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How (not) to use phrasal verbs in academic writing

What is a phrasal verb?

A phrasal verb is a two-part word combination, composed of a verb and an adverbial particle. An example of a phrasal verb is ‘point out’; with ‘point’ as the verb element and ‘out’ **as the particle. For example: ‘The authors pointed out the lack of evidence.’

Examples of phrasal verb particles are ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘on’, ‘off’, ‘about’, and ‘around’.

The verb and particle elements may appear next to each other in a sentence (e.g. ‘He gave up’) or separated by one or more words (e.g. ‘She put her coat on’).

The meaning of a phrasal verb can be either literal (e.g. ‘They went out of the room’) or figurative (e.g. ‘The lights went out’).

Many phrasal verbs are polysemous, meaning they have several meaning senses attached to them. For instance, the phrasal verb ‘go out' can mean ‘leave a place’ (literal meaning sense), ‘be extinguished’ (of a light or fire), cease working (e.g. ‘The power went out’), recede to low tide, etc.

Although they are often confused, phrasal verbs are not the same as prepositional verbs. Unlike phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs are verbs followed by prepositions such as ‘of’, ‘at’, or ‘with’. Furthermore, prepositional verbs cannot have their individual elements separated, and typically have only one meaning.

What are some examples of phrasal verbs?

Phrasal verbs are two-part word combinations, formed of a verb and an adverbial particle. Some examples of phrasal verbs are ‘make up’, ‘go down’, ‘carry out’, ‘take in’, ‘go on’, and ‘take off’.

Can I use phrasal verbs in academic writing?

It is fine to use phrasal verbs in academic writing, but not all phrasal verbs are suitable. This list shows the most frequently used phrasal verbs in academic writing.

To decide if a phrasal verb is suitable for your academic text, do the following:

  1. Check in a dictionary (paper or online) what the meaning of the phrasal verb is. Pay attention to connotations and nuances of meaning.
  2. Check the register of the phrasal verb, i.e. is it formal or informal? You will also find this information in a dictionary.
  3. Ask yourself if you’ve seen the phrasal verb used in scientific papers before. If you’ve encountered it several times, chances are it is fine to use in your text. If you’re not sure, use Writefull’s Language Search to see how frequently a particular phrasal verb is used in academic writing, and how this compares to a one-word alternative.

In short, don’t discard phrasal verbs, but also don’t assume all phrasal verbs are fine to use.

Which phrasal verbs are too informal to use in academic writing?

While you may be tempted to use the phrasal verbs below, they are too informal for academic writing. See their one-word equivalents and use those in your text instead.

  • go up > rise, increase
  • go down > decrease
  • cut down > reduce
  • look into > explore, investigate
  • work out > calculate, compute
  • come out > emerge
  • keep up > maintain
  • pull out > extract
  • bring up > mention
  • figure out > solve, Determine
  • leave out > omit
  • carry on > continue
  • come about > occur
  • pick out > select
  • talk about > discuss
  • put forward > propose
  • turn down > discard, reject
  • come up (with) > suggest, invent

What are examples of phrasal verbs used in academic writing?

The following are phrasal verbs that are often used in academic writing. You will notice them when reading journal articles, PhD theses, essays, and any other academic/scientific work.

  • point out
  • carry out
  • set up
  • follow up
  • make up
  • rule out
  • find out
  • turn out
  • open up
  • bring about
  • set out
  • fill out
  • slow down
  • go on
  • give up

This isn’t an exhaustive list: there are other phrasal verbs that are used in academic texts. But the above are the most frequent.

Check our blog post for example sentences of the top phrasal verbs in academic writing.

What are the most commonly used phrasal verbs in academic writing?

According to Writefull’s analysis on the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), the most commonly used phrasal verbs in the academic genre by frequency order are:

  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')

How do I know if a phrasal verb is too informal for my text?

Academic writing tends to be formal in style, but many phrasal verbs are informal. This is why you should make sure the phrasal verb you use in your sentence is appropriate for your text.There are several ways to do this:

  1. Check a paper or online dictionary

Alongside traditional definitions, any good dictionary will tell you if a word should be used in a formal or informal context. If a phrasal verb is noted as informal, use its one-word equivalent in your sentence.

  1. Read, read, read

Nothing beats reading lots of academic papers to get a feel for what is suitable or not in academic writing. If you’ve never encountered a phrasal verb in scientific texts before, it might be because it is too informal for this specific genre.

  1. Check our list of informal phrasal verbs
  2. Use Writefull’s automated copyediting service in Word or Overleaf.

Writefull’s feedback is tailored to academic writing, so it will suggest appropriate replacement words when you use informal phrasal verbs.

How do I find formal alternatives to phrasal verbs?

