Style: Phrasal Verbs

 

A phrasal verb comprises a simple verb followed by one or more prepositions or adverbs. For example, the previous sentence might alternatively
have been written –

      A phrasal verb is made up of a simple verb followed by one or more
      prepositions or adverbs.

Made up of is a phrasal verb for comprises.

Phrasal verbs can be counted by the score, and they cause great confusion to foreigners learning English. For example, there are the backs

      back upback downback offback outback away

the stands

      stand upstand up forstand downstand bystand for
      stand instand out

and the turns

      turn upturn downturn inturn outturn onturn off,
      turn awayturn over.

Such verbs are commonly used in everyday speech and informal writing in place of more formal verbs that can sound pretentious. 

      I gave up smoking three years ago 

is more authentic than the overly formal –

      I relinquished the habit of smoking three years ago.

But in formal English, many phrasal verbs can appear inelegant and give the impression of a poorly educated writer –

      My daughter wants to go in for law (phrasal verb)
        My daughter wants to study (or practise) law (formal verb)

      Albert Einstein came up with the theory of relativity (phrasal verb)
        Albert Einstein advanced (or propounded) the theory of relativity (formal verb)

      His theory was later backed up by experiments (phrasal verb)
      His theory was later supported by experiments (formal verb)

But we do not always have to search for a more formal verb. Sometimes, the simple verb is sufficient on its own –

      We woke up at six every morning
      We woke (or awoke) at six every morning

      We added up the figures
      We added the figures

      I need to charge up my mobile
      I need to charge
(or recharge) my mobile.

There is no convenient rule to distinguish acceptable from unacceptable phrasal verbs in formal English; it is simply a question of how firmly
established in the language they have become. For example, to turn down ‘reject’ is more acceptable than to turn up ‘appear’; to bring about
‘cause’ is more acceptable than to bring off ‘succeed’. Even when two phrasal verbs mean much the same thing, one can still be more formal
than the other –

      Albert Einstein came up with the theory of relativity (informal)
        Albert Einstein put forward the theory of relativity (formal)

      I told him to chill out (slang)
      I told him to calm down (acceptable)

The same phrasal verb can even be formally acceptable with one meaning and not with another. Carry on is acceptable to mean ‘proceed’ or
‘continue’, but not to mean ‘bicker’, and there are similar differences in the uses of fill in, put down, take off and turn out.

English is a developing language where today’s colloquial often becomes tomorrow’s standard, but academic essays and other formal scripts are
not the places to push the boundaries. Phrasal verbs should consequently be used with care, and it is particularly advisable to avoid the latest 

imports from the United States where they are both more common and more acceptable –

      back out: withdraw
      back off: retreat
      bring off: succeed
      check out: consult
      dumb down: devalue by making simpler
      fill in: inform
      kick in: activate
      listen up: listen, pay attention
      lose out: lose
      meet up with: meet
      miss out on: miss
      pay off: prove profitable
      put down: criticise, humiliate
      wise up: think more carefully