Phrasal verbs and informal usage

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.

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2 Responses to Phrasal verbs and informal usage

  1. Paula says:

    Lady Motefiore uses very few phrasal verbs. The fact that her writing is so elaborated (rich descriptions full of adjectives and adverbs, use of passive sentences, etc.) and full of polysyllabic words of Latin and French origin (molestation, indisposition, dissatisfaction, impracticable) made me think that maybe she was using Latinate verbs where others would have used phrasal verbs and so I found out that she employed “depart” for “set out”, “accompany” for “come along”, “return” for “come back”, “continue” for “go on”, “obstruct” for “block up” and several others. I don’t know whether this is so because she is influenced by Italian or because she is following the prescriptivist advice against the use of phrasal verbs, which is so thoroughly described by Kate Wild in her dissertation.

  2. Kate Wild says:

    Thanks, Paula. I’m sorry I missed your talk; it sounds fascinating. Yes, I wonder what caused Lady Montefiore to avoid phrasal verbs? I agree, prescripivist attitudes certainly could have played a part – I found that, where attitudes towards phrasal verbs were expressed in 18th and 19th c. grammars and usage books etc., they were often negative. They weren’t always directly related to register or to the Latinate/English debate, though – the single most frequent criticism I identified was about supposedly ‘redundant’ phrasal verbs like ‘open up’ and ‘fall down’.

    With regard to register, I looked at major 18th and 19th c. dictionaries (Johnson, Webster, OED1) and found that, while some phrasal verbs were labelled as ‘colloquial’/’familiar’ etc. (but not ‘informal’, which is first recorded in this sense in the mid-19th c., and used only once as a label in OED1 as far as I could find), the majority were unlabelled, and there doesn’t appear to have been a general perception of phrasal verbs as informal, at least not in dictionaries.

    It is interesting that modern usage manuals tend to advise readers to avoid phrasal verbs in formal usage – though the more sensitive ones note that some phrasal verbs, like ‘set out’ and ‘sum up’, are perfectly acceptable in formal texts. There’s a useful discussion in one of Macmillan’s dictionaries, a page of which is available at

    Click to access verbs-Language-Study-Register.pdf

    Perhaps usage books/grammars/dictionaries for non-native speakers are more aware of register subtleties?

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