Skip to main content

Scholarly Voice: Verb Choice

Verb Choice: English or Latin-based Verbs versus Phrasal Verbs

In academic writing, it is typically preferable to use single-word English or Latin-based verbs rather than multiword phrasal verbs (also known as compound verbs).  Phrasal verbs can have various meanings depending on the context and are used often in everyday spoken language.  Alternatively, in scholarly environments, English or Latin-based verbs are more appropriate because they are precise and specific. As a general rule, use English or Latin-based verbs instead of phrasal verbs in academic writing.

Examples

English/Latin-based verbs Phrasal verbs
examine look into
find come across
verify look up, check out
recover get better, get something back
decide make up one’s mind
identify look out for
support back someone (or something) up

Multiple Meanings of Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs seem informal and tend to be less precise than English or Latin-based verbs because their meaning can change based on the context.  Also, phrasal verbs often do not have a literal meaning.  For example, the phrasal verb to make up can take on various meanings, but "to make something in a vertical way (up)" is not one of them. 

See these examples of the various meanings of make up:

  • The student made up a story about her summer vacation. (made up = fabricated, invented)
  • The couple had an argument, but after further discussing their concerns with each other, they made up. (made up = resolved their differences and decided to be friendly again)
  • His high score on the final exam made up for his poor average on the unit quizzes. (made up = compensated)

Using a single-word English or Latin-based verb would be more specific and seem more formal and appropriate for academic writing:

  • The student fabricated a story about her summer vacation.
  • The couple had an argument, but after further discussing their concerns with each other, they resolved the issue.
  • His high score on the final exam compensated for his poor average on the unit quizzes.

Notice how many meanings the phrasal verb make up has, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Identifying Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs tend to include a verb in combination with one or more prepositions (e.g. of, with, for) or adverbs (e.g. up, across, down).  An internet search or online dictionary search will often help in identifying phrasal verbs and any English or Latin-based verb alternatives.