Figuring Out Phrasal Verbs In Academic Writing

Can you work out what this article is going to talk about?

Any ideas…?

That’s right: phrasal verbs, the popular language item which confuses many English learners.

Why are phrasal verbs confusing?

Well, take a look at the question above – do you understand what “work out” means? It could mean “to exercise”, “to end well” or “to think of a solution”.

Which one do you think fits the sentence above? I’ll tell you the answer later.

By the end of the article, you’ll know what phrasal verbs are, which ones you can avoid, and which ones you can use in your academic writing.

If you just can’t wait for the good stuff, click here to download the free phrasal verb cheat sheet here!

What are Phrasal Verbs?

Phrasal verbs are combinations of verbs + adverbs/prepositions. They are ‘idiomatic phrases’, which means that they don’t always have a literal meaning.

So you either know them or you don’t.

They are also really common in spoken English – Check the first 10 seconds of this video:

In the first 10 seconds the presenter, says ‘kick off’ and ‘got off’. These phrasal verbs don’t relate to their main verbs kick or got at all.

In fact, they both mean “to start (something)”

Kick off is used to start a game or meeting or event. (ex. “What time does the game kick off/start?”)

phrasal verbs

“What time does the game kick off?”

Get off can mean to start a journey (ex. “It’s getting late, so I need to get off soon.”)

Phrasal verb get off

“Look at the time! I must get off”

And not only that, but according to this site, ‘get off’ has 11 different meanings!

This means two things for you, lucky English learner:

  1. It’s difficult to understand phrasal verbs when you hear them.
  2. It’s difficult to know which phrasal verb to use.

You can solve these two issues by doing one simple thing:

Learn phrasal verbs in context, not as individual language items.

Phrasal Verbs In Academic Writing

So, they’re common in speaking, but how about writing? Here’s a quick quiz:

  • Are you doing IELTS, CAE, TOEFL or another language test?
    • If yes, then you can use phrasal verbs.
  • Are you a student in university who writes reports and essays?
    • If yes, then look for alternatives.

I help students transition from writing IELTS style essays to academic essays. One of the things that I do is remove the informal language,  such as phrasal verbs. That’s not to say that all phrasal verbs are bad, though.

To make it easy for you, here’s what we’ll do:

First we’ll look at 10 of the most common phrasal verbs that should avoid in your academic writing, and then we’ll look at 5 phrasal verbs that you can use in your academic writing. I know I said you should learn these in context, but this is a way of reverse learning…

Click here to download a free, easy-to-print copy of all the phrasal verbs here & more!

10 Phrasal Verbs To Avoid In Your Academic Writing

The good news is many phrasal verbs have a single verb counterpart. This means, you just need to know the replacement verb.

I’m going to show you 10 of the most commonly used phrasal verbs and how you can make them more academic.

Hand out/ Send out -> To Distribute

This mostly refers to anything that you give to people

Avoid: The questionnaires were handed out to each participant.

phrasal verb hand out

“We handed out leaflets all day.”

Correct: The questionnaires were distributed to each participant.

Come about -> To Happen

This is used show how something occurred.

Avoid: It is suggested that these riots came about because of financial disrupt.

Correct: It is suggested that these riots happened because of financial disrupt.

Deal with -> To Address

This shows how a problem is solved.

Avoid: This essay investigates how parents deal with the issue of difficult children.

Correct: This essay investigates how parents address the issue of difficult children

Fill in/ Fill out -> To Complete

phrasal verb fill in

“Can you fill out this form?”

This is refers to someone answering questions on a form.

Avoid: The participants filled out the questionnaires in a quiet room.

Correct: The participants completed the questionnaires in a quiet room.

Talk about -> To Discuss

This is used to introduce a topic.

Avoid: In the second chapter, the influence of social media will be talked about.

Correct: In the second chapter, the influence of social media will be discussed.

Leave out -> To Omit

This shows that not everything was included.

Avoid: Incomplete surveys were left out.

Correct: Incomplete surveys were omitted.

Carry out -> To Conduct

Use this to talk about how you did an experiment

Avoid: The interviews were carried out in a quiet classroom.

Correct: The interviews were conducted in a quiet classroom.

Come Out -> To Publish

This is used to show when something was published.

phrasal verb come out

“Did you get the new game which came out recently?”

Avoid: The eight characteristics of intelligent people were discussed in an article which came out recently.

Correct: The eight characteristics of intelligent people were discussed in an article which was published recently.

Take place -> To Occur

This shows that something happened.

Avoid: This took place at 11:04am on July 10th.

Correct: This occurred at 11:04am on July 10th.

Look at -> To Investigate

A very common phrasal verb; it shows the focus of an essay.

This essay looks at the causes of the Second World War.

This essay investigates the causes of the Second World War.

Want more phrasal verb fun? Download my free cheat sheet of 17 phrasal verbs you should avoid & how to avoid them.

5 Phrasal Verbs Which Are Okay

Some phrasal verbs are actually a part of academic writing… Here are some of them:

Point towards

Use this when making a conclusion based on data.

Ex. The evidence points towards consistency as being an important factor in success.

Follow up

Use this to show that you did something after something else.

Ex. Each telephone interviewee was followed up with an email survey.

Refer to

Use this to show what something means or relates to.

Ex. Second language acquisition refers to the process of how people learn foreign languages.

Expand on / build on 

Use this to show how one piece of research improves another piece.

phrasal verb focus on

“Let’s focus on this sentence.”

Ex. This study expands on the work of John Smith.

Focus on

Use this to show the aim or scope of your work.

Ex. This essay will focus on the use of English in business.

Click here to get all of today’s phrasal verbs in a nice, easy-to-print package

Final Words

Everyone wants to sound more fluent, but don’t forget about the context of what you’re writing.

In most cases, using single word verbs, or more academic verbs, will be better in academic writing than phrasal verbs.

Two things for you today:

1 – Share this post (click here!)

2 – Make it easy to avoid phrasal verbs (or use the correct ones) with my free Phrasal Verb cheat sheet below.

Ps. The answer is: “to think of a solution

phrasal verb pdf

About the Author Sam

Sam is the founder and creator of English For Study. He's also a lecturer in EAP/Academic English. Apart from making Academic English easy, he likes learning languages, lifting weights and eating good food.

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