You can find the formal equivalent to a phrasal verb by searching it in a dictionary (paper or online). There you will find definitions and synonyms.

Consider consulting specialized phrasal verb dictionaries, too. The Cambridge Phrasal Verbs Dictionary or Collins COBUILD Phrasal Verbs Dictionary are good options.

Don’t forget that not all phrasal verbs are informal. So you may not need to replace the phrasal verb with a single verb equivalent. For example, the phrasal verb ‘carry out’ may be used interchangeably with ‘conduct’ and ‘perform’ in scientific papers.

Read more here.

Are single verbs always better than phrasal verbs in academic texts?

No, they are not. Although many people will say you should avoid phrasal verbs in academic writing, sometimes they are an equally good or better choice when compared with the single verb equivalent.

Take the example of the phrasal verb ‘carry out’ vs its one-word equivalents ‘perform’, ‘conduct’ or ‘execute’. While it is acceptable to write that you are performing or conducting an experiment, it is also very common to carry out an experiment, an analysis, or research.

However, in many cases, the single verb equivalent will be more formal than the phrasal verb and therefore more suitable for your thesis or paper.

Read more here.

How do I decide if I should use a phrasal verb or an equivalent?

If you’re not sure whether you should use a phrasal verb (e.g. ‘find out’) or a one-word equivalent (e.g. ‘determine’), consider the following:

  1. Check a dictionary to find definitions and nuances of meaning of the phrasal verb and its equivalent.
  2. Check the register of the phrasal verb, i.e. is it formal, informal or neutral? If informal, choose the single verb for your academic text.
  3. Think about your previous encounters with the phrasal verb and one-word equivalent. Have you seen them in other papers before? If so, which words occurred next to them in sentences? This will not only tell you which one is appropriate, but also how to combine them with other words in your own text.
  4. Use Writeful’s Language Search to compare how a phrasal verb and its one-word equivalent are used.

Want more tips to decide between a phrasal verb and one-word verb in your text? Go here.

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

Learn more about using phrasal verbs in academic writing here.

How do I use phrasal verbs in my sentence?

To be more confident using phrasal verbs in your academic text, it’s important to know how they should be used. In particular, you should know the following:

  1. The meaning of the phrasal verb

Make sure you’re aware of connotations too, to avoid any misunderstandings. If the phrasal verb has several meanings, make sure that the meaning you intend to convey is clear from the context of your sentence.

  1. The phrasal verb’s spelling

This is obvious, but you should make sure you spell the phrasal verb correctly. This is especially important since a misspelling of the particle element can change the meaning of the whole.

  1. The placement of the verb and its particle

You need to know if the phrasal verb’s individual components can be separated from each other, so that other words can be included in between. Note that most of the time, phrasal verbs have the verb and particle next to each other in academic writing.

  1. The phrasal verb’s collocations

This refers to the words that often occur next to the phrasal verb in a sentence. Similar to individual words, phrasal verbs occur in certain phrasing patterns (e.g. ‘carry out an analysis’, ‘rule out the possibility’). It’s important to know them, or your sentence might read unnatural or clumsy. Pay attention to these neighboring words whenever you read scientific papers.

See our analysis of the most commonly used noun-phrasal verb-noun combinations here.

Also use Writefull’s language check to make sure you’re using phrasal verbs correctly, and to browse example sentences of phrasal verbs in published papers.

Can phrasal verbs have different meanings?

Yes! Many phrasal verbs are polysemous, i.e. they have more than just one meaning. In fact, many have up to five or six different meanings.

Consider the phrasal verb ‘give out’. Besides the literal meaning ‘to distribute’, it also has several figurative meanings: ‘to be completely used up’, ‘to stop working or functioning’, and ‘to complain’.

This may be confusing, but very often the meaning of the phrasal verb is clear from the context of the sentence in which it is used. If you are using a polysemous phrasal verb in your sentence, you should make sure that’s the case. And don’t forget to check your phrasal verb in a dictionary if you’re not sure of its meaning(s), to avoid possible misunderstandings.

Can I split the two components (i.e. verb and particle) of phrasal verbs?

No, most of the time in academic writing, the verb and particle aren’t separated.For instance, you may write that you ‘set up an experiment’, but not that you ‘set an experiment up’.Separating the verb and particle in separable phrasal verbs is common in everyday speech (e.g. ‘I took the shirt back’), especially to insert pronouns in between (e.g. ‘I took him back’; ‘She wrote it down’).

Such insertion of pronouns is less common in academic texts. Furthermore, inserting a lot of words between the two components can create awkwardness and ambiguity in your sentence (e.g. ‘The authors carried a well-documented analysis out.’).

In short, you can separate the verb and particle of some phrasal verbs, but it is unlikely to be the right thing to do in your academic text.