A phrasal verb combines two or more words to describe a specific action. Phrasal verbs can be difficult to get right, as their meaning usually has nothing to do with the definitions of the component words.
This means that phrasal verbs must be treated as distinct pieces of vocabulary. You have to learn them as a single unit of meaning, just like you would learn any single word.
Phrasal verbs are extremely common in everyday speech, but in academic writing, it’s best to replace them with one-word alternatives where possible.
What is a phrasal verb?
A verb (e.g. “It goes”) becomes a phrasal verb with the addition of one preposition (e.g. “The light goes out”) or more (e.g. “She goes out with him”). Each additional preposition completely changes the meaning of the verb.
Example: goes – as in “The train goes west.”
goes -> “moves”
Example: goes out – as in “The light goes out.”
goes out -> “ceases”
Example: goes out with – as in “She goes out with him.”
goes out with -> “dates”
It is very important to remember that a phrasal verb should be considered one unit of meaning, just like a distinct verb. In the above examples, the phrasal verb “goes out” is as different from the verb “goes” as the verb “goes” is different from the verb “stays.”
When to use phrasal verbs
Although the best choice is usually to avoid phrasal verbs, they are so common that finding adequate replacements every time will be difficult. 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.
Separating phrasal verbs
Some phrasal verbs can be separated by intervening words, while others have to stay together in the sentence. There is no rule to tell whether a phrasal verb can be separated, so you have to learn by memory and practice—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 their object is a pronoun (e.g. it, her, them).
- Call the meeting off.
- Call off the meeting.
Note that if a phrasal verb is separable, it must be separated when its object is a pronoun (e.g. it, her, them).
- Call it off.
- Call off it.
- The message didn’t come across well.
- The message didn’t come well across.
Example: Must be separated
Some phrasal verbs always have to be separated, but this is comparatively rare.
- Oscar will take Sven up on the offer.
- Oscar will take up Sven on the offer.