Beware of Phrasal Verbs (Writing for English Language Learners, Technique #1)

We can make our institutions a little more welcoming to diverse audiences by making our labels as readable as possible for visitors who read English as their second (or third, etc.) language. This post will be the first in a collection that describes some techniques for improving readability for this audience.

Technique #1: Minimize use of phrasal verbs.

A phrasal verb is a multiword verb that consists of a verb plus an adverbial or prepositional particle. Its meaning cannot be be understood based on the meanings of the individual words. Phrasal verbs are very common in English. Here is a small sample of some commonly used phrasal verbs:

Cyanide & Happiness @
  • bring about
  • call off
  • catch up with
  • drop off
  • figure out
  • fix up
  • get out
  • give up
  • hand over
  • keep up
  • put up with
  • shut up
  • show off
  • tire out
  • work out

Phrasal verbs are very challenging for English language learners. There are (at least) two reasons for this:

  1. Phrasal verbs are usually idiomatic. That is, their meanings cannot be predicted from their constituent elements. You might not think of “shut up” as an idiom, but it’s as hard to guess that it means “be quiet” as it is to guess that “under the weather” means “sick.”
  2. Phrasal verbs often have multiple meanings.
    • Blow up can mean inflate or cause to explode.
    • Hold up can mean delay or threaten with a weapon.

Of course, you can’t always avoid phrasal verbs. But when you are editing text that will be read by your visitors, circle all your phrasal verbs and give them a hard look. Ask yourself if they are are open to misinterpretation. You may find that there are better, more evocative substitutes available.

One question you may be asking yourself is

Will these techniques for improving the readability of labels make my writing bland and remove all its personality and individuality?

I don’t think so, but in future posts, we’ll take a look at some past winners of CurCom’s Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition, and see if award-winning labels can be written that are still friendly to ELL audiences.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about phrasal verbs, I recommend the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

I just noticed some phrasal verbs in my previous blog posts…


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