The register of phrasal verbs

Wednesday 28 September 2011

by Liz Walter

When we were writing the examples and texts used in Phrasal Verbs for Natural English, a recurring problem was spotting rogue phrasal verbs that had crept into them. We had a rule that only the phrasal verbs being specifically practised in the unit should be used, to avoid confusing or overloading our students. This proved remarkably difficult to achieve without compromising the naturalness of our example texts.


We hope we succeeded, but it did reinforce the fact that phrasal verbs are an absolutely integral part of natural English.  There can be tendency for students to rationalize their avoidance of phrasal verbs by characterising them as idiomatic and informal, and therefore outside the basic core of the language.  There are, of course, phrasal verbs that are very informal, but there are also phrasal verbs that are very definitely formal – both are highlighted in our book. But there is also a middle ground of common, useful phrasal verbs that can be used in any register.


I thought it would be interesting to look at phrasal verb use in two newspapers of contrasting registers and readerships: The Telegraph, hardly known for its trendy informality, and, at the other end of the spectrum, The Mirror.  I looked at three stories: one about a soldier killed in Afghanistan, one on William and Kate’s visit to Canada, and one on the funding of care for the elderly (characteristically headlined ‘£80,000 care fees for middle-class pensioners’ in The Telegraph, and ‘£2bn Granny Tax Shock’ in The Mirror.) I identified the phrasal verbs used in the reporting; and found the following:




Death of British soldier in Afghanistan


British sources played down speculation …


Ruthless fanatics carried out the execution in Helmand …

… allegations the local troops handed him over to a death squad …

… fears the Taliban had carried out the snatch after being tipped off that David Cameron was making a secret visit …

…the situation is safe enough to pull out hundreds more soldiers next year …

…Mr Cameron insisted he will press ahead with his troop cuts.


William and Kate in rowing race in Canada


…team Kate got off to a slow start.

The Duchess …pulled out after palace officials privately expressed concerns …

… showed him how to carry out an emergency landing …

… took photographs as her husband carried out the technique …

… the only air sea rescue force who regularly carry out ‘waterbirding’ …



… William had showed off his piloting skills …

The prince revelled in his team’s dragon boat victory …

The couple looked …relaxed … as they joked around outdoors.

… the prince showed off his moves with the help of the Canadian armed forces …

…he was very pleased to have pulled it off.


Funding care for elderly


The state would pick up bills above this cap.

..individuals would be expected to take out insurance.



…an overhaul of the way the elderly are looked after.

…the report, which sets out a ‘once in a lifetime chance’ to offer the nation’s elderly care …

…will allow them to plan ahead for how they wish to meet these costs.

…disappointment if a white paper on the recommendations was not carried out by next Easter …

…a date for when the Government would bring forward legislation.



Here are a few observations:


  1. If you only teach one phrasal verb to your intermediate students with a view to news comprehension, make it carry out! This phrasal verb occurred with startling frequency, and not only in these articles.
  2. The Telegraph used more phrasal verbs in the article about William and Kate than it did in the other two, perhaps because of the more light-hearted nature of the story.
  3. The Mirror used significantly more phrasal verbs than The Telegraph.
  4. Interestingly, although points 2 and 3 above might give weight to the ‘phrasal verbs are for informal contexts’ argument, if we look at the actual phrasal verbs used, the vast majority are not informal at all, and neither are they being used in informal contexts.  I have to say that I am not entirely sure what to make of this – perhaps the phrasal verbs are somehow felt to contribute to a chattier and more accessible style, even though they are not intrinsically informal.


Of course, this is a tiny sample, but it is clear that you can pick up any newspaper and find phrasal verbs scattered throughout its articles.  Another important point is that there are several examples here where it would be very difficult to substitute the phrasal verb with another verb or verbal phrase.  For instance ‘take out insurance’ is simply the way we express that concept; no other verb will really do. So if learners of English are striving for naturalness, they cannot avoid phrasal verbs, much as they might want to.






2 responses to The register of phrasal verbs

  1. MARYJO says:

    I really liked your article on phrasal words, and I did appreciate your focus on their use in real language. I try to teach my students phrasal verbs through songs the liked to highlight how people communicate in English.

  2. Fascinating. This is a good idea to try with my own classes or indeed to highlight on my blog.

    Unfortunately some Czech students avoid learning phrasal verbs, perhaps thinking they’re ok without them, as Czech doesn’t have them, or that they’re ‘just idiomatic’ or plain too hard.

    Interacting more in the language is one way to overcome this barrier.

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