Posted by: Jack Henry | October 10, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Rules for Using Phrasal Verbs

Rule 1: Don’t Compress Phrasal Verbs

Many phrasal verbs have noun or adjective forms that are either one word (cutoff, giveaway, handout, makeup) or hyphenated (check-in, drop-off, mix-up, show-off).

The Chicago Manual of Style says, “Don’t compress [a phrasal verb] into a one-word verb … e.g., one burns out (phrasal verb) and suffers burnout (noun).”

Incorrect: The supermarket hired me to handout free samples.

Correct: The supermarket hired me to hand out free samples.

Incorrect: I need to drop-off my brother at the mall.

Correct: I need to drop off my brother at the mall.

The good news is that phrasal verbs always have a space between words. The bad news is that some noun (or adjective) forms of phrasal verbs are hyphenated, and some are not.

The following table shows some of the most common phrasal verbs we use in our documentation and the appropriate noun (or adjective) form of each.

Phrasal Verb Noun (or Adjective)
Back up Backup
Log on (to) Logon
Log off (from) Logoff
Set up Setup
Sign in (to) Sign-in

When in doubt about hyphenating a noun, consult your preferred dictionary (we use Merriam-Webster).

Rule 2: Don’t Use Redundant Phrasal Verbs

The Chicago Manual of Style says, “Avoid the phrasal verb if the verb alone conveys essentially the same meaning—e.g., rest up is equivalent to rest.”

This rule is a specific case of a more general principle in technical writing: don’t use unnecessary words.

I couldn’t find a list of redundant phrasal verbs, but I thought of some more examples:

Call up someone Call someone
Clean up Clean
Finish off Finish
Go on home Go home
Lie down on Lie on
Ramble on Ramble
Shout out Shout
Stand up Stand
Study up on Study

In my next post, I’ll discuss two more rules for writing about phrasal verbs. Until then, keep on keeping on (or just keep keeping).

Ben Ritter | Technical Editor | Symitar®
8985 Balboa Avenue | San Diego, CA 92123
619-682-3391 | or ext. 763391 |

Symitar Documentation Services

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