What Phrasal Verbs to use in IELTS Writing?

Can I use phrasal verbs in IELTS essays? Are there any formal phrasal verbs? Which phrasal verbs I should NOT use?

Here are the answers.

Most phrasal verbs are informal and we use them in informal speaking, but we do have formal phrasal verbs which we can use in formal academic writing: in IELTS graphs, formal letters and essays.

Phrasal verbs are not created equal. They are different.
Phrasal verbs can be informal, neutral and formal.

For example:
We need to come up with a great idea to make money (INFORMAL)
We need to produce a great idea to make money (MORE FORMAL)
The country had to put up with a certain number of sanctions (INFORMAL)
The country had to tolerate a certain number of sanctions (MORE FORMAL)
The study will be carried out over a six-month period (NEUTRAL)

Some phrasal verbs are really super informal (close to slang):

Beaver away (to work hard for a long time)
She has been beavering away at that essay for hours.

Pig out  (eat a lot of or too much food)
We pigged out on all the delicious cakes and pastries.

Jazz up (make something more interesting or attractive)
He jazzed up the food with a spicy sauce.  

Man up (behave with courage or conviction)
You need to man up and go get what you want.

We do NOT use these verbs in IELTS Writing.
It’s OK to use them in SPEAKING.

Neutral Phrasal Verbs

Some phrasal verbs are neither formal NOR informal.

Researchers carried out a survey into …
I get up at 10 am. I set off for work at about 11.

It would be really formal and strange to say: I commence my journey to work at 11.

Phrasal Verbs and Single Verbs

Should I avoid phrasal verbs in formal writing and use single verb equivalents?
Well, single verbs are often more formal and appropriate for formal writing than phrasal verbs. For example

Phrasal Verbs
More informal
Their single verb equivalents
More formal
Work out Calculate
Find out Discover
Talk about Discuss
Go up Increase/Rise
Keep up Maintain
Pick out Select

Phrasal Verbs You Can Use in Formal Writing

There are formal phrasal verbs which we often see in
- business letters/emails
- scientific papers
- legal documents
- academic writing
- official government documents

Some phrasal verbs are so formal that we ONLY use them in very formal texts.

For example,
adhere to (to continue to obey a rule or have a belief)                                                                 
She adhered to her ideals throughout her life.
They failed to adhere to the terms of the agreement.

engage in (to take part in something)
The two governments have agreed to engage in a comprehensive dialogue to resolve the problem.

permit of

provide against

set forth

What phrasal verbs CAN you use in IELTS graphs, formal letters and essays?

Account for = make up = represent in IELTS graphs
Fast food accounts for the majority of my diet. (from pie charts)
Unusually cold weather accounted for the rise in fuel use. (= explained)

Take into account

Narrow down (to reduce the number of possibilities)
Eventually, the age range was narrowed down.
The gap between the countries narrowed down.

Carry out
Scientists have carried out experiments/tests/research on …
We have carried out a thorough review of …

Bring about
The railways brought about huge change. (= caused)
Some people have strange ideas about how to bring up children.

Look forward to

Look into (discover facts about something)
They decided to look into the matter.

Cut down
The trees in the south were cut down to make way for a new shopping mall (IELTS map)

Sum up

Resort to (do something unpleasant in order to solve a problem)
We must resort to legal action of they do not offer compensation.

Point out
Single out
Put forward
Pass away
Rule out
Take on (accept a challenge/project)
Set up

Call for
This situation calls for calm.

Turn out
The presentation turned out well, considering how little you prepared for it.

Cater for ( to provide what is wanted or needed by someone or something)
The club caters for children between the ages of four and twelve.

Do not use these in ielts graphs, formal letters and essays
They are INFORMAL

  • Get by
  • Call off
  • Carry on
  • Hang out
  • Figure out
  • Come up with
  • Look into
  • Fall out
  • Freak out
  • Get over
  • Go on
  • Take up

More examples

OK in IELTS ESSAYS:

Some people want to set up their own business.

Some people put off doing the chores.

The examination results were published in August.

Scientists have discovered that the climate is changing.

NOT ok in IELTS ESSAYS:

Most teenagers prefer to hang out with their peers.

The examination results came out in August.

Scientists have found out that the climate is changing.

Golden rules!

Not sure? Avoid phrasal verbs in IELTS graphs and essays.

You can use informal phrasal verbs in informal letters (IELTS general writing task 1)

Phrasal verbs Dos and Don'ts:

  • Single verbs are often more formal than phrasal verbs, so can be more appropriate for formal writing than their phrasal verb equivalents
  • Some formal phrasal verbs are common in certain formal texts
  • Informal phrasal verbs are NOT appropriate for IELTS graphs, essays or formal letters
  • Some neutral phrasal verbs cab be used in IELTS graphs, essays or formal letters
  • Some phrasal verbs are so formal that we only use them in very formal/serious writing
  • If in doubt, avoid phrasal verbs in IELTS writing. Use SINGLE VERBS instead.

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