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The Phrasal Verb 'Come Up' Explained

Updated: Sep 24, 2023

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

The sun coming up behind some snowy mountains

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.


'Come up' is a key phrasal verb for you to know and be able to use as it has a variety of different meanings, which are used in many different areas of life. In this post we will cover all of these different meanings, from some that are very common to some which are used only rarely and in very specific circumstances. So, without further ado, let's get started....


COME UP: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

9

Separable

No

Past forms

Came up - Came 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.

The verb 'to come' is one of the most common verbs in English and is mainly used as a verb of motion, specifically to indicate when someone or something moves towards where the speaker is. It is also used in a wide number of different idioms and phrasal verb constructions, many of which are featured elsewhere on this blog.


Then we have the prepositional particle 'up', which is used to talk about movement in the direction away from the ground, towards the sky or to a higher place in relation to the speaker.


So, now that we have covered the basics, let's move on to the reason why you are here: the different meanings of 'come up'....

 

MEANING 1: Literal meaning


CEFR Language Level

A1 - Beginner

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To walk up

The first meaning of 'come up' is a nice and simple one as it is just the literal meaning of the two words 'come' and 'up' combined, in other words when something or someone moves in an upwards direction to where you (the speaker) are.


Due to the spatial element of this usage, its usage is limited to only a few situations and these mainly when talking about stairs and buildings.


Examples of usage

Come up and see me, my apartment is on the fifth floor.
When you come up to bed, can you please bring me a glass of water.


The word 'TIPS' spelled out using wooden blocks

EXTRA INFORMATION TO SOUND LIKE A NATIVE SPEAKER


In informal British English it is common to use both 'come up' and 'come down' to talk about when someone travels from where they live to a different place, often to visit and stay with someone else. Moreover, this is normally when the person has to travel a relatively long distance. There seems to be no set rule regarding whether or not we use 'up' or 'down' but I think that we tend to use 'up' more when the travel is in a northwards direction and 'down' when the travel is in a southwards direction (please note though that many people do not know their geography that well, so I would not pay too much attention to whether they use 'up' or 'down').


Examples of usage....

I am so excited as my son is coming up from London this weekend with his new girlfriend.
When are you next coming up to Scotland?
It's been ages since you last came up to visit us!
 

MEANING 2: To be mentioned


CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To be mentioned, to bring up

The second meaning of 'come up' is to be mentioned, talked about or discussed in a conversation. If something 'comes up' during a conversation, it is generally not the main topic of the conversation but it is mentioned at some point during it.


If you have read my post about the phrasal verb 'bring up' (link here), then you may remember that it has a very similar meaning to 'come up' here. They are indeed very close in meaning, but the difference is that when we use 'bring up', there is an element of intention behind it, i.e. someone wants to introduce the topic into a conversation and consequently there is some focus on the person who brings the subject up too. With 'come up', however, there is no element of intention and we are not focused on who introduces the topic - we just use it to say that the subject became a topic of conversation.


You may have also heard the expression 'to come up in conversation' before and this is a common way of expressing that something was talked about. Note that in this expression we omit the indefinite article 'a' as it is not required for this expression.


Examples of usage....

Thankfully, the topic of the recent family scandal did not come up during my conversation with my relatives.
A: Did anyone mention the reporting issues in the meeting earlier? B: Yeah, it came up.
It came up in conversation with your husband that you have recently got a new job. Congratulations!
 

MEANIG 3: To occur


CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To happen, to occur, to crop up

Meaning number three of 'come up' is 'to occur' or 'to happen' and is normally used to describe an unexpected problem or issue. Due to the unplanned nature of the problem, it usually then either prevents us from doing something that we had planned to do or it creates problems for us to do the thing that we had planned, such as making us late.


This is a really good one to use when you want to avoid doing something that you do not want to do (and many native speakers do use it a lot). The reason for this is that 'come up' is somewhat vague and non-specific in nature and it simply conveys the idea that there is a problem, without going into details. Of course, some people do then continue to explain what the problem is, however by using 'come up' in this way you do not have to and people understand that it may be something private and so do not normally ask too many questions.


For this one, it is usual to use it with the word 'something'.


Examples of usage....

Something's come up and I am not going to be able to make it to dinner, I'm afraid.
John and Helen were supposed to come here last night but something came up unexpectedly and they are now not going to arrive until later today.
 

MEANING 4: To approach


CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To approach, to come around (time)

The fourth meaning of 'come up' is 'to approach someone or something' and can be used to describe when a physical object or person moves towards you or also to describe when a future point in time gets closer.


This meaning is closely linked to the meaning of the verb 'to come' and there are moments when 'come' and 'come up' can be used interchangeably to describe a movement towards something, however while we use 'come' to talk about a general movement towards the speaker, we use 'come up' more when the movement is in its final stages and the person or thing is very close or next to the speaker. It is often therefore used when a person approaches another person in order to speak or interact with them in some way.


As mentioned above, we also use 'come up' with time, to describe something in the near future which is getting closer to the present. Depending on the speaker's perspective, this can be seconds, minutes, hours, days or even weeks into the future but regardless of the time unit involved, the idea is that something is getting closer and will happen soon.


If you ever watch English language television shows or listen to radio shows, you may have heard the presenters talking about what is 'coming up' in the show and this is the standard way of telling the audience what will feature in that particular episode.


On a grammatical level, when using 'come up' with time, we tend to use it in the progressive or continuous ('ing) form. It is also worth noting that there is an adjective that has been derived from this usage of 'come up' with time: 'upcoming' and if something is 'upcoming' then it means that it will happen very soon or in the near future. When talking about physical movement, we can use both continuous and simple verb forms.


Examples of usage....

