Getting your phrasal verbs right

Although the best choice is usually to avoid phrasal verbs, they occur so commonly that finding adequate replacements all of the time will be difficult. And that’s okay. Change them when you can, and when you “run out” of ideas for rephrasing, “cheer up,” “believe in” yourself, and “write down” your phrasal verbs conscientiously.

Phrasal verbs do have their uses, after all. For example, they convey a casual tone, and while this is not usually desirable in academic writing, the best academic writers can vary their tone at will.

Accordingly, you should think of phrasal verbs as a stylistic option, even though you will often be best advised to eliminate them rather than add them.

Phrasal verb word ordering

Treat phrasal verbs as additional and distinct pieces of vocabulary—separate from the words that constitute them—to be learned as a single unit of meaning just like you would learn any single word.

Different phrasal verbs require different word ordering depending on whether or not the verb and preposition can be separated. Knowing which phrasal verbs can be separated and which cannot requires memorization; there is no rule by which you can tell—one good reason to avoid them when you can.

One helpful pointer, though, is that phrasal verbs that can be separated must be separated when a pronoun is the thing to which they direct their action (i.e. technically speaking, when the “object” of the phrasal verb is a pronoun).

Example: Separable (optional)

Call the meeting off.

Call off the meeting.


Call it off.

Call off it.

Example: Inseparable

The message didn’t come across well.

The message didn’t come well across.

Example: Must be separated (these are comparably rare)

Oscar will take Sven up on the offer.

Oscar will take up Sven on the offer.

47 phrasal verbs and their one-word substitutions

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Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master's degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

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