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The Phrasal Verb 'Clean Up' Explained

Updated: Feb 18

An explanation of the different meanings of the English phrasal verb 'clean up', with lots of examples in context.


A toy figure cleaning up dandelion seeds

Hello and welcome to my website all about English phrasal verbs! Read on to learn more about the phrasal verb 'clean up'...


Cleaning up can be done at home, it can be done at work, it can be done in a city, you can clean up at an awards shows and even whole country or planet can be cleaned up, but it doesn't always mean the same thing. Depending on the context in which it is used, the phrasal verb 'clean up' can have a variety of different meanings and in this post we will look at all of these applications, with lots of examples to help your understanding. So, without further ado, let's get started....


CLEAN UP : KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Medium

Number of meanings

5

Separable?

Yes

Past tense forms

Cleaned up / cleaned up

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

 

The letters ABC written on a chalkboard with books and chalk sticks in the foreground

THE BASICS

Before we dive into the different meanings of the phrasal verb 'clean up', let's quickly consider the individual words 'clean' and 'up' and what they mean on their own.


The verb 'to clean' is a fairly common verb in the English language that means 'to make something free from dirt' or 'to make something clean'. Unlike many more common verbs, it's meanings are rather more limited. Generally speaking, the verb 'to clean' is a very positive verb that is used to describe good things.


The prepositional particle 'up' is an extremely common feature in phrasal verb constructions. It's central idea is movement away from the ground, to a higher position or an increase of some sort and these meanings can often be carried across into phrasal verbs. Aside from these, when used in phrasal verbs, the particle 'up' can add the ideas of completion, readiness or improvement.


So, now that we have covered the basics, let's take a look at the meanings of 'clean up'....

 

MEANING 1: To make somewhere clean and tidy


CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To tidy, to clean

Separable?

Yes

Let's start things off with a nice easy meaning that should be quite evident now that we have considered the meanings of the individual words 'clean' and 'up': 'to make somewhere clean and tidy'.


We tend to use this application of 'clean up' a lot when there has been some sort of event or action that results in a lot of dirt or mess. This could typically range from something small, such as someone spilling some food or drink onto the floor, to something large like the mess created following a wild party or social gathering.


This usage takes the meaning of 'clean', as in 'to remove the dirt from something' and combines it with the idea of 'completion' that the particle 'up' often adds to phrasal verbs. Thus, it literally means here to clean somewhere until it is completely clean once more, so that it looks nice and presentable.


In addition to the idea of removing dirt, this application of 'clean up' also includes the idea of tidying a space or a room and making it neat again. Invariably, when you clean somewhere up like a room, it will not look good if it is clean but still untidy and so this application of 'clean up' very much incorporates the ideas of tidiness and neatness too.


Examples of usage....

Look at the mess in this room! I want this cleaned up now!
We've tried our best to clean up the stains from the party last night but you can still see some of them.
My dog has just vomited all over my new carpet! I need to clean it up straight away.
Whilst I was cleaning up the garage, I came across these old photographs.

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

THE NOUN CLEAN-UP

We can also use 'clean-up' as a noun to refer to the action of cleaning something up, normally following an event or incident. It also exists as an adjective, in which case it is often found in collocation with the noun 'efforts', specifically when talking about the attempts of people to clean a place or an area up following something destructive, like an accident or a natural disaster.


Examples of usage....

As soon as the clean-up had begun, another storm blew in from the ocean, causing it to stop again.
The clean-up efforts are well underway and we expect to have the area re-opened again by lunchtime tomorrow.
 

MEANING 2: To make yourself clean



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both, more American

Potential synonyms

To wash up, to get clean, to groom, to spruce up

Separable?

Only with a reflexive pronoun

Of course, rooms and spaces are not the only things that get dirty or messy and subsequently require cleaning up and it may or may not surprise you to know that this phrasal verb can also be applied to people.


Typically, this application of 'clean up' is heard when someone is dirty, sweaty or even a bit smelly, perhaps after doing some physical activity or after a hard day at work. The idea of 'clean up' here is that the person goes and washes and makes themselves look presentable (and probably also smell nice).


