The Grammarphobia Blog

Uppity language

Q: What’s up with “up”? Why is it used in so many phrases where it’s not necessary or doesn’t appear to add any information? Examples: “rise up” … “shut up” … “set up” … “clean up” … “give up” … and so on.

A: This is an interesting topic, and a much bigger one than you might think. In fact, you’ve opened (or “opened up”) a Pandora’s box here.

Let us say right away that we don’t agree that “up” is redundant when used in phrasal verbs like “shut up,” “clean up,” “give up,” and many others.

On the contrary, it often enhances verbs, not merely by adding emphasis but by contributing specific kinds of information. Telling someone to “shut” a door, for example, isn’t the same telling someone him to “shut up.”

As you probably know, “up” is an adverb as well as a preposition.

In phrasal verbs it’s an adverb, and it can have any number of functions.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it can mean “so as to raise a thing from the place in which it is lying, placed, or fixed.” This sense of “up” is illustrated in such familiar phrasal verbs as “take up,” “pick up,” “raise up,” and “lift up.”

Or it can add the sense of “from below the level of the earth, water, etc., to the surface,” as Oxford says. We see this sense of “up” in phrases like “dig up,” “grub up,” and “turn up” (as in turning earth with a spade).

“Up” can add the notion of “upon one’s feet from a recumbent or reclining posture; spec. out of bed,” the OED notes, or “so as to rise from a sitting, stooping, or kneeling posture and assume an erect attitude.”

This gives us such familiar phrases as “get up,” “sit up,” “rise up,” “stand up,” “help up,” and “leap up,” as well as the old expression “knock up,” meaning to wake someone by rapping on the door.

Figurative uses of the adverb are many and varied. For example, the OED says, “up” can mean “so as to sever or separate, esp. into many parts, fragments, or pieces.” We see this sense in “break up,” “cut up,” “chop up,” “tear up,” and so on.

And, Oxford says, “up” can imply “to or towards a state of completion or finality,” a sense that frequently serves “merely to emphasize the import of the verb.”

Consequently we have phrases like “eat up,” “sold up,” “done up,” and “swallow up.” (Certainly we could say simply that the whale swallowed Jonah, but how much more evocative to say it swallowed him up!)

In the sense of “denoting progress to or towards an end,” the OED says, we have phrase like “buy up,” “finish up,” “dry up,” “heal up,” “clear up,” “beat up,” “pay up,” “firm up,” and others.

Frequently, the OED says, “up” is used with verbs that have to do with “cleaning, putting in order, or fixing in place.”

Thus we have “clean up,” “polish up,” “brush up,” “do up,” “fix up,” “dress up,” “fit up,” “make up,” “rig up,” “trip up,” and a verb we’ve written about on our blog, “redd up.”

When used with some verbs, “up” can mean “by way of summation or enumeration,” the OED says. We see this in phrases like “add up,” “count up,” “reckon up,” “total up,” “sum up,” and “weigh up.”

In addition, “up” can mean “into a close or compact form or condition; so as to be confined or secured.” This usage is found in “truss up,” “bind up,” “bundle up,” “fold up,” “tie up,” “gird up,” “huddle up,” and “draw up.”

Yet another sense, “into a closed or enclosed state; so as to be shut or restrained,” is evident in phrase like “close up,” “shut up,” “dam up,” “pen up,” “pent up,” “nail up,” “seal up,” and so on.

“Up” can also mean “so as to bring together,” as the OED notes. We see this in “knit up,” “gather up,” “stitch up,” and others. And it can imply “toward,” as in “come up,” “bring up,” and “ride up.”

It can also mean something like “to completion,” as “fill up,” “top up,” “cloud up,” and other phrases.

In a post earlier this year, we wrote that there are many idiomatic phrases in which an uppity stickler might say the adverb is unnecessary: “face up,” “meet up,” “divide up,” “hurry up,” and others.

But as we said then, “There’s a fine line between an emphatic use and a redundancy.” And sometimes an apparent redundancy adds just the right emphasis.

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