Up - The preposition

Up – Phrasal verbs and prepositions

In the second in our series of posts about the true meaning of prepositions in English, we examine the word up and look at how native speakers perceive the word both in isolation or as a particle in a phrasal verb.

Up – It’s real meaning

In this blog, I will demonstrate that the meaning of up is literally a direction (i.e. the opposite of down). Additionally, after hundreds of years of linguistic evolution, it has come to form part of a variety of what are known as phrasal verbs, frequently with a meaning that falls into one of the following categories:

  • completion
  • termination
  • fulfilment
  • increase
  • emergence
  • construction
  • reconciliation/achieving parity

In exploring the use of the preposition with these meanings, we will find that up has a broader meaning than any of these words so can simultaneously evoke two or more of these meanings at the same time. What’s more, native speakers implicitly understand what up adds to a verb because they have a sense of the meanings described above.

Directional preposition

The most basic use of the word up is as a directional preposition as in the following examples:

  • Go up the hill and turn left.
  • I climbed up the ladder to clean the windows
  • The swimmer came up for air after completing a length of the pool

Whilst this usage of up needs little elaboration, it is important to note that the metaphorical uses of up derive from its use as a directional preposition.


Close in meaning to termination and fulfilment, up’s use to signify completion is common and can be observed in the following examples:

  • We have used up all our food.
  • Have you chopped up the vegetables?
  • Drink up your coffee! We have to go.
  • I had to mop up the mess at the end of the party.
  • It’s my turn to wash up the dishes after dinner.

In all of the examples above, up suggests that a task is completed in its entirety. It is added for emphasis and to indicate that the verb preceding it was completed or fulfilled.


Rather obviously, up’s use to denote termination has significant crossover with the previous meaning, completion. However, there are some extra examples that tend to imply termination or finishing without so explicitly suggesting completion of a task. Here is one:

  • I ended up going to the party after the film (This suggests that you went to the party after the termination of the film)


Again, significant crossover with completion/termination is expected for a word so close in meaning as fulfilment. This illustrates how up has a broader meaning than any of the categories I am using to define it. Take a look at the examples below:

  • Hollywood action films very rarely live up to my expectations.
  • My brother’s football team didn’t have enough players last Saturday so he asked me to make up the numbers.


Up when used to imply increase is closely linked to visualising its meaning as a directional preposition, as in the examples below:

  • Prices have gone up recently.
  • Turn up the volume!
  • We need to pump up the ball before we start the game
  • Please speak up. I can’t hear you.
  • My mobile phone company recently put up their prices


The emergent use is also closely linked to the visual meaning of the directional preposition if you imagine that for something to emerge or appear, it often has to rise (as in “the swimmer came up to the surface). Take a look at some examples:

  • I can’t come tonight. Something’s come up.
  • A message just popped up on my screen.
  • I’m going to flag up the issue in the next meeting.
  • What’s up with Mark? He’s acting very strangely.


Again a visual metaphor, considering that construction is usually something that effectively moves in an upward direction (i.e. a building grows in height as it is constructed), up forms part of a variety of phrasal verbs that describe construction or composition. See the examples below:

  • We’ve built up a very good relationship with our clients.
  • Water is made up of two parts hydrogen and one part water
  • The police are putting up a roadblock to prevent the robbers from leaving town

Reconciliation/Achieving parity

This is perhaps the most difficult of the uses to explain (hence why I left it until last). There are a variety of uses of up which have something to do with reconciliation, in the sense of restoring harmony (in a relationship or in accounting) , or achieving parity in much the same sense as restoring harmony. The examples below elaborate this idea:

  • I fight a lot with my sister but we always make up in the end.
  • My brother’s football team didn’t have enough players last Saturday so he asked me to make up the numbers (notice the crossover in meaning with the same example under the heading, “Fulfillment”).
  • I need to catch up on my work as I’ve been so busy lately.
  • Manchester United were in second place for much of the season but they eventually caught up with Manchester City
  • Conclusion

    Metaphor, as explained beautifully by Guy Deutscher in his book “The Unfolding of Language” is key to the creation of language. Phrasal verbs in English give us great insight into this process. Of course, some metaphors are so old that their meaning is lost such as in the example “to pull up” meaning to stop a vehicle. This refers to the direction in which a horse’s reins are pulled in order to stop it. Of course, this holds little obvious meaning in modern society but the meaning is retained, even when we stop a car. Such examples often make the meaning of phrasal verbs difficult to understand unless one is familiar with the expression.

    However, I find that generally, for whatever reason, by whatever metaphorical process, the use of up in verb phrases can be defined by the meanings detailed here:

    completion, termination, fulfilment, increase, emergence, construction, reconciliation/achieving parity

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2 Responses to “Up – Phrasal verbs and prepositions”

  1. Douglas HainesApril 25, 2012 at 8:09 pm #

    Very useful stufff. Certainly helps me as an English Teacher. Thanks a lot.

  2. Laura BApril 25, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

    What a great look at prepositions. And to add to your ‘completion’ category, I always love the phrasal verb ‘finish up’. In this phrasal verb the ‘up’ adds extra emphasis and a bit of folksy, casual tone. Thanks for the piece, your friend @usableenglish : )

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