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The Phrasal Verb 'Blow Up' Explained

An explanation of the different meanings of the English phrasal verb 'Blow Up', with examples and exercises.

A stormy sea with waves breaking

Hello and welcome to my blog all about English phrasal verbs. Each week, I take a different phrasal verb and look at how it is used by native speakers, with a focus on the different meanings that it has and the expressions and idioms that it is used in.


The English phrasal verb 'blow up' is one that many of you may be familiar with as it has some very commonly used meanings. However, did you know that there are in fact at least eight ways that English native speakers use 'blow up', two of which are extremely new additions to the language. In this post, we will look at all eight of these meanings as well as a nice idiom that you can use to impress your fellow English learners. So, without further ado, let's get started....


BLOW UP: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

8

Separable

Yes

Past forms

Blew up / Blown up

British or American

Both

For more explanation of the terms in the table above, click here.

 

THE BASICS

The letters A-G spelled out in different coloured plasticine on a red background

As per usual, let's start by taking a look at the component words that make up our phrasal verb of choice, as these often can often provide valuable clues to its meanings.


The verb 'to blow' is a fairly common verb in English that is primarily used to talk about the movement of air. It does however have some other uses in English, such as to describe a violent outburst of activity or an electrical fuse that stops working due to a too much electrical current. Additionally, 'to blow' also has a number of unrelated informal meanings and uses in English.


The prepositional particle 'up' is one of the most commonly used prepositions in phrasal verb constructions and is used to refer to a higher place, level or value, often in relation to the speaker. Moreover, used as an adverb, it is generally used to describe movement towards a higher place or level.


So, now we have covered the basics, let's take a look at the meanings of the phrasal verb 'blow up'....

 

MEANING 1: To explode


CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American

Both

Potential synonyms

To explode, to destroy, to be destroyed

We are going to start the meanings of 'blow up' with a bang, or perhaps more aptly an explosion, as this first meaning is 'to explode'. This is most commonly used with nouns such as bombs, buildings, cars and engines, but it can be used with anything that could potentially explode.


As you can probably imagine, when something explodes it is normally with a lot of power or force and usually the item that 'blows up' is almost always destroyed in the process. As a consequence of this, we have also come to use 'blow up' to describe something that has been destroyed due to an explosion.


Examples of usage....

A bomb blew up in the centre of the city but luckily nobody was injured or killed.
If this canister blows up, we will be seriously injured!
A supernova is the name used to describe when a star blows up.

Now we are not quite finished with this meaning of 'blow up', as there is another variation that you should be aware of. So far, we have considered 'blow up' from the aspect that something explodes without any human intervention, however we also have the variation 'to blow something up' when a person intentionally makes something explode in some way. This 'intentional' form of 'blow up' takes a direct object, which can either go between 'blow' and 'up' or after them.


When talking about the destructive results of an explosion that a person has caused, we tend to use the passive form 'blown up' to describe the destroyed or damaged object. Sadly, this could also be used to talk about a person who is killed by an explosion, but this is a happy, positive blog, so let's move on quickly from that..


Scientists at NASA are working on plans to blow up any life threatening asteroids which may hit the Earth.
On the 5th November every year in the UK we celebrate Guy Fawkes night, which commemorates the failed attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up the houses of parliament in London in the year 1605.
The monument was accidentally blown up by the government last year and is now in ruins.
 

MEANING 2: To inflate


CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American

Both

​Potential synonyms

To inflate

The second meaning of 'blow up' is directly linked to the air movement that characterises the verb 'to blow', as it means 'to inflate', or in other words to fill something with gas or air.


Typical nouns that we use with this application of 'blow up' are balloons, tyres, airbeds, inflatables for swimming pools and sports balls. Essentially, it used for anything that we fill with air or gas, normally to make it function.


Grammatically, this form of 'blow up' takes a direct object and is separable, with the direct object going either between 'blow' and 'up' or after them.


Examples of usage....

Lisa felt tired and breathless after blowing up 50 balloons for her birthday party.
This airbed is not fully inflated, it needs blowing up a bit more, otherwise I will not be able to sleep on it.
My Dad forgot to bring the foot pump to the beach today, so I had to blow up the dinghy myself and it took so long.
 

MEANING 3: To lose your temper


CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

​Usage

Medium

British or American

Both

Potential synonyms

To lose your temper, to lose it

The next meaning of 'blow up' is to lose your temper and become very angry, normally in a sudden or quick manner (a little like an explosion). This is a relatively informal usage of 'blow up', but nevertheless it is one that is used fairly commonly among native speakers.


It is worth noting that if we want to specify the person to whom the anger is directed, then we require the additional preposition 'at'. As such, 'to blow up at someone' is a common expression that native speakers use for to describe these angry outbursts and to say to whom the anger was directed.


Examples of usage....

My husband is normally a very calm and composed man but he does sometimes blow up if something irritates him.
My teacher blew up at me in the classroom today for no reason at all! I think she was having a bad day.
 

MEANING 4: To enlarge

Someone holding a magnifying glass over a map of the USA

​CEFR Language Level

​B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American

Both

Potential synonyms

To enlarge, to magnify

The fourth meaning of 'blow up' is to enlarge something (make it bigger), in order to be able to see it more clearly or in more detail. Most commonly, this application of 'blow up' is used in relation to photos and text, where the details are not always visible at the standard size.


We can also use the past particle 'blown up' as an adjective here, to describe a photo or text that has been enlarged or magnified.

Again, this is a transitive usage, so you can insert the direct object between 'blow' and 'up'.


Examples of usage....

I can't read the writing on this document very well. Is there any way that we can blow it up?
At normal size the picture does not seem very interesting but when you blow it up, some very curious details are revealed.
The police are examining a blown up image of the crowd at the football game to see if they can identify the hooligans who caused the trouble.
 