I was at the train station and a stranger came up to me and asked if I was single!
Coming up on the left hand side there is the Tower of London.
We are coming up to my stop now, so I need to get off the bus.
The school holidays are coming up and all of the children are getting excited.
 

MEANING 5: To appear


CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To rise, to appear

The fifth meaning of 'come up' is to appear or to become visible, however we tend to use it in only a couple of different situations.


The first main situation that we use it in, which you can probably guess from the gif in this section, is for the sun, or to be precise, the sunrise. When the sun rises it comes up from the horizon and is visible (ok, not always visible in the UK but is there behind the clouds 😜) and then at the end of the day when it disappears from sight, it 'goes down'.


The second situation in which you are likely to come across 'come up' in the sense of appearing, is on a computer screen or a smartphone. Like with the second meaning, this is very similar to the phrasal verb 'bring up' and similarly here, if something comes up on your screen, it normally appears without you intending it to appear. As such, this is commonly found in use with nouns such as 'messages', 'pop-ups' and 'images'.


Examples of usage....

I got up really early in order to watch the sun come up.
When the sun comes up, all of the nocturnal creatures go to sleep.
 

MEANING 6: To become available



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

The sixth meaning of 'come up' means to become available and it is used particularly when we are searching for something such as a new job or a new house. During this searching process, if something suitable becomes available, we often say that it 'comes up'.


If you have read my post on the phrasal verb 'turn up' (link here), you may remember that this also has the same meaning and these two are in fact synonyms of each other.


Examples of usage....

I have been looking for a new job for weeks now and nothing is suitable! Something had better come up soon.
We were waiting for a 3-bedroom house in our town for a long time, so when one finally came up, we made sure that we submitted an application quickly.
 

MEANING 7: To be heard in a court of law

A judge's seat in a courtroom

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

British or American

Both

Potential synonyms

To be heard

The seventh meaning of 'come up' is quite a rare and situation-specific one as it means 'to be heard in a court of law'. In other words, this means that a the time comes for a meeting to be held in court to discuss a legal matter, typically after a waiting period.


Due to the unpredictable and varied nature of court cases in the majority of legal systems in English speaking countries, there is normally a long wait for court hearings and cases to take place and the so when a court case finally is able to take place, we say that it 'comes up'.


Examples of usage....

His court case comes up in a few weeks, so fingers crossed it will go well!
When the case finally came up, the defendant had died.
 

MEANING 8: To become brighter after cleaning

Someone wearing pink marigolds with some cleaning product and a cloth

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American

Both

Potential synonyms

To sparkle

For those of you who enjoy cleaning, the eighth meaning of 'come up' is a really useful one for you, as it means 'to become brighter after cleaning or polishing'.


We use this one particularly when we are talking about surfaces which are dull or dirty and which after a bit (or a lot) of cleaning become much brighter or cleaner and generally more visually appealing. As you can imagine, this one is used frequently in advertisements for cleaning products! For this usage, we often use an appropriate adverb after 'come up', such as beautifully or nicely to express just how clean the thing at the end.


Examples of usage....

This tabletop will come up nicely after a bit of scrubbing!
My car was so dirty but it came up beautifully after I took it to the expensive car wash.
 

MEANING 9: To think of something


CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To think of, to create, to invent

We now come to the ninth and final meaning of 'come up' that we will look at in this post and it means 'to think of or invent something'. This final usage is actually perhaps one of the most common of the uses in English, however I have left it until the end of the post as it requires the additional preposition 'with' in order to make sense.


If you 'come up with something', you conceive (think of) an idea, you make a suggestion or you find a solution to a problem. Regardless of what you come up with however, the general idea is that you invent something new in your brain, which is normally specific to a particular situation.


Examples of usage....

I've come up with an amazing idea for a website and I think it is going to make me rich.
Some of the administration team have come up with some suggestions of what we can do at the Christmas party this year.
I wasn't sure how to entertain the kids when I was babysitting, so I came up with a new game for them which they loved.
You need to come up with a solution to this problem by the end of the day!
 

BONUS

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

I appreciate that this is a really long post with a lot of information, so well done for reaching this far! Before I finish the post, I just wanted to make you aware of a couple of other uses of 'come up'....


To come up against something - We use this when we face a problem or a challenge when we are trying to do something. In other words, we face obstacles, which can slow us down or prevent us from carrying out a task. Furthermore, if the obstacle that we face makes our task impossible, we use the expression 'to come up against a brick wall'.


Example of usage....

The local government came up against a lot of resistance to the plans to build a shopping centre from local residents.
We tried to overturn the government's decision but every time we did, we came up against a brick wall and so in the end we gave up.

To come up with the goods - This informal British idiom is used to describe when someone does something that they are required to do or achieves the results that they are expected to.


Example of usage....

I didn't think that Roger would be able to complete the sales report by midday but he came up with the goods!
 

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

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

  1. The subject of the ongoing court case was mentioned briefly during the meeting.

  2. Something has happened at work and I am not going to be able to make it to your parents' house tonight.

  3. Lisa approached Helen and asked her if she had a lighter for her cigarette.

  4. The sun rose at 6.35am this morning.

  5. The Christmas holidays are approaching. Have you got any nice plans for them?

  6. We thought of a really effective advertising campaign at the conference yesterday.

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

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'PASS OUT' (other variations may be possible)

  1. The pain was so intense that I PASSED OUT for a short period.

  2. Roger drank so much beer at his work party and ended up PASSING OUT on his sofa at home.

  3. Here are the test papers. Lisa, can you please PASS them OUT to the rest of the class.

  4. Food and water was PASSED OUT to all of the people whose houses had been flooded.

  5. John is PASSING OUT from military college and we are going to watch his graduation ceremony.

  6. If you want to leave the theatre during the performance you will need a PASS-OUT.

 

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 'come 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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