They carried out an experiment: phrasal verbs in formal writing

by Liz Walter
I have written previously about using phrasal verbs to avoid over-formal language, but what happens when you need to write in a formal style, for instance in an academic essay, a report, or a formal letter? Although we often think of phrasal verbs and other multi-word verbs as being rather informal, the majority are in fact neutral and there are a good many that are positively formal. This blog post looks at a small selection of the many multi-word verbs which would be completely appropriate in formal or academic writing.

If you only learn one phrasal verb to use in formal writing, my recommendation would be carry out. This is extremely common and sounds much more impressive than ‘do’:

Scientists have carried out experiments/tests/research on …

We have carried out  a thorough review of …

Other simple verbs could also be replaced in formal writing:

The railways brought about huge change. (= caused)

The discovery came about by chance. (= happened)

Unusually cold weather accounted for the rise in fuel use. (= explained)

It is usual to begin an essay or report with an introduction explaining its purpose and structure. For example:

This report consists of three main parts.

The essay focuses on Mahler’s early life and expands on/builds on previous work by …

The final section is devoted to a discussion of …

In academic writing, it is usually necessary to refer to other sources:

As Brown points out

Smith puts forward the theory that …

Her letters allude to the fact that …

This poem was originally attributed to Shakespeare.

It is also common to talk about the evidence you have to support the conclusions of your writing:

These results bear out earlier findings.

All the evidence points towards human error.

These recommendations are based on the results of extensive research.

Their team arrived at the same conclusions.

You may also wish to describe methods of research:

The questionnaires were followed up with interviews.

We had to factor in the effect of other treatments.

Eventually, the age range was narrowed down.

All the experiments were subjected to strict controls.

The team was then able to dispense with paper records.

The new procedures were phased in gradually.

So to sum up, don’t rule out phrasal verbs in formal writing, as there are many which can contribute to an authoritative style and result in admiration from your readers!







31 thoughts on “They carried out an experiment: phrasal verbs in formal writing

  1. Danny

    You make a good point about phrasal verbs being acceptable in formal English as well. As an EFL teacher I usually teach the formal/informal distinction, and try to motivate my students: “if you want to learn conversational English, you need to learn to use phrasal verbs, or else you might sound like a robot.” In the future I will qualify myself: “but sometimes robots use phrasal verbs too!” 😉 By the way, thanks for your posts. I’ve subscribed to the newsletter for a few years now, and it has been useful to me in teaching.

  2. Magaly

    As an English learner I find this article very helpful. I have been told that I should avoid the use of phrasal verbs in formal writing, and I had never pay attention to the fact they are indeed used in it. It would be great to find a dictionary that shows a word and its equivalent to phrasal verb.

  3. thanks some useful verbs here

    also i was wondering if some of the verbs here are not prepostional verbs? (e.g. consists of, focus on etc) and not phrasal verbs, where we take the a definition of phrasal verbs as something that changes the usual meaning of the verb?


    1. Liz Walter

      Hi Mura: The article does say ‘and other multi-word verbs’, but the question of what exactly a phrasal verb is is very complicated (and I speak as someone who has written several books about them!). I don’t think it’s possible to have an exact definition because there are always examples on the borders about which people won’t agree. My own view is that from the point of view of learning English, if a verb must be followed by a preposition or an adverb, then it’s best to think of it as a multi-word phrase and learn it in that way.

    2. Lumiere Rouge

      I do agree with you Mura, since there are some features that differentiate phrasal verbs from prepositional ones like when the verb and the particle are inseparable as in ”got off the bus” it’s considered a phrasal verb not a prepositional one. In fact, it’s quite helpful to know the differences if you work as a translator and I’d recommend to you reading Farser’s article “An examination of the verb-particle construction in English” if you’re interested in.

      1. oh nice thanks for that ref lumiere rouge 🙂
        questions of terminology aside a major issue with learning multi-word verbs is meaning and the multiple meanings possible for such verbs

      2. Liz Walter

        Thanks for your interesting comment, Lumiere Rouge. I guess it’s really a question of audience – my point isn’t that there isn’t a distinction, but that in a blog like this, that aims to provide some simple tips on vocabulary and grammar to students, it may be more confusing than illuminating to try to make the difference (and especially to do it every time phrasal verbs/prepositional verbs are mentioned!). I am a teacher as well as a writer, and I know for sure that most intermediate students don’t understand the term ‘prepositional verb’. To be honest, if they can use ‘consist of’ correctly, I’m very happy! 🙂

  4. I love to read your blog every time. I learn a lot , specially to modern terms in English language.
    I attended a Canadian University and have a B.A. in English Literature and a M.I.L.Sc. However I spent my whole professional life as a Medical Librarian. 41 years. In a Pediatric Hospital in Mexico.
    I must say, that when I did a postgraduate on that discipline, no one emphasized the importance of a proper formal language when writing scientific papers.
    Fortunately I was very lucky to have a good formal education.
    I spent a lot of time on my job pointing out to the medical staff about this matter.
    I am glad you are mentioning it to readers.

  5. Kalyan Sathe

    The noun”report” should have been preceded by the article ‘a’ in the sentence ‘It is usual to begin “an” essay or ‘a’ report …

    1. Liz Walter

      Hi Kalyan – actually it’s fine to omit the second article after the ‘or’, though it’s not wrong to add it either!

  6. Mario

    I wonder how to know how to identify which phrasal verb can be used as a formal word when using online cambridge dictionary.

    1. Liz Walter

      Hi Mario: in the online dictionary, look for labels like ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ – any words that don’t have a label are fine in general speech and writing.

  7. Paul Guest

    A note for anyone who writes for Cambridge.
    I really enjoy reading your contributions but I wish that you would change your keyboard over the English rather than American. I teach English and then tell the students if there is a word that they are using in American. I have to run a spell checker and reset the grammar in the texts!

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  11. Dear Ms. Walter,
    This is a tremendously helpful list, but I’m wondering, then, how I can help my (ESL graduate) students differentiate between formal and informal phrasal verbs. Clearly “eliminate” is preferable to “get rid of,” and “go up/down” should be replaced with rise/increase/drop/decrease. Is there a good resource you could point me to?
    Many thanks,
    Eric Grunwald, egrunwal@mit.,edu

  12. Liz Walter

    This is a tricky one – all good learners’ dictionaries, such as the one on this site, will have a label when something is markedly formal or informal. The problem is that there are a lot in the middle, and I’m afraid I don’t know of a resource that would have enough gradations of formality to be able to say that ‘increase’ is more formal than ‘go up’. Sorry not to be able to help.

    1. Thank you, that is helpful, actually, as I had basically come to the same conclusion and am trying to figure out how to present that fact to my students. It’s pushing me to incorporate corpus-searching more into the course, which I’ve wanted to do anyway, and maybe “When still in doubt, go with a one-word verb.”

      Thanks again,

  13. Around half of these aren’t phrasal verbs (they are just verbs that happen to have dependent prepositions), but still it is an excellent article. Thank you

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, they’re what I refer to as ‘multi-word verbs’ in the introduction, but I find it’s simplest for students not to make the distinction.

      1. That’s a good point, I suppose it depends on what way you look at it! I like students to make the distinction so that they won’t think the ‘multi-word verbs’ they know are informal. All roads lead to Rome 🙂

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