MEANING 5: To become stormy or windy


CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

British or American

American

Potential synonyms

To get windy

The fifth meaning of 'blow up' that we will look at in this post is to 'become windy or stormy'.

This is typically used when we know that a storm or period of windy weather is going to develop very soon, or is even beginning to develop in the present. However, we can also use it to refer to the past when talking about a time when a storm or windy weather was starting.


As standard, we would normally say that "a wind or a storm blows up". There is however a second possible variation, which is more common in American English and this is 'to blow up a storm" or "to blow up a gale*". This second variation means the same thing.


On a grammatical note, unlike the other meaning that we have considered so far, this usage of 'blow up' is not separable and it does not take a direct object.


Examples of usage....

Come on guys, I think we should go home now as there is a storm blowing up and I think it will be a strong one.
It was a calm, sunny morning and I was getting on with my work on the farm when suddenly a strong wind blew up, which was then shortly followed by heavy rain.

* The noun 'gale' is a term for a very strong gust of wind.



BONUS

The word 'BONUS' spelled out using different coloured helium balloons being held up by different hands

In addition to weather storms, it should be noted that we also use this meaning of 'blow up' to talk about scandals and political storms that become public and well-known.


Examples of usage....

A political storm blew up last week in the UK when politicians were accused of wasting taxpayers' money.
 

MEANING 6: To exaggerate


CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American

Both

Potential synonyms

To exaggerate

The sixth meaning of 'blow up' is one that I am sure that most people have done at some point in their lives and that is 'to exaggerate something'.


If something is 'blown up', then it is made to sound bigger, more important or more serious than it really is. Sometimes, when we use 'blow up' in this way, we add some additional information such as the end result of the exaggeration and for this we can use the additional preposition 'into' - see the examples below.


Moreover, a commonly used phrase for this that you may come across is to 'blow things up out of (all) proportion', which essentially means to overreact to something and therefore make it seem more important or serious than it really is.


Examples of usage....

This story about the politicians wasting taxpayers' money has been completely blown up. It involves maybe just one or two politicians and they haven't wasted too much money!
The press completely blew the story up out of all proportion. It was so unnecessary!
The violence last night in the city has been blown up into some kind of civil war. It really was not as bad as everyone is claiming!
 

MEANING 7: To inundate with calls and messages



CEFR Language Level

Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American

Mainly American

Potential synonyms

This seventh meaning of 'blow up' is a very new addition to the English language and means to inundate someone with phone calls and messages. This usage of English first started being used around the beginning of the 21st century as mobile phones and the internet became widespread among many people in the USA, which is where this usage originated.


If someone 'blows up' your phone, they are not making it explode, but rather they are sending you lots of messages and / or calling you repeatedly. It is not just limited to phones though as it can be used to describe excessive communication attempts with any communication device.


As you can imagine, due to its recent introduction into English, this usage is mainly used by young people and from my perspective still seems and sounds very American, although that will probably change as time passes.


Examples of usage....

My boss has been blowing up my phone all morning because I haven't gone to work today.
Helen's friends have been blowing up her phone all morning since she announced that she and Roger are going to get married.
 

MEANING 8: To go viral




​CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To go viral

This eighth and final meaning of 'blow up' is another one that has come into existence in the modern internet era and it means 'to go viral online'.


If something 'blows up the internet', it goes viral, meaning that it spreads quickly and widely among internet users, normally via social media and is therefore seen and reacted to by a large number of people. Another slight variation of this is 'to blow up on the internet', which essentially means the same thing.


Examples of usage....

This new story about Taylor Swift has blown up the internet this week.
I really want my social media posts to go viral and blow up on the internet someday.
 

BONUS

The word 'BONUS' spelled out using different coloured helium balloons being held up by different hands

Before I finish this post, I just want to make you aware of an idiom featuring 'blow up' that can be heard in everyday English....


To blow up in someone's face - I know this idiom sounds quite violent and painful but thankfully it does not imply any real physical danger. If something blows up in someone's face, it means that something goes wrong, such as a plan or some action that is being undertaken, and this then harms or creates a problem for the person who is carrying out the action or plan.


Example of usage....

John was so desperate to get a pay rise at work that he agreed to take on more hours but it blew up in his face when he became sick from exhaustion and had to leave the company.
 

Question marks in different coloured overlapping speech bubbles on a black background

EXERCISE Re-write the following sentences using 'to blow up'....

  1. My cigarette was left in direct sunlight and has just exploded.

  2. There are 100 balloons that need inflating before the party tonight.

  3. John suddenly lost his temper with Roger and started shouting at him.

  4. I can't read this text very well, is there any way that you can enlarge it?

  5. Yesterday morning the weather was calm but then in the afternoon a storm developed.

  6. The media have made this news story sound far more serious and important than it really is.

The answers will be available on next week's post.

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'CALL IN' (other variations may be possible)

  1. We couldn't fix the water pipe issue, so we had to CALL IN a plumber.

  2. I'm sorry I can't come today as I've been CALLED IN to work by my boss and I have to go.

  3. Helen CALLED IN to Lisa's house on her way back from work.

  4. Roger CALLED his kids IN for dinner at 7pm.

  5. The bank has decided to CALL IN my loan.

  6. John won't be in the office today. He has CALLED IN sick.

 

That is the end of today's post. Thank you so much for taking the time to read it and I sincerely hope that it has helped you a little bit further on your English learning journey.


If you found the post useful, please like and share it on social media, so together we can help as many English learners as possible to understand and master these tricky phrasal verbs.


Also, please leave any comments, questions, suggestions or examples of 'blow up' below. I really love reading them. If you want to receive new blog posts directly email every week, please sign up on the form below. See you next time! James


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