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The Phrasal Verb 'Hang Up' Explained

Updated: Feb 7

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


A person hanging up the receiver on a red and green rotary phone

Hello and welcome to my website 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.


'Hang up' is an English phrasal verb that you will probably have heard before if you have ever had a telephone conversation with an English speaker. In this post, we consider this telephonic usage of 'hung up' and how the meaning can change, depending on the construction. In addition to that, we will also look at its other meanings and how they are used in everyday English by native speakers. Read on to find out more....


HANG UP: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

4

Separable?

Yes

Past tense forms

Hung up / Hung up

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

 

THE BASICS

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

Before we get started with the meanings of the phrasal verb 'hang up', let's take a moment to consider the meanings of the individual words 'hang' and 'up'.

Pink flowers hanging in a hanging basket

'To hang' is a reasonably common verb that means 'to be suspended from a high or elevated place, with the bottom part of the suspended thing being unsupported', much like the flowers in this image.


Aside from this meaning, the verb 'to hang' can be found in different phrasal verb constructions and also has a second meaning involving a rather unpleasant way to die, which was often used as a punishment for crimes (thankfully) in the past. Interestingly, the verb 'to hang' has different past participles depending on which of these meanings you intend. The standard past participle that is necessary for this phrasal verb 'hang up' is 'hung', whereas for 'to hang' in the killing sense, the past participle is 'hanged'....this is something that even many native speakers do not get right.


The prepositional particle 'up' is one of the most commonly used particles in phrasal verb constructions and can add different elements to the meaning, depending on the context. These can range from the idea of completion or readiness to the idea of being in an elevated position, which is certainly appropriate for this phrasal verb.


So, now that we have considered the basics, let's look at the meanings of 'hang up'....

 

MEANING 1: To hang something from a hook


An umbrella hanging from a hook

CEFR Language Level

A2 - Elementary

Usage

Common

Separable?

Yes

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To suspend, to hang

Commonly used with nouns

Coat, jacket, clothes, picture

The first meaning of 'hang up' is 'to hang something on a hook' and is more or less a literal combination of the verb 'to hang', with the particle 'up' adding the idea of the item being suspended in an elevated place (as hooks tend to be).


As you would expect, this application of 'hang up' is used with nouns for items that can be hung on hooks and typically includes clothes, coats, umbrellas, pictures and hats. Aside from hooks, we also use 'hang up' for when we hang clothes on hangers or anywhere else where they can be hung in an elevated position.


This application of 'hang up' is separable and therefore it is possible to say that you "hang your coat up" or "you hang up your coat", without changing the meaning.


Examples of usage....

Give me your jacket, I'll go and hang it up in the study.
The first thing that John does when he gets home is hang his hat and coat up by the front door.
We hung up the wet clothes on hangers in the spare room and left them to dry.
Lisa decided to hang her favourite painting up on the wall by her bed.
 

MEANING 2: To end a phone call



CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

Separable?

Yes

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To terminate a call, to end a call, to put the phone down on someone

Commonly used with nouns

Telephone / phone

The second meaning of 'hang up' is perhaps the most commonly used of all its meanings and means 'to end a telephone call'.


An old black rotary phone

This usage may not seem obvious or logical at first, however it becomes clearer when you consider that this application has been in use since the time when telephones were first invented and people had to literally hang the phone's receiver* on the telephone in order to end a call. Despite the fact that our telephones have changed dramatically over time and we no longer have to physically hang up a receiver to finish a call, this application continues to be used extensively in modern English.


*receiver = the part of the telephone that you speak into and sound comes out of.


In addition to just ending a phone call, 'hang up' develops a more negative connotation when the additional preposition 'on' is used with it. If you hang up on someone, it means that you end a call abruptly, usually without saying goodbye and without the other person expecting it. This is often done out of anger or frustration with the person to whom the speaker is talking and can also be considered rude or insulting by the person who has been hung up on.


Grammatically speaking, it is possible to use this application of 'hang up' separably, however it is more common for native speakers to say "hang up the phone" than "hang the phone up". This is even more the case with the additional 'hang up on variant'.


Examples of usage....

This number is not recognised. Please hang up the phone and try again.
I need to speak to you, please don't hang up!
How rude! John has just hung up on me in the middle of our conversation.
Sorry, I didn't mean to hang up on you.
 

MEANING 3: To stop doing an activity



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

Separable

Yes

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To retire

The third meaning of 'hang up' is an informal one that means 'to retire from, or stop doing, an activity that you do regularly'.


This usage is typical for talking about sports or physical activities that someone regularly does and for the meaning to be realised, the word for a garment or accessory that is associated with the sport or activity in question is required after 'hang up'.


For example, if a football player goes into retirement, you can say that "he or she has hung up their football boots". The same can be said for dancing shoes for ballerinas, boxing gloves for boxers and wetsuits for surfers. The idea here is that the person who is retiring hangs up the accessory for the last time (presumably on a hook) and will not use it again.


Examples of usage....

After a successful career spanning more than 30 years, the jockey has decided to hang up his riding boots.
The drummer hung up his drumsticks a few years ago as he wanted to concentrate on different things.
I don't think Helen will ever hang up her nurses uniform. She just loves being a nurse too much.
 

MEANING 4: To have emotional problems



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

Separable?

No

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To be preoccupied with

The fourth and final meaning of 'hang up' means 'to have an emotional or psychological preoccupation with something'. For this usage, we need the passive construction 'to be hung up on something', with the additional preposition 'on'.


If you are 'hung up on something', it means that you spend a lot of time worrying or thinking about a certain thing, usually in a negative way. It is also possible to be hung up on someone and this is normally always romantic or sexual in nature.


An alternative to 'to be hung up on something' is 'to be hung up about something'.


Examples of usage....

John is completely hung up on perfection and getting every detail correct.
Don't get hung up on the future. Whatever happens will happen.
I went out on a date with Helen last night, but it appears that she is still hung up on her ex.

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

If you are hung up on or about a certain thing and have worries about it, it can also be said that you have a 'hang-up' about it. A hang-up is an informal noun to describe when you have a preoccupation or problem that makes you feel embarrassed, stressed or worried about a certain thing. It is also used in the plural form 'hang-ups' and this can either mean that the person has one recurring problem or several.


Examples of usage....

Roger has a severe hang-up about his age. He's worried that he's getting too old to be a parent.
Why do you have so many hang-ups about your body? You look really good!
 
The word BONUS spelled out using different coloured helium balloons held up by different hands

ANOTHER BONUS

Lastly, before I finish the post, here is a song that you may know by Madonna that features a couple of different ways to use 'hang up'....can you identify them?



 

Question marks in different coloured, overlapping question marks on a black background

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


  1. You can suspend your coat and hat in the cloakroom.

  2. Please end this call and dial our new telephone number.

  3. John has just put the phone down on me!

  4. At the age of 40, the boxer decided to retire from the sport.

  5. I really like Emma but I get the impression that she is still interested in her ex-boyfriend.

  6. John is going bald and he has some serious issues about it.

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

 

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


  1. I need to GO OUT shortly, so please be quick.

  2. Suddenly, all of the lights in the room WENT OUT

  3. The England football team WENT OUT of the competition in the first round.

  4. They have been GOING OUT for several weeks.

  5. This WENT OUT at the turn of the century.

  6. The tide is in at the moment, so we need to wait for it to GO OUT again.


 

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 'hang 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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