In the days when I had au pairs, they would often ask me for help with their English homework. Most of them were doing pretty advanced work, so I'd have to deal with things like, "Emma, when do you say, try to light the fire, and when try lighting the fire?" As so often with the idioms of your mother tongue, I could usually only work it out by demonstration, and it was all good for the writerly brain. But the thing which they struggled with most is what are usually called phrasal verbs.
Phrasal verbs, according to [my slightly-edited version of] David Crystal in Rediscover Grammar, are
full verbs which consist of more than one word. The most common type consists of a verb followed by one or two particles. come in - sit down - drink up - get off - put up with - look forward to - look down on. A few multi-word verbs have a less predicable structure, and thus have to be taken as idioms: take pride in - break even - lie low - put paid to. What can be a particle? Some spatial adverbs such as aback - ahead - aside - away - back - home - in front. Some prepositions, such as against - at - for - from - into - like - of - onto - with. Some words which can act as either adverbs or prepositions, such as by - down - in - on - over.
All Indo-European languages, at least, work like this but English is particularly rich in them. On a family holiday in Greece my teenaged sisters and I spent a long, hot drive from Nafplion to Sparta working out that the verb which shape-changed most, depending on which particle it was teamed up with, was put. Put off alone can mean discourage, postpone, or remove, while put up can mean raise, accommodate or dare and put on can mean dress, fake or ignite. And then there's put over, put upon, put by, put through, and the relatively recent sexual meaning of put out, to go with disconcert, extinguish, display and eject.
Now the great joy of phrasal verbs for a writer is that even though the two (or three) parts belong together grammatically, they don't have to be kept together syntactically: there's huge flexibility available to you. Mind you, I've a feeling that Strunk & White, for one, tells you that particles should always be kept with the verb they belong to. But it's nonsense, like so much else in that book; you just need to learn to do it properly. I've blogged about the flexibility and flow of the long sentence before, and David Jauss explores a similar subject at greater and better length in his essay "What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow"*.
Consider these versions of the same idea:
She tidied away the thought, before picking up the washbasket and carrying in the laundry.
She tidied the thought away, before picking the washbasket up to carry the laundry in.
She tidied the thought away, picked the up washbasket and carried the laundry in.
Away she tidied the thought, then picked up the washbasket and carried in the laundry.
Tidying the thought away, she picked the washbasket up and carried the laundry in.
Tidying away the thought and picking up the washbasket, she carried the laundry in.
and that's before you've brought in standalone adverbs:
Crossly, I reached up to the washing line and quickly began pulling down the dry clothes.
I reached crossly up to the washing line, and began quickly pulling the dry clothes down.
I reached up to the washing line crossly, and began to pull down the dry clothes quickly.
Reaching up crossly to the washing line, I began pulling the dry clothes quickly down.
Reaching crossly up to the washing line, I began to quickly pull down the dry clothes.
There are more I could do, though I don't know if there are sixty as I found for the sentence in A Million Little Versions. And don't tell me that there's a split infinitive in that last one, because I know and I don't care, any more than David Crystal does: sometimes it's just what the fluency or sense of the sentence needs. But do you see what I'm getting at? All these have different rhythms and patterns of sound - try reading them aloud and you'll see what I mean. The nuance and voice of them varies and undoubtedly some are more attractive than others. Away she tidied sounds slightly odd and I doubt if I'd write it except for demonstration purposes, but it's not ambiguous or grammatically incorrect and, after all, it's common enough to write away she went, or off they scuttled. I would suggest, though, that if the particle makes the verb change its meaning very radically, you take care not to separate them too much, or you might find yourself writing something horrid like this: Covering their extraordinarly large, ornate and elaborate lie up proved more difficult than they had reckoned the day before on.
There's another thing to bear in mind, looking at the main list: if you have several verbs in a sentence, not just the sounds and rhythms but also the grammar and syntax can make links and echoes between them. Look at the two which start Tidying away the thought: which of tidy and carry, picking/picked pairs up with depends both on whether it's tidying or tidied, carrying or carried, and on whether each phrasal verb is in itself divided or together: grammar, syntax and rhythm all working together. I explored this stuff in How a Subordinate Adverbial Clause of Purpose might just help you to sing, so I won't elaborate here. I'll just end by saying that David Jauss's brilliant collection of essays, which contains his essay on sentence form and structure, is just out in paperback as On Writing Fiction. I bought it as Alone With All That Can Happen after reading the extracts in that link, and devoured it at Christmas. As well as the one I've mentioned, it contains the essay on narrative distance which I've linked to many times, "From Long-shots to X-rays', and others on all sorts of fascinating topics. I can't recommend it highly enough.