Playing up, showing off or letting someone down: phrasal verbs for bad behaviour (1)

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by Liz Walter

It struck me recently that there are rather a lot of phrasal verbs connected with people behaving badly so I thought this might be a useful topic. In fact, there are so many of them that there will be two posts: this one on children’s behaviour and general bad behaviour and one on more serious wrongdoing such as violence, bullying and dishonesty.

When children behave badly, for example by being rude or uncooperative, we say they are acting up (UK & US)/playing up (UK). The phrasal verb act out is often used when children behave badly because they are unhappy or upset.

The kids always act up when they’re tired.

She’s been acting out since her mum and I split up.

For less serious bad behaviour, for instance in class, we use the phrasal verb mess around (UK & US)/about (UK). If the behaviour is designed to make other people laugh, we might say fool around or clown around:

I wish I hadn’t messed around so much at school.

Nobody can concentrate when you’re clowning around like this.

When children answer back or talk back, they answer an adult rudely.

Don’t you dare answer me back!

He always talked back to the teachers.

Let’s move on to adult bad behaviour. If you accuse someone of sucking up to a person in authority, you mean that they are doing things to try to make that person like them, in a way you find unpleasant or unfair. If you trifle with someone, you treat them in a way that shows that you do not really care about them, often for your own pleasure or amusement:

I can’t stand Anna. She’s always sucking up to our boss.

She thought it was a serious relationship, but Paul was just trifling with her.

There are a few phrasal verbs connected with acting unpleasantly because you think you are better than other people. If you lord it over someone, you act as if you are better than them and can therefore boss them around (tell them what to do):

I’m fed up with Kieran lording it over everyone.

Stop bossing me around!

If you talk down to someone, you talk to them as though you think they are less clever or important than you, and if you show off you say or do things to try to make people admire you, in a way that other people do not like:

He hated the way his uncle talked down to him.

She was always showing off about her famous dad.

One very useful phrasal verb to end with: if you let someone down, you fail to do something you had said you would do, in a way that is disappointing or hurtful. You can also say that you let yourself down if you do something that you are ashamed of:

I know I can trust Aidan. He’d never let me down.

When I stole that money, I let my family down and I let myself down.

I hope this post doesn’t let you down, and that you find lots of useful phrasal verbs to learn!

27 thoughts on “Playing up, showing off or letting someone down: phrasal verbs for bad behaviour (1)

    1. Umida

      Thanks a looot for your work and help!It’s a really useful post.We’re looking forward to the new ones about business and work.

  1. Gopalakrishna Gupta ES

    Very informative… share more of this kind of related topics for perople to improve there english languge…

    1. Liz Walter

      Thank you! Just click on my name or that of my colleague Kate Woodford for lots of similar posts.

      1. Tuyen

        That’s very useful to me. Thank you a lot for providing us this knowledge. It helps me more knowledgeable about English. Hope that you do it more better

    2. Thierry Tropez

      Very interesting! I really appreciate the way you’re putting things into context and are organizing things by topics. Surely the best way of learning new words and using them right. Cheers!


    It is indeed invaluable for students and teachers who would like to enrich their vocabulary.
    It is a sumptuous food for Language Lovers.
    Enthusiastically awaiting ….

  3. Pavel Borovskiy

    Brilliant content.
    We need more posts on how to praise- so that next time I’ll be better equipped)))

  4. Oleg

    Thank you for the post!
    Do you think there’s a good synonym of the word ‘capricious’ when speaking both about a child or an adult?

    1. Martha Sánchez de la Vega Valverde

      Yes, I’ve found the following in a synonyms and antonyms dictionary:
      changful, crotchety, fanciful, fickle, fitful, frickish, inconstant, odd, queer ,variable,
      wayward, whimsical.
      Antonym: constant.
      You may probable have to look up each word to decide which applies to the person or situation you want to make clear. A child learns all these attitudes since being born from their parents and there is also character, ancestral memory, education. Hope you find this information useful. Good luck!

      1. Liz Walter

        This is an interesting list of words, but we have to be careful about what we call a ‘synonym’. Some linguists go so far as to say that there’s no such thing – there are usually subtle differences between even very similar words. Several of the words in this list are very rare or old-fashioned (I’ve never even heard of ‘frickish’ and nobody would understand it if you used it), and although they’re in a similar semantic area, with the exception of ‘fickle’, I wouldn’t really call any of them synonyms for ‘capricious’.

  5. Martha Sánchez de la Vega Valverde

    Phrasal Verbs is one of the most important and difficult themes for foreign English students as a second language. I am a Spanish native speaker, I studied ENglish in Mexico; I’ve spoken it since long ago but I’ve just discovered the so many aspects of phrasal verbs.
    I congratulate myself for having discovered this magnificent and useful grammar tool. Thank you for offering it.
    I am your follower from now on. From Mexico City – Martha

  6. Martha Sánchez de la Vega Valverde

    I apologize I wrote “you may probable” and it should be “probably”. Thanks for correcting it. Martha

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