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Can I use phrasal verbs in formal writing?

How confident do you feel about using English phrasal verbs correctly?

If you’re a non-native English speaker, the prospect of mastering the use of these frustrating, but very common and very useful, parts of language might fill you with dread! I know English language learners often worry about learning how to use them correctly.

But if you’re a native English speaker, there’s a good chance you use them many times a day without giving them a second thought. And although they’re very familiar to you, it’s possible you might not even know what these much-used parts of language are called.

Here’s a very brief explanation and reminder if you need one…

What is a phrasal verb?

Phrasal verbs are also sometimes called multi-word verbs. They’re used just like other verbs and are a combination of a verb, such as ‘talk’ or ‘run’, plus one or two particles (an adverb or a preposition), that results in a new word or unit of meaning.

Examples of common phrasal verbs:

  • buy out
  • call off
  • cool off
  • eat up
  • fall for
  • freshen up
  • hit it off
  • look after
  • pull out
  • run out
  • sell up
  • show off
  • step up
  • soup up
  • talk over
  • write off

Phrasal verbs are particularly common in normal conversation. Using phrasal verbs in your informal speech makes it sound more natural, and if you’re a non-native English speaker, using them makes your speech much more like that of a native English speaker.

But what about phrasal verbs in writing?

Phrasal verbs are also very common in informal writing where the style of the writing is similar to a spoken conversation. In informal writing you’re writing very much as you speak and, according to the context, your writing may include slang, idioms, colloquial expressions, abbreviations, contractions, and of course, many phrasal verbs.

Because of their frequent occurrence in informal speech and writing, it’s not unreasonable to think that phrasal verbs are always informal. You may have read that phrasal verbs should be avoided in formal writing, and that the single verb equivalents should be used instead. While to some extent that’s true, the reality is more complicated.

Phrasal verbs in formal writing

There are many phrasal verbs that can and also should be used in formal writing. You will often see them used in many quite formal and formal texts such as business letters, academic writing, scientific papers, technical papers, legal documents, news reports, and official government documents.

Before we move on to examples of phrasal verbs that are useful and appropriate for formal writing, let’s look at language register for a moment...

‘Register’ is the term we use to refer to different varieties or styles of speaking and writing, and also the degree or level of formality with which we speak or write.
Degree of formality is on a sliding scale rather than in distinct categories, and although phrasal verbs are often thought of as an informal part of language, most of them are neutral, and some are in fact rather formal.

Some phrasal verbs are definitely informal, for example:

  • beaver away – work hard for a long time
  • belt out - sing or play a musical instrument very loudly
  • harp on – talk non-stop about something in a boring or annoying way
  • pig out - eat a lot of or too much food

In your formal writing, you should of course avoid phrasal verbs that are at the informal end of register, and steer clear of slang phrasal verbs, and those that would be considered by many to be offensive. A good phrasal verb dictionary will tell you which phrasal verbs are informal, slang, or offensive.

It's true that very often, single verbs are more formal and therefore are more appropriate for formal writing than their phrasal verb equivalents. Some examples of these are:

Single verb/Phrasal Verb

  • constitute/make up
  • calculate/work out
  • cause/bring about
  • discover/find out
  • discuss/talk about
  • emerge/come out
  • eradicate/stamp out
  • increase/go up
  • maintain/keep up
  • organize/set up
  • propose/put forward
  • select/pick out

However, most phrasal verbs are neutral, neither informal or formal, and in general there’s no reason to specify they shouldn’t be used in formal writing. In fact, in some cases it’s more appropriate to use a phrasal verb in place of a single verb. For example, the phrasal verb ‘carry out’:

“Researchers carried out a survey into …” sounds much better for formal writing than

“Researchers did a survey into …”

At the other end of the formality register, there are phrasal verbs that are so formal they’re only used in very formal or serious speech or writing. If you were to use them in informal writing they would very strange and out of place.

Examples of formal phrasal verbs

  • adhere to
  • appertain to
  • ascribe to
  • disabuse of
  • emanate from/to
  • depart from
  • engage in
  • enlarge on/upon
  • enter on/upon
  • offend against
  • permit of
  • pertain to
  • provide against
  • set forth

As always with writing, context is everything – remember to use the language most appropriate to your audience. Your university, organization, etc. will most probably have a guide to the language you should use for formal writing, including their preferences for using phrasal verbs or their single verb equivalents.

Summary

  1. Often, single verbs are more formal than phrasal verbs and therefore can be more appropriate for formal writing than their phrasal verb equivalents.
  2. Nevertheless, phrasal verbs are very common in formal writing.
  3. Offensive, slang, and informal phrasal verbs are not appropriate for formal writing.
  4. Most phrasal verbs are neutral and therefore, in general, there’s no reason to specify they shouldn’t be used in formal writing.
  5. Some phrasal verbs are so formal they’re only used in very formal or serious writing.
  6. Yes, you can use phrasal verbs in formal writing, as long as you choose those that are the most suitable for your context or audience.