Common metaphors

Increasing and decreasing: down, out, up

Fees have gone up again.
She’s doing some teaching in the evenings to bump up her income.
The search operation has been scaled down.
The government played down the threat to public health.
Officers fanned out across the field.
Her stories flesh out the world in which these historical characters lived.
They had to string things out until the Duke arrived.

Excitement, interest, and happiness: down, up

Things are looking up.
Cheer up!
Their opponents said that they sexed up the report.
This place needs livening up.
Calm down!
You need to tone down your argument.
The endless wet weather was getting me down.


They gobbled up their dinner.
Don’t use up all the paper.
The speaker had begun to sum up.
All the shops had closed up for the night.

Ending: away, down, off, out

Her voice faded away.
I suddenly felt sorry for him and my anger melted away.
The wind died down during the night.
The meeting wound down.
The rain eased off.
The effects of the drug wore off.
The conversation soon petered out.
The custom has almost died out.

Time – past and future: ahead, back, behind, forward

What lies ahead?
Let’s think ahead to next season.
I’m looking forward to seeing them again.
I’ve put my watch forward one hour.
The house dates back to the 16th century.
Never look back, never have regrets.
She was trying to leave behind a difficult adolescence.
Put the whole episode behind you.

Progress: ahead, along, behind, on, through

The building work was coming along nicely.
They’re content to just muddle along.
He needs to get ahead.
They are pressing ahead with the reforms.
I’ve fallen behind with my work.
We’re lagging behind our competitors.
He has no ability to carry through.
She sailed through her exams.
I ploughed through the work.
continuing with an activity or task: on here has the same meaning as onwards.
I can’t carry on.
They kept on until it was finished.

Getting involved in an activity: away, in, into, out

We joined in the fun.
You’re always trying to muscle in.
I flung myself into my work.
They shied away from commitment.
You can’t walk away from the relationship.
The British forces pulled out.
He bowed out gracefully.

Problems: around, aside, off, over, round

They skirted around/round the issue.
We’ll work round the problem somehow.
He brushed aside my objections.
We need to put aside our differences.
I laughed off his criticisms.
He couldn’t shake off the allegations.
They glossed over the question of who was going to pay for it.
I tried to smooth things over between them.

Position, control or restriction

He was lording it over me.
The Emperor ruled over a vast area.
They have come up in the world.
She’s been moved up to a more responsible job.
The police clamped down on drinking in the streets.
The rebellion was swiftly put down.
Prisoners are kept under constant surveillance.
We had to knuckle under and do what we were told.

Relationships: apart, off, together, up

We got together in our first year at college.
The whole group clubbed together to buy him a present.
They drifted apart over the years.
Two students from each class pair up to produce a short play.
They feel that the international community is ganging up on them.
He has been accused of cosying up to the new US president.
He’s just broken up with his girlfriend.
Her parents split up a few months ago.
All our friends seemed to be pairing off.
They tried to marry their daughter off to a wealthy businessman.

Communication: across, between, forth, in, into, out, over, through

I don’t know how to put it across.
I don’t seem to be able to get through to them.
The message came over clearly.
Something passed between them.
She poured out her problems.
I blurted out his name.
Dave was holding forth on the subject of politics.
She had to repeat her words several times before they finally sank in.
My parents drummed its importance into us.

Information and knowledge: into, out, up

She delved into his past.
You don’t want them nosing into your finances.
She tried not to tell them, but in the end she let it out.
I wormed the information out of him.
We dug up some interesting facts.
They raked up some scandal from his university days.

Extract from: Metaphor and phrasal verbs by Dr Rosamund Moon.


  • Some of these examples, e.g., “let (it) out,”, “get through”, “come up”, etc. seem idioms to me… Now I’m confused.

  • Thanks for your comment Nana: all the examples you give are for phrasal verbs, and they are indeed idioms in that their meaning is different from the meaning of the individual words, as Macmillan Dictionary puts it; but they also have a metaphorical element, which is the focus of this article. As Rosamund Moon explains in the dictionary’s article on Metaphor: “Idioms often contain metaphorical ideas: for example expressions like spill the beans and give someone a hand are idioms.” So idiom and metaphor are overlapping categories.

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