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Phrasal Verbs - Are they okay in formal writing?

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

You have probably heard, or read in a textbook, that phrasal verbs should be avoided in formal writing. While it is true that many phrasal verbs have an informal nature, such as hurry up, cool off or hit it off; many phrasal verbs are either neutral, such as carry out or in fact formal, such as account for.

Part of the confusion over phrasal verbs is that they are so common in spoken (and therefore informal) English. In fact, as a learner, you will not get anywhere without learning phrasal verbs, even at a basic level - just think of switching on a light or a computer. However, just as it is true that you will not get anywhere at a lower level without learning phrasal verbs, it is also true that to trully develop as an advanced writer, you need to master the formal use of phrasl verbs.

Let us consider the following sentence:

A committee has been set up to look into the causes of the fire.

This sentence is not only formal in nature, but it would also be quite difficult to construct without the use of phrasal verbs. Any other version would seem wordy and not professional.

Another typical example would be:

Following the hostile take over, many workers resigned.

I have created a selfstudy handout dealing with typical phrasal verbs seen in formal writing (see the downloadable PDF and key at the bottom). These are by no means the only ones and I encourage you to check them out yourself as they will really aid your writing.

A Cambridge University Blogpost on this subject can be found here.

Formal Phrasal Verbs Handout PDF
Download PDF • 451KB

Formal Phrasal Verbs Key PDF
Download PDF • 473KB

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