them in your own.

About the author

Mélodie is an Applied Linguist at Writefull.

Writefull webinars

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