I understand that phrasal verbs should only be hyphenated when used as nouns or adjectives; however, I often use the hyphen to avoid confusion with propositional phrases, for example:

  • dirt has built-up under my nails

When I am reading or writing I find that "built up under" is a little confusing.


  • In your example "built" is a verb and "up" is a preposition, and they should not be hyphenated. But as an attributive modifier they become a compound word, e.g.,"A built-up ramp", where "built" and "up" are hyphenated.
    – BillJ
    Mar 15, 2018 at 9:04
  • I don't think that is right. The verb 'to build up' is a phrasal verb, where the preposition changes the actual meaning of the word. In this case, the preposition is part of the verb and contributes to its meaning not just its context. A more clear example might be 'to look after' vs. 'to look out' which have two very different meanings. Of course, when these phrasal verbs are used as adjective's they would be hyphenated, as is the rule with phrasal adjectives and hyphenation, e.g. 'the looked-after child" or "the look-out post".
    – Ted
    Mar 16, 2018 at 0:45
  • However, does the hyphenation rule for clarity apply when the a phrasal verb is followed by a prepositional phrase that seems to contradict itself, e.g. "I broke down up the road" vs. "I broke-down up the road." The second seems more clear, but technically wrong from what I can tell.
    – Ted
    Mar 16, 2018 at 0:45
  • "Build up" is not a verb. It's two constituents, verb + preposition, thus the prep is not part of the verb. It contributes a certain meaning of course, which is why the proper name for "build up" is verbal idiom. As I said before, when "built-up" is used as a modifier (as in "a built-up area") it becomes a hyphenated compound word, or more specifically a verb-centred compound adjective.
    – BillJ
    Mar 16, 2018 at 10:48
  • As for your last example, "I broke down up the road" is right. The verbal idiom "break down" is two separate constituents, "broke" + "down", which are not hyphenated.
    – BillJ
    Mar 16, 2018 at 10:51

1 Answer 1


A quick Google search reveals that built-up is supposed to have a hyphen. It's one word unit, so you are using it correctly.


  • That may be the case for built-up, so perhaps a bad example, but the question remains for other phrasal verbs:
    – Ted
    Mar 15, 2018 at 2:30
  • e.g. break down, get up, look up, etc. All of these are phrasal verbs that end in a preposition and could be followed by a prepositional phrase: e.g. 'I broke down on the side or the road' or 'I get up on the bed'.
    – Ted
    Mar 15, 2018 at 2:39
  • In the OP's example "built" is a verb and "up" is a preposition, and they should not be hyphenated, but as an attributive modifier they can be, e.g.,"A built-up ramp".
    – BillJ
    Mar 15, 2018 at 9:01

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