I was reading an article on how to prove my writing and came across these example sentences given which sparked this question in my mind.

The blog says that

"use the word acquire instead of the word get in formal writings."

She acquired English very quickly. She got English very quickly.

Actually I had heard that phrasal verbs sound informal but I didn't know the word get could sound informal too.So does it mean using phrasal verbs almost always sound informal? Could there some phrasal verbs that do not have exactly one-word synonym

And how about these sentences

She obtained English very quickly?

She picked up English very quickly? ( Is it too informal for an academic writing)

Thank you

  • 2
    Here is an article with some interesting information.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 25, 2014 at 18:42
  • 2
    Are phrasal verbs almost always too informal to use in an academic writing? Beware of guidance like that; exceptions to such rules usually abound. It might be worth looking at your phrasal verbs, and seeing if you can change them, but I wouldn't necessarily shun them altogether. In the example you give here, I don't necessarily agree that acquire is always a better choice than get.
    – J.R.
    Dec 25, 2014 at 19:54

2 Answers 2


"Phrasal verbs" are very common in English and have been around for a long time. Some are very old, some are recent inventions. Each has its own history and usage.

  • Some of them are entirely acceptable in all registers:

    okAristotle refers to the effect of ethos and pathos on an audience.
    okI'm pretty sure that SOB was referring to me when he said that.

  • Some are better used only in conversational registers:

    okPaul's always sounding off about how immigrants should be sent back where they come from.
    noIn his closing speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Union First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev shocked the delegates by sounding off for four hours on Stalin's reprehensible influence on foreign policy, the conduct of the war, agriculture, and civil society.

  • And some are found almost exclusively in formal registers.

    okCopyright protection subsists in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.
    noJohn's folks subsist in the Ozarks.

There's no way of predicting which ones work where; you have to learn each one independently.

  • “Refer to” and “subsist in” are not phrasal verbs; they’re prepositional verbs. A phrasal verb has to have another meaning that is not obvious and is created by the two words being together. “To refer” means the same thing are “to refer to” whereas, for instance, “to come” and “to come in” mean two different things. Oct 14, 2018 at 13:22
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    @PhilippeBarrett-Turner The term "phrasal verb" has meant a lot of different things to different people over the years--most of them, I fear, pretty useless. When I wrote this I was addressing what I inferred that OP (and most ELL pedagogues) meant by the term. Oct 14, 2018 at 15:39

Yes actually, academic writing is different from speaking. It is highly formal and phrasal verbs are less formal for an academic discourse. So you can use phrasal verbs in speaking not in writing a research or an academic essay. They are used in emails between friends and informal situations only.

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