Verbs “Posing” as Phrasal Verbs
Simply having a verb followed by a preposition does not mean you have a phrasal verb. For example, on of the sentences below has a phrasal verb; the other does not. Can you tell which is which?
- I ran across the street to talk to my neighbor.
- I ran across my neighbor on the street.
In Sentence 1, you have a simple verb (run); “across the street” is a prepositional phrase showing where of the action took place. If you use a different preposition (e.g., along), you would not change the meaning of the verb, only the meaning of the prepositional phrase. “Run” and “across” work independently from each other.
Sentence 2, on the other hand, has a true phrasal verb. To “run across someone” means to meet someone by chance. “Run” and “across” work together to create a new verb with a different meaning from the original verb.
When to Use Phrasal Verbs
As a general rule, phrasal verbs are used in informal speech and writing. You can use phrasal verbs in some types of formal writing, though you should be careful about the tone some of them convey. Some phrasal verbs have a very informal, relaxed tone that may not be the tone you want for your formal writing.
In formal and academic writing, writers tend to avoid phrasal verbs, especially the ones with a very informal tone. Writers typically choose a verb with a similar meaning instead. For example, you may say “the meeting was called off” but write “the meeting was canceled.”
Really? Are you sure about that?
Please note that using or avoiding phrasal verbs in formal speech or writing is a general rule only. You will see people frequently using phrasal verbs in formal situations.
A business meeting is a formal social situation, yet businesspeople would probably say “let’s wrap it up” instead of “let’s conclude the meeting” (which may sound a little stilted).
At the same time, the same business people might write an email saying “we concluded the meeting” or "the meeting ended..." to avoid too informal a tone for a business email.
How can you tell which is which? Only experience using the language can give you a feel for which words to use in a particular linguistic register.