The question whether phrasal verbs are typical of informal usage was raised by Paula Rodríguez-Puente at the Helsinki Corpus Festival yesterday. The title of her paper was “”Talking ‘private’ with phrasal verbs: A corpus-based study of English phrasal verbs from 1650 to 1999”. The question reflects a controversial topic, dealt with in more detail by Stefan Thim in his article on the subject in Syntax, style and grammatical norms: English from 1500-2000 (2006).
Interestingly, Paula Rodriguz-Puente showed as one of her findings that Lady Montefiore (1784-1862) avoided phrasal verbs in her diary, preferring words like depart rather then for instance set out instead. This was suggested to be due either to Montefiori’s familiarity with Italian or to the influence of prescriptivism. Usage advice is usually against the use of phrasal verbs in formal contexts.