Are phrasal verbs difficult? Writing for international readers

Are phrasal verbs difficult? Writing for international readers

Looking up phrasal verbs in a dictionary is a pain. That’s why you may want to reconsider using them if you’re writing for non-fluent English speakers.

Plain language guidelines suggest that we use common, everyday words in our writing. That can include phrasal verbs1 (like “make sure”), which we use more in informal settings.

But Edmond Weiss, in his International English, notes that phrasal verbs can be difficult for English language learners because the root word has a different meaning from the combined words and it takes an extra effort to look them up in a dictionary.

I rely almost entirely on online dictionaries now, so on a whim, I decided to put this statement to the test (test it) using a good old-fashioned dictionary 🙂

What’s a phrasal verb?

A phrasal verb is a verb with a preposition or adverb (or both). (Here’s the Cambridge Dictionary definition of “phrasal verb”.) Here are some examples.

Phrasal verbMeaning
carry outcomplete, accomplish
find outdiscover
put up withtolerate
set backhinder, delay; cost
speed upaccelerate
Words suggested by, “Use simple words and phrases.”

You can see that the meaning of the phrasal verb is different from the meanings of the separate parts.

For example, “to carry” means “to transport.”2 But “to carry out” does not mean “to transport something out(side)”; it means “to complete.”

Phrasal verbs can be tricky to understand

Phrasal verbs are often used in informal settings (although some are accepted in formal writing too). So a child might learn them through listening and talking in daily life.

But if you learn English in a formal setting, you have to memorize those phrasal verbs. You can’t draw on3 (ha, another phrasal verb!) what you know about the root word and figure it out.4

I thought I would test Weiss’s argument by looking up a phrasal verb in a dictionary. Would it really make a difference?

An experiment: Looking up “to make sure”

I picked “to make sure” as my experiment. suggested it as a plainer alternative to “ensure.”

First, I searched for “make sure” on (the now defunct) Lexico and found it immediately. Here’s the definition from Merriam-Webster.

Hmm, that wasn’t hard at all.

But Weiss was talking about people using hardcopy dictionaries. (And he was writing when the internet was still young-ish.)

So I went to my English-Japanese dictionary and looked under “make.”

The meaning of “make” alone filled up three columns.

Some phrases starting with “make” were listed separately, too, so I scanned the page to see if “make sure” was anywhere.

Dictionary spread open. Four columns of text, of which nearly 3 are highlighted.

I finally found it! But was puzzled what the dictionary was telling me. (I probably should’ve checked the dictionary key but was too lazy to …. )

Eventually, I realized I needed to look under the entry for “sure,” not “make.”

Close-up of dictionary. Two lines redirecting me to another page.

Looking up “sure” led me to another page full of definitions.

One page from the dictionary with 2 columns. Definitions for "sure" takes up three-quarters of the page.

Found it!

It was halfway down the second column.

Definition & translations of "make sure." About 16 lines of text.

Yes, that was a pain. Imagine doing that for many phrasal verbs ….

A counter experiment: Looking up “to ensure”

In contrast, what about “ensure,” which was considered to be the less familiar word?

I found the definition in one try (shown in two pics here because it was split across two columns). And the word only had two definitions, so it was easy for me to decide which one I needed.

First half of the definition & translation of "ensure" is about 6 lines.
Second half of the definition & translation of "ensure" is another 9 lines.

Conclusion: Use a precise verb over a phrasal verb … depending on your audience

Online dictionaries make it much easier to look up phrasal verbs.

But if your target audience is more likely to use hardcopy dictionaries or know more “academic” words, it may be better to choose the precise verb—even if they are considered harder.

What’s the best option? Well, as we editors like to say, “it depends!”

Further reading

An afterthought

Looking up the word was an interesting experiment—but so was writing this post! I realized just how much I rely on phrasal verbs to make my words less stiff and more conversational.

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Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay.

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  1. a verb with a preposition or adverb (or both)
  2. “Carry” has many more meanings, which makes matters even more complicated, but let’s take one of the meanings for the moment.
  3. “use one’s experience, talents, or skills as a resource” (Oxford Dictionaries)
  4. “solve a problem or discover the answer to a question” (Oxford Dictionaries)

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