Beating up, ganging up on and putting someone down: phrasal verbs for bad behaviour (2)

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by Liz Walter

In an earlier post, I looked at phrasal verbs connected with children’s bad behaviour and with some general adult bad behaviour. In this post, I will cover phrasal verbs connected with bullying, violent and dishonest behaviour.

If you pick on someone, you criticize them or treat them in an unfair way. If a group of people does this, we say that they gang up on/against someone. Similarly, if you put someone down, you make them feel stupid or unimportant by saying critical things about them:

Our English teacher always seems to pick on Leanne.

I felt as though all my friends were ganging up against me.

I hate the way she puts her colleagues down in meetings.

If you hound someone out of a job or an organization, you force them to leave, often unfairly, and if you turn other people against someone, you make them stop liking that person:

Last week, a tribunal awarded £2m to a woman who was hounded out of her job.

She spread lies to try to turn my friends against me.

If you freeze someone out, you make them feel that they are not part of a group or cannot take part in an activity, and if you wind someone up, you deliberately make them angry. This phrasal verb is rather informal:

Suddenly, she found herself frozen out of the decision-making process.

He only said it to wind me up.

If you do someone out of something that should be theirs, you dishonestly take it from them or stop them getting it and if you muscle in on an activity or situation, you force your way into it in order to get an advantage, even though people do not want you to:

The insurance company seems to be trying to do me out of the money it owes me.

I don’t want Kira to muscle in on our business venture.

If someone beats up a person, they hit or kick them many times and hurt them badly:

He was badly beaten up on his way home one night.

And finally, a few general phrasal verbs. If you sit by or stand by while something bad is happening, you do nothing to stop it. If you egg someone on, you encourage them to do something bad, and if you stir things up, you deliberately make a difficult situation, such as an argument, worse:

I couldn’t just sit by while Julia was being so unkind to Rob.

The boys were fighting and their friends were egging them on.

She was always stirring up trouble in the family.

This is just a selection of bad behaviour phrasal verbs – do comment below if you can think of any others.

21 thoughts on “Beating up, ganging up on and putting someone down: phrasal verbs for bad behaviour (2)

  1. Denis

    Splendidly bonzer! 🙂

    At the same time, I personally find the idiom ‘ruffle sb’s feathers’ a bit more colourful than the phrasal verb ‘wind sb up’.
    Another addition to this enthralling article might be the phrasal verb ‘wink at sth’ whose meaning is akin, although not always the same, to ‘sit by’.
    The last phrase I’d mention in relation to this topic is ‘make fun of sb’.
    When someone makes fun of another person, they make jokes about that person in a way that is not kind.

    1. Liz Walter

      Thanks, Denis! I don’t think ‘wink at’ is generally used in contemporary English, though, so I wouldn’t recommend you to slip it into a conversation!

      1. Denis

        Oh, interesting. I didn’t know that. Thanks for your suggestion. The dictionary doesn’t say that ‘wink at’ is old-fashioned, and I kinda like it all the same. I reckon it is a very good and fairly useful phrase, especially taking into account its special meaning which is different from that of ‘sit by’ or ‘stand by’.
        There are different ways of ignoring something bad happening. We can ignore it by sitting by/standing by, or we can ignore it by winking at it.
        When we ignore something bad happening by sitting by/standing by, we do nothing when it is happening. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we pretend not to notice it. On the contrary, when we wink at something bad that is happening, we pretend that we do not notice it.
        With this difference in mind, what phrasal verb that is used in contemporary English is a synonym for ‘wink at’? And why is ‘wink at’ not used in contemporary English, whereas no dictionary says it is old-fashioned?

    2. Hi thank you so much for this easy-to-understand post. “Egg someone on” seems to be the easiest phrasal verb as I have already learnt about it and used it multiple times before. The difficult ones are “stir things up” and “do someone out of”. I will try to learn more about them and use them in day to day conversations.

    3. Stefan

      Hello Denis. Instead of ‘wink at’ you may use ‘turn a blind eye to something’ or “overlook something”.
      For example:
      The staff knew what was going on but they turned a blind eye.
      She found him entertaining enough to overlook his faults.

