We’ve discussed phrasal verbs on this blog before (you can read the post here). But today I thought I’d discuss two questions I’m regularly asked by students:
- Can I use phrasal verbs in the IELTS exam?
- Should I use phrasal verbs in the IELTS exam?
What’s the difference between these two questions? Notice the modal verbs ‘can’ and ‘should’. Can I use phrasal verbs in the IELTS exam? means ‘Is it ok to do this?’. Should I use phrasal verbs in the IELTS exam? means ‘Is it important to do this?’.
These are interesting questions because they raise several aspects that we need to address.
The first is: Are phrasal verbs informal?
The second is: Is there a difference in formality between the IELTS exam papers?
Due to the fact that phrasal verbs are most common in spoken English, many people consider phrasal verbs to be informal English but in fact, phrasal verbs can be informal, neutral or formal. This is because the difference between formal and informal is actually a scale, often referred to as ‘register’.
‘Register’ is the term we use to refer to different varieties or styles of speaking and writing, and also the degree or level of formality with which we speak or write. Degree of formality is on a sliding scale rather than in distinct categories, and although phrasal verbs are often thought of as an informal part of language, most of them are neutral, and some are in fact rather formal.’ – typely.com – can I use phrasal verbs in formal writing?
In the IELTS Speaking exam you will be discussing topics that are personal to you or expressing your own opinions, and for this reason it is fairly informal. The Speaking test is a chance for you to show off your fluency in English and it is expected that you will use phrasal verbs where appropriate in the IELTS interview. You must use them appropriately in context to get a higher score.
So we have established that phrasal verbs are common in speaking, but what about in academic writing? In some cases – yes; in other cases – no. For example, if you are a university student and you are writing things like reports, essays and academic papers, you should always choose the single verb alternative to a phrasal verb, because this style of writing is very formal and phrasal verbs would be considered inappropriate register. Having said that, there are a few exceptions where certain phrasal verbs are so formal they’re only used in very formal writing. But in general, these are the exception to the rule.
However, the report and essay for the IELTS Academic Writing tasks are semi-formal. Semi-formal is the same tone or register you would use in your day-to-day interaction with colleagues and teachers or when talking with someone in authority or who you respect (see this post here). It means neutral, polite and respectful. So providing your choices of phrasal verbs are neutral, polite and respectful, they would be an appropriate choice for a semi-formal situation. For example, you wouldn’t tell your boss to ‘quit monkeying around’ (unless he was wearing a monkey mask, like the guy in the photo!) because this phrasal verb is too idiomatic but you could use expressions like ‘give up’, ‘look up’, ‘look out for’ and other neutral phrases when speaking or writing emails to colleagues.
Since most phrasal verbs are actually neutral, in general there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be used in most formal writing (note: NOT university essays). So yes, as a general rule you can use phrasal verbs in your IELTS Writing exam but the key is making sure that you choose those that are the most suitable for your context or audience. Avoid idioms and slang at all costs and always ask yourself the question ‘does this sound polite enough?’.