phrasal verbs vs. nouns
Phrasal verbs make up a huge category of expressions in English that careless users often misspell by substituting one-word noun forms for the standard two-word phrasal verb; for instance: it would have been a mistake for me to have written “Phrasal verbs makeup a huge category.” It is fine to write “I didn’t want to put on my makeup” (“makeup” is a noun) or “I had to take the makeup exam.” (In this example “makeup” is a noun acting like an adjective modifying another noun—“exam.” What kind of exam was it? A makeup exam.) Such nouns are often hyphenated, at least early in their history (it used to be common to write “make-up exam,” and that is still fine); but there is a strong tendency for such hyphenated forms to evolve into single words. If both versions are current, the hyphenated form is usually the more formal one.
Most phrasal verbs consist of a verb and adverb combined. Note that some of the adverbs involved can also function as prepositions, but don’t let this confuse you. In the phrase “cool down the broth” “down” is an adverb. Some do actually consist of a verb and a preposition, but these rarely cause problems. You aren’t likely to write “would you lookafter my cat while I’m gone?”
If the word involved is immediately preceded by “a,” “an,” or “the,” you probably need the one-word noun form. If it’s immediately preceded by “to,” you probably need the two-word phrasal verb. If you’re tempted to use a one-word spelling elsewhere, try using a two-word or hyphenated form instead. If it looks better, it probably is.
The Week's End Extra from the Archives: "Screening for 'Screed Door'" (June 22, 2012).