I messed up! (Phrasal verbs for problems)

by Kate Woodford

Bjorn Vinter/UpperCut Images/Getty

Last month we focused on words and phrases that are used to describe problems and difficult situations. This week we’re looking specifically at phrasal verbs in this area. In a week or so, we’ll look at a group of phrasal verbs that describe how we deal with these situations. (Did you see what I did there?)

The machines that we use in daily life can cause problems for us and when they do, we often describe the problem with a phrasal verb. If a machine or vehicle breaks down, it stops working: Her car broke down on the way to work. If a machine or engine cuts out, it suddenly stops working: Without any warning, the engine just cut out. Meanwhile, if a piece of equipment plays up, it doesn’t work as it should: Ah, my laptop’s playing up again! You can also describe a part of the body as ‘playing up’, meaning that it is hurting or not functioning as it should. (In this sense, ‘play up’ can be transitive as well as intransitive in British English.): His knee’s been playing (him) up again. Lastly, a computer system that goes down stops working for a period: The computers went down and we were unable to work for three hours.

Sometimes we cause problems for ourselves by making a mistake. There is a set of ‘up’ phrasal verbs used for this. If you (informal) trip up or slip up, you cause a problem by doing or saying something incorrectly: These figures don’t make sense. Have we slipped up somewhere? / The interview went so well until I tripped up on the last question. Meanwhile, if you (informal) mess up or mess something up, you spoil something or fail in something you are doing, often by making a mistake: It was my fault, I know – I messed up. / I was just so nervous giving the talk and I messed it up! An even more informal phrasal verb for this is screw (sth) up: I totally screwed up my biology exam. / Just don’t screw up this time!

Problems, of course, can have other causes. If you are snowed under, you have too much work to do and cannot manage it all: I’m snowed under with work at the moment. Finally, if you are bogged down, you are giving so much attention to one part of a subject or situation that you cannot do anything else: Let’s not get bogged down with details – we need to look at the overall situation.

We hope your week is problem-free and you don’t need to use any of these phrasal verbs!

23 thoughts on “I messed up! (Phrasal verbs for problems)

  1. Chirag

    Firstly, nice article, even though i already knew some of these phrasal verbs but still came across new ones and learning is all the more so, thanks to the lucidity of your articles.
    Secondly, i wanted to ask if it’s just phrasal verbs you write specifically about or grammar too. I have a doubt in grammar related to tenses, i will be happy if you could help.

  2. Sherrilynn

    Ok “dishing it out” to someone is DIFFERENT than “dissing” someone. Dishing it out is “serving up” negativity or negative remarks. “Dissing” someone is DISRESPECTING them. Guess you can do both in the same sentence BUT it seems to work better if they stay in their separate corners of discourse…pun intended! Agree?

  3. Billy

    Hello Kate Woodford!
    Thank you very much for this outstanding lesson…There’s much to learn from it.
    I would like to ask whether we can use those phrasal verbs and yet expressing literally the same thing in American English?


  4. Lead Pencil

    could you tell me if phrasal verbs like cut out, break down and play up can be used with simple home appliances like washing machine, blender, A ir conditioners, sewing machine, radio, T V etc.

  5. JenD

    In the U. S. “play up” would be “act up” and we would use for people who are misbehaving. ” I had to call Billy ‘s mom today because he was acting up in class again. “

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi. ‘Cut out’ and ‘play up’ could be used with all of these, though ‘break down’ is usually used for vehicles and big pieces of machinery, e.g a washing machine, rather than, say, a blender.

  6. Jafar

    Just wondering whether we canuse cock-up instead of mess up or screw up or not? Would be appreciated if I got the answer or more examples.

Leave a Reply