Words in English are tricky things. They merge and morph, even little changes adding layers of new meaning. Don't believe me? Here's an area I see lots of people getting tripped up: phrasal verbs, like setup vs. set up. Are they one word or two? And does it even matter?
Actually, it’s both, and yes, it does matter. Let’s take a look at why, shall we?
The Power of Phrasal Verbs
What’s a phrasal verb? I’m glad you asked.
It usually includes a verb, like “set,” and a preposition, like “up.” Together, the two words mean something completely different from “set” alone.
Johnny set the table with knives and forks.
Sally set up a display of spring sandals at the shoe store.
Not convinced phrasal verbs make a difference? Let’s play around with “break” and see what phrasal verbs it can make.
According to Merriam-Webster, “to break” is to separate into parts with suddenness or violence. All the phrasal verbs that follow are variations on that theme—but they also have distinct meanings. (In fact, they all have several meanings, but I’ll give just one of each here.)
To break down is to stop functioning because of breakage or wear, like a car breaking down on the highway.
To break up is to end a romance.
To break in is to enter something (as a building or computer system) without consent or by force.
To break out is to make a break from a restraining condition or situation.
Sure, you could just stick with “to break,” but you’d lose the distinct meaning of each of these phrases.
And let’s take one more you’ve probably seen before: to work versus to work out.
To work is to toil or labor. To work out is to exercise. Sure, that might also feel like toil and labor, but it’s a specific kind of toil for a specific purpose.
All right, so we’ve got the two-word phrases down. But what about “setup”? When do these phrases become one word?
Phrasal Verbs in Noun or Adjective Form
Many phrasal words can be transformed into nouns or adjectives. When that happens, they’re written as one word.
Let’s go back to set up vs. set up. To set up is the verbal phrase, and setup is its noun form.
Sally set up an elaborate display of sandals. She hoped customers would find her setup appealing and buy more shoes.
The same is true for most of our break examples:
Evelyn took her car to the shop to prevent a breakdown.
Lily and Tim’s breakup was sad, but amicable.
There’s been a breakout at the jail, and three prisoners escaped.
Breakdown, breakup, and breakout are all nouns.
Phrasal verbs can transform into one-word adjectives, too. Here’s one you might have seen before:
Henry will log in to Facebook using his login information.
To log in is the phrasal verb. Login is its adjective form.
It’s simply not possible to login to Facebook—you must log in.
Phrases That Look Like Phrasal Verbs
Beware—not every set of verbs and prepositions is a true phrasal verb. Some common English phrases are actually redundancies.
To stand up—where else are you going to stand?
To sit down—where else are you going to sit?
To write down—you know what I’m going to ask.
To climb up—I won’t even say it.
Without the prepositions, each verb would mean the same thing. To stand up and to stand are no different; neither are to climb up and to climb. Since the prepositions aren’t necessary to the meanings, these aren’t phrasal verbs.
Interestingly enough, if you used different prepositions, these would become phrasal verbs. To stand down, to sit up, to write up, and to climb down each have unique meanings. For instance, while to stand means to rise to one’s feet, to stand down means to withdraw.
How to Avoid Phrasal Verbs
Do you have to use phrasal verbs? Not always. Many phrasal verbs have single-word synonyms. For example, try these substitutes for the verbal phrases below:
To work out → to exercise
To blow up → to explode
To set up → to arrange
In formal writing, you might want to use the single-word substitutes. In informal writing, though, the verbal phrases can capture a casual, conversational tone.
Keep Your Eye out for Phrasal Verbs
Whether it’s workout vs. work out, setup vs. set up, or login vs. log in, remember they’re always two words when used as a verb. If they’re a noun or adjective, remove that space and make them one word.
Now that you know what to look for, keep an eye out for the phrasal verbs all around you. They may seem designed to trip you up, but with some practice, they’ll be easy to spot.
Do you find phrasal verbs useful or tricky? Let us know in the comments.
Set up, break down, log in, work out. Take fifteen minutes to write a story about a person who is frustrated because a computer program isn’t working. Use as many phrasal verbs—and their noun and adjective counterparts—as you can fit.
When you’re done, share your writing in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for a few of you fellow writers!
Alice Sudlow is the Editor-in-Chief of The Write Practice and a Story Grid certified developmental editor. Her specialty is in crafting transformative character arcs in young adult novels. She also has a keen eye for comma splices, misplaced hyphens, and well-turned sentences, and is known for her eagle-eyed copywriter skills. Get her free guide to how to edit your novel at alicesudlow.com.