Choosing Verbs (Phrasal Verbs vs Latinate Verbs)

Our Story
The Quick Answer

Phrasal Verbs Are Clear but Informal

Phrasal verbs (e.g., "meet up," "think about") are usually more appropriate in informal circumstances, such as speaking or emails. Single-word verbs (e.g., "congregate," "consider"), which are often derived from Latin, are usually more appropriate in formal writing. However, Latinate verbs can sound too corporate or dry. So, when choosing a verb, writers should strike a balance between the following pros and cons:
Verb Type
Pro
Con
Phrasal (e.g., to meet up)
  • clear
  • natural
  • informal
  • increases word-count
  • Latinate (e.g., to congregate)
  • formal
  • reduces word-count
  • too corporate
  • dry
  • Some Phrasal Verbs Are Not Succinct

    Some phrasal verbs have prepositions that do not add anything. In those circumstances, delete the prepositions to improve succinctness. For example:
    • I cannot face up to the consequences. (not succinct)
    • I cannot face the consequences.

    Choosing Verbs

    A verb like "to face up to," "to give up," "to put up with" (i.e., a single verb made up of more than one word) is called a phrasal verb.

    Phrasal verbs usually take the form:
    [verb]
    +
    [preposition]


    Here are examples of phrasal verbs:
    • to break up
    • to get over
    • to give in
    Read more about phrasal verbs.

    "German" English Verbs and "French" English Verbs

    More often than not, a phrasal verb derives from our Germanic heritage. As the Germanic traits in our language stem from the language of the common people, phrasal verbs are easy on the ear for native English speakers. However, in business writing (or formal correspondence), writers tend to avoid phrasal verbs because they can seem too informal and because they eat up your word-count.

    Therefore, in formal writing, there is a leaning towards Latinate verbs, i.e., those which derive from our French heritage. As a rule, these are one-word verbs (e.g., to accumulate, to amalgamate). Latinate verbs sound more formal because the French traits in our language stem from the language of the aristocracy.

    choosing verbs phrasal verbs versus Latinate verbs

    Reasons to Avoid Phrasal Verbs

    Here are three good reasons to avoid a phrasal verb:

    (Reason 1) It sounds too informal, and a Latinate verb would be more appropriate (particularly in business writing).

    Examples:
    • All staff must get together on the tennis court.
    • (This phrasal verbs sound okay, but it's a little informal.)
    • All staff must congregate on the tennis court.
    • (This Latinate verb might be preferable.)
    • The meeting is put off until Tuesday.
    • (This phrasal verb sounds okay, but it's a little informal.)
    • The meeting is postponed until Tuesday.
    • (This Latinate verb might be preferable.)
    • Attempt to put the fire out.
    • (This phrasal verb sounds okay, but it's a little informal.)
    • Attempt to extinguish the fire.
    • (Is this preferable? Clarity sometimes trumps style.)
    (Reason 2) It has unnecessary prepositions that don't add anything.

    Examples:
    • I cannot face up to this problem.
    • (This phrasal verbs sounds okay, but the words "up to" are redundant.)
    • I cannot face this problem.
    • (This is more succinct.)
    • Try this new garlic dip out.
    • (This phrasal verbs sounds okay, but the "out" is redundant.)
    • Try this new garlic dip.
    • (This is more succinct.)
    • She will not stand for shoddy work.
    • (This phrasal verbs sounds okay, but the "for" is redundant.)
    • She will not stand shoddy work.
    • (This is more succinct.)
    (Reason 3) It would mean ending a sentence in a preposition, and that is a situation you're trying to avoid.

    Examples:
    • It is a situation I will not put up with.
    • (This phrasal verbs sounds okay, but the words "up with" are not succinct, and, being at the end of the sentence, they run the risk of annoying some readers.)
    • It is a situation I will not tolerate.
    • (This is shorter and safer.)
    • Can you sort it out?
    • (This phrasal verbs sounds okay, but it is not succinct, and, with "out" being at the end of the sentence, it runs the risk of annoying some readers.)
    • Can you resolve it?
    • (This is shorter and safer.)

    Reasons to Use Phrasal Verbs

    Here are two good reasons to use a phrasal verb:

    (Reason 1) Being more natural sounding, a phrasal verb might be a better fit for your image.

    Example:
    • We would not expect you to tolerate a second-rate service.
    • (This Latinate is understandable but perhaps a little too corporate and dry.)
    • Don't put up with bad service.
    • (This phrasal verb might be more tuned to the "character" of your business.)
    (Reason 2) A phrasal verb is usually clearer than the Latinate version.

    Latinate verbs (e.g. "to militate" and "to mitigate") run a higher a risk of being misunderstood. For example:
    • The framework is required to concatenate the disparate elements.
    • (There is a risk that this Latinate verb won't be understood.)
    • The framework is required to join up each element.
    • (This phrasal verb is clearer.)
    Interactive Exercise
    Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

    See Also

    What are prepositions? Ending a sentence in a preposition The object of a preposition