      1. Denis

        You’re right, these are great. I’d also add ‘close/shut your eyes to sth’.
        However, your first expression is an idiom and the second one is just a verb. I, on the contrary, asked for a phrasal verb. I guess I meant something like ‘connive at’ or ‘pass over’.
        The thing is, a phrasal verb ought to be contemporary and have exactly the same meaning as ‘wink at’.
        Speaking of idioms, by the way… I particularly like the one saying ‘fiddle while Rome burns’.
        Anyway, thank you very much for your response. 🙂

  2. Maryem Salama

    Is the phrasal verb (egg someone on) used only with something bad, or it can be used positively? My teacher egged me on writing my memoir. THANK YOU, LIZ.

    1. Liz Walter

      Typically it’s for something bad. It wouldn’t sound natural in that context. We’d probably say ‘encouraged’.

      1. Denis

        Much as I’d love to agree with you, I’m just not so sure about that.
        Generally, egg someone on means to encourage someone to do something, esp. something foolish or risky. When someone eggs another person on to do something bad, the phrase obviously takes a negative connotation. Instead, when someone eggs another person on to do something risky, a connotation doesn’t have to be negative.
        For instance, if you look up this phrasal verb in the dictionary, you’ll see the following example:
        ‘Egged on by his top aides, he was determined to win.’
        You can also take a look at some other example sentences taken from
        ‘The man looked sick, but people around him were egging him on, encouraging him.’
        ‘She is calling out to the other two, who are some distance behind her, egging them on with visions of cold beer and hot barbecued oysters at the end of the hike…’
        ‘Blind-folded and with the crowd egging him on, the wand in his hand moved in the air swiftly and continuously in search of that elusive pot.’

        Interestingly enough, one of the example sentences from Lexico says:
        ‘I also plead guilty to egging Val on to write about his air force experiences.’
        With that in mind, it’s fair to assume that, depending on the context, the sentence ‘My teacher egged me on to write my memoir’ can be used in an absolutely natural way.

      2. Suren chandak


        It’s a nice app but where shall I get the meanings of your words?As I’m a newbie so please help me.

  3. Thank you very much, Liz!

    I’ve recently read a comment of a British man who wrote: “I don’t know who rattled her cage, but her response was so uncalled” I think “rattle sb’s cage” means to make sb angry.

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, that’s a great idiom – there are lots of idioms connected with making someone angry – this post is just concentrating on phrasal verbs. By the way, you have to say ‘uncalled *for*’, not just uncalled 🙂

  4. Liz Walter

    Hi Suren: there’s a dictionary on this website where you can get word meanings: go to the top of the page and click ‘dictionary’.

  5. Liz Walter

    Denis: when you say ‘in the dictionary’, which dictionary do you mean? The example in the learners dictionary on this site says: Two girls were fighting outside the club, egged on by a group of friends., which is very typical. Cambridge dictionaries are based on a corpus of many millions of words, so the lexicographers have evidence about typical usage. It’s not impossible to use ‘egg on’ in neutral contexts of course, but it is far more usual to use it for bad things, so I think it’s useful for learners to know this.

  6. Denis

    Even though I wouldn’t say ‘far more’, it is indeed more usual to use that phrase for bad OR RISKY things, to be more precise.
    The example I gave was taken from the English dictionary on this site:
    Actually, by ‘in the dictionary’ I meant that very dictionary to the page of which you linked the phrase ‘egg someone on’ in this article. 🙂
    In other words, if a reader of this article clicks on the hyperlink ‘egg someone on’, they land on the page of the dictionary with the example sentence I gave.

    Meanwhile, this website says that the English dictionary includes the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, and the Cambridge Business English Dictionary. On the other hand, the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary has been aimed at intermediate learners.

    Thanks for your responses. They’re greatly appreciated.

  7. Denis

    By the way, I wanted to add one more expression: give someone the cold shoulder.
    I hope this one is contemporary enough. 🙂

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