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The Phrasal Verb 'Get By' Explained

Updated: Mar 19

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


A car trying to get by a road obstructed by a fallen tree

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.


This week's post is another phrasal verb featuring the ever-popular verb 'to get'; namely 'get by'. In this post, we will look at what native speakers mean when they use 'get by' in a literal sense, as well as its different figurative meanings, including to do the minimum possible required to succeed and to have just enough of something to manage. So, without further ado, let's get started....


KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Medium

Number of meanings

4

Separable

No

Past forms

Got by / gotten by - Got by / gotten by

British or American

Both

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

 

THE BASICS

The letters A-G made of different coloured plasticine

The phrasal verb 'get by' is made up of arguably the most popular verb amongst English native speakers, 'to get', and the prepositional particle 'by'.


As we have seen in previous posts, the verb 'to get' has a wide range of different uses in English, however the meaning that is most relevant for the different usages of 'get by' is 'to move to and arrive at a different place or position'.


The particle 'by' can be used both as a preposition and an adverb in English and the prepositional meaning which we are interested in for this post is 'movement past something'.


Now, with the two elements of this phrasal verb explained, the first of the meanings should be an easy one to understand so let's go....

 

MEANING 1: To move past something



CEFR Language Level

​B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

Separable

No

Potential synonyms

To move past, to get past

Following on from the previous section, this first usage of 'get by' is the literal meaning that is produced when we combine the two forms of 'get' and 'by', outlined in the previous section, i.e. to move past something so that you are on the other side of it. This is generally only ever used for physical movement and not in a symbolic or metaphorical way.


In general, we use 'get by' in situations where it is difficult to move past something as there is some sort of obstruction, or in other words, when something is blocking your path. In contrast, if there is no obstacle present or we can move past something easily and without restriction, then native speakers are more likely to use another relevant verb of movement such as go, walk or drive. The verb 'to get' in this case implies an element of difficulty to the action.


As such, here are some typical situations in which we use 'get by' in this way....

  • When a road is blocked by a car or another kind of obstruction and you cannot easily drive past it.

  • When a person is blocking a path that you are walking on and you need to walk past them.

  • When a road has been closed by authorities and you need to turn onto it in order to reach your destination.

Examples of usage....

If you park your car here, you will make it difficult for other cars to get by. INTENDED MEANING: If you park here, other cars will not be able to pass it easily.
Sorry, do you need to get by? INTENDED MEANING: Sorry do you need to walk / go past me?
The police have sealed off the road where I live and will not let me get by to go home. INTENDED MEANING: The road on which I live has been blocked by the police and they will not allow me to go past the roadblock to get home.
 

MEANING 2: To survive with the minimum possible

Some coins in a jar and a few more scattered on a table next to it

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

Separable

No

Potential synonyms

To make do, to cope, to make ends meet

The second meaning of 'get by' is 'to survive or manage with the minimum possible amount of something'.


When we use 'get by' in this sense, the key idea is that we have only a small amount of something and it is just enough to meet our requirements. In other words, the amount that we have allows us to manage in the given situation, however if we had more of it, either the situation would be better or our lives would be more comfortable.


'Get by' can often have negative connotations, especially when talking about money, as it is often used when talking about financial difficulties, or in extreme cases poverty and deprivation.


If we want to express or quantify the small amount that we have, we require the extra preposition 'on' to do this. Alternatively, we can also use 'to get by with' when specifying something that we have, which enables us to do something, but is not ideal for the job (i.e. there are better alternatives in existence).


Aside from money, other common nouns which can be used with 'get by' when they are in short supply are sleep, food and knowledge. It is also commonly used in the expression 'get by on my own', meaning to manage without the help of other people, although it will not be easy.


Examples of usage....

I don't earn a lot of money but I get by! INTENDED MEANING: I don't earn much money but what I earn is enough for me to survive on.
It is said that Margaret Thatcher got by on four hours sleep a night. INTENDED MEANING: People say that Margaret Thatcher only needed to sleep for four hours every night.
It was a tough situation but I got by with a little help from my friends and family. INTENDED MEANING: The situation was not good but I survived it thanks to my friends and family.
 

MEANING 3: To satisfy the minimum requirements



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

Separable

No

Potential synonyms

To scrape by

For our third meaning of 'get by', we do not have to make such a big leap from the second meaning that we have just looked at, as it means 'to satisfy the minimum requirements of something'.


This is very much the same idea as the second meaning, but the focus here is that we achieve a certain requirement such as an examination pass, with the lowest possible mark. For example, if you needed a score of 50% in an exam in order to pass it and you got a score of 51%, you could say that you got by with 51%. Conversely, if you scored less than the requisite 50% mark, then you failed and 'get by' cannot be used here.


As per the example above, this is commonly used with examinations and tests, however it can also be used for any other area where minimum requirements must be met in order to quality for something e.g. sports.


Example of usage....

I got by with low passes in my exams, so I can go to university but I won't be able to go the university or my choice. INTENDED MEANING: I passed my exams with low grades, so I can go to university but not the universities that I want to go to.
 

MEANING 4: To go unnoticed



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

To get past, to sneak by, to sneak past

Our fourth and final usage of 'get by' is one that links back to the literal usage that we covered earlier on in the post. The idea of this is more of an extension of the first meaning because it means 'to move past something or someone without being seen or noticed'.


This usage is a good synonym of the phrasal verb 'to sneak past', as it essentially means to move past a person or group of people unnoticed, in order to get to where you want to be. This is something that you often see in action movies where the protagonist has to sneak past some people to get to the place where he or she can save the day!


'Get by' is used intransitively in this sense when the speaker is talking about 'getting by' a person without them being seen or noticed, however it can also be used transitively with a direct object when we want to talk about moving an object or another person past someone without being seen.


Lastly, we can also use this meaning of 'get by' when talking about something passing checks or verifications without being noticed or spotted, typically when the thing in question would not normally 'get by' if it were spotted.


Examples of usage....

If you want to get into the club, you are going to have to get by the bouncers. INTENDED MEANING: If you want to enter the nightclub, you will need to pass the bouncers to do it.
The visitor to the prison tried to get the cigarettes by the prison guards. INTENDED MEANING: The prison visitor tried to sneak in cigarettes to the prison without the guards noticing.
Although there was an error on my passport application, it still managed to get by the verification checks. INTENDED MEANING: Despite having an error on it, my passport application passed the verification checks without it being spotted.
 


Before I finish this post, here are a couple of golden oldies featuring our phrasal verb of choice 'get by' for reference...enjoy!





 

Question marks set against different coloured speech bubbles

EXERCISE Re-write the following sentences using 'to get by'....

  1. Can you move your car please? I need to drive past it.

  2. My ancestors survived on a diet of mostly bread, meat and vegetables.

  3. My car is not ideal but I can cope with it until I can afford a new one.

  4. You can pass onto the next stage with this result but you could have done better.

  5. My brother earns a low salary but it's enough for his needs.

  6. We managed to move past the police barrier without anyone seeing us.

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'MAKE UP' (other variations may be possible)


  1. Helen and Lisa had an argument last week but they have MADE UP now.

  2. I didn't want to go to work today so I MADE UP a fake illness and called in sick.

  3. Vegetarians now MAKE UP 10% of the British population.

  4. I had a dentist appointment this morning so I have to work extra hours this evening to MAKE it UP.

  5. You can sleep here tonight, I will MAKE UP a bed for you in the spare room.

  6. She needs to MAKE her MIND up about what she wants to do by this evening.

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

 

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 'get by' below. I really love reading them. See you next time! James

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