Grammatically speaking, unlike the first meaning, we don't normally tend to separate this usage of 'clean up', except for when we add a reflexive (-self) pronoun.


I would say that this usage of 'clean up' is possibly more American, whilst in British English we tend to use the passive form 'to get cleaned up' a bit more.


Moreover, it is also possible for one person to clean another person and "clean them up", in which case it is normally used separably, with the person being cleaned as the direct object of the phrasal verb. Please note that we would only use 'clean someone (else) up' when they are particularly dirty or bloody.


Examples of usage....

I've just got home from the gym, so give me 10 minutes to go and clean up and I'll be ready.
Look at the state of you! You are covered in mud! Go and clean yourself up before dinner.
Helen's just gone to get cleaned up and she will be joining us as soon as she is ready.
You've cut your leg and your bleeding. Come here and let me clean you up.
Our dog had been playing in the mud, so we had to clean him up before we let him go back in the house.
 

MEANING 3: To restore order to a place



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To restore, to purge

Separable?

Yes

In addition to dirt, there are of course many other things that most (normal) people do not want to have in and around their living environments, such as crime and corruption. Additionally, the phrasal verb 'clean up' can also be used to describe the removal of these negative actions and behaviour from an organisation, city or even a country.


In other words, this third meaning of 'clean up' is 'to restore law and order to somewhere, with the objective of making it a more pleasant place to be and to live'. The central idea here is that criminal and dishonest activities are viewed by many people similarly to dirt and therefore desire its removal from their environment.


Aside from being used to describe the removal of illegal and corrupt behaviour, 'clean up' can also be used to talk about reducing and eradicating pollution, whether that be within a small geographical area or on a global scale. You are, in fact, just as likely to hear someone speaking about cleaning up a local forest as you are to hear prominent public figures talking about cleaning up the world's oceans.


Examples of usage....

The police and local council have worked well together to clean up this town over the last twenty years.
The pressure is growing on the government to take steps to clean up the corruption that permeates all areas of society.
We have been cleaning up the world's oceans for the past 10 years but a lot work remains to be done.
Here are some guidelines that we can all follow to help clean up our polluted environment.
 

MEANING 4: To make a big profit



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To make a big profit

Separable?

No

Now let's forget about the idea of cleaning for our meaning and think instead about money! In business, if someone is lucky enough to make a lot of money in a transaction or a lot of profit on some work that they have carried out, you could say that they have 'cleaned up'.


The reason for this is that an informal usage of the phrasal verb 'clean up' is 'to make a big profit or, alternatively, to win a lot of money', for example in a competition or through gambling.


This application of 'clean up' is not separable and tends to be followed either by the place where the money was won e.g. 'at the horse races', or how it was earned e.g. 'on this business deal'.


Examples of usage....

John cleaned up at the bookmaker's today and he is taking everyone out to dinner.
We cleaned up on this business transaction and our profits are very high.
 

MEANING 5: To win all the prizes in a competition



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To win everything

Separable

No

This fifth and final meaning of 'clean up' is very similar to the previous one as it continues the theme of winning. This usage, in particular, is used when someone wins all, or the majority, of the awards or prizes in a competition.


Typically, you see this in award ceremonies for films or music, when one person, movie or song is very successful and wins a large number of the available awards. Furthermore, you may also hear about this with sports teams and sportspeople, or in fact anyone who could potentially win a large number of prizes at one time. In any of these cases, you could say that he or she 'cleaned up'.


Examples of usage....

The movie Parasite cleaned up at the 2019 Oscar awards ceremony.
This song is expected to clean up at this year's national music awards, having been nominated in 11 out of 12 categories.
 

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

IDIOM ALERT!!

Before finishing this post, it would be neglectful of me to not let you know about a great idiom that exists with the phrasal verb 'clean up': 'to clean up your act'.


This idiom means to start behaving in a better and more responsible way, often involving stopping drinking alcohol, taking drugs or committing crimes.


It is separable and both 'clean your act up' and 'clean up your act' are completely fine to use.


Examples of usage....

When my baby was born I decided that I had to clean my act up and start behaving more responsibly.
Roger has cleaned his act up since leaving prison and he is now like a new man.
 

This brings us to the end of the 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 'clean 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.

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