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The Phrasal Verb 'Hold Out' Explained

Updated: Jun 9

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

A hand holding out a multicoloured whisk with cream on

Hello and welcome to my website for English learners all about phrasal verbs!


'Hold out' is a handy English phrasal verb to know and be able to use in everyday English. It has a number of diverse meanings, range from strength and resilience to secrecy and patience! In this post, I will explain the different ways that native speakers use 'hold out', with lots of examples to illustrate these for you. So, without further ado, let's make a start. Don't forget to leave a comment at the end! It's always much appreciated 😊


HOLD OUT: KEY INFORMATION For an explanation of the terms in the table, click here

Usage

Medium

Number of meanings

6

Past tense forms

Held out / Held out

Separable?

Sometimes

 
The letters ABC spelled out on a blackboard in chalk with books and chalk sticks in the foreground

THE BASICS

Before we look at the different meanings of the phrasal verb 'hold out', let's first consider what the words 'hold' and 'out' mean on their own.


First up, we have the verb 'to hold', which is a common English verb with several different meanings. Perhaps the first one that comes to mind when thinking of this verb is 'to keep something in your hand', however other significant meanings of 'to hold' are to support something, to contain something, to keep something in a specific position and to keep someone somewhere, so that they are unable to leave or escape. When used in phrasal verb constructions 'to hold' can often be used to mean 'to wait', which is certainly something that will feature later in this post.


Next up is the prepositional particle 'out', which you will all certainly be aware of. 'Out' is generally used as an adverb and preposition to talk about being on, or moving towards, the exterior of something. When used in phrasal verbs, it often adds the idea of moving in an outwards direction and many phrasal verbs with 'out' do indeed carry this idea. Other functions of 'out' in phrasal verbs include completion, distribution and revelation.


Now that we have looked at the different meanings of the constituent words, let's move onto the different phrasal verb meanings of 'hold out'...

 

MEANING 1: To extend your arm

A man holding out a camera in front of a mirror

CEFR Language Level

A2 - Elementary

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To offer, to present, to extend

Separable?

Yes

A hand being held out

Let's start off with a nice and simple meaning of 'hold out', which is all to do with our hands. If we hold out our hands, we simply extend our arms, so that our hands are in a position away from our body', as pictured here ➟ ➟ ➟


As we humans are highly complex creatures, there are a huge variety of reasons as to why we hold out hands. These can often differ between cultures and countries, however the most common reason for doing so, certainly in western culture, is an offer to shake hands with someone.


She held out her hand in front of her to make sure her nail polish was on evenly.
John held out his hand to Stephen to shake hands, but Stephen was not willing to forgive him.

As I mentioned in the Basics section on this post, one of the main meanings of the verb 'to hold' is 'to keep something in your hand'. Bearing this in mind, it should come as no surprise to you that this application of 'hold out' is not only used for our empty hands, but also to talk about when we hold an object in our hands and extend it away from our bodies. Again, this can be for a multitude of reasons, but is often in the sense of offering or presenting something to someone.


Lucy held out her phone in front of her to take a selfie.
Helen held out the plate of sandwiches to her guests and asked them to take some.
The barman has to hold the card reader out to the customer so that they could pay.
The midwife held the baby out to her mother so that she could hold her for the first time.
 

MEANING 2: To last or endure

A petrol pump with a piece of paper saying "sold out' attached to it

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To last, to endure

Potential antonyms

To run out

Separable?

No

If you are a regular visitor to my website, you may have read my post all about the phrasal verb 'run out' (if not, you can visit it here), one of the meanings of which is to describe when there is none left of something. Now, you may be wondering why I am talking about 'run out' on a post about the phrasal verb 'hold out' and the reason for this is because this second meaning of 'hold out' is in fact the opposite meaning of 'run out', or specifically 'to not run out'.


This meaning of 'hold out' is therefore typically used in conjunction with nouns for things for which we need a constant or continuous supply in our lives, such as food, water, gas, money etc. as if we run out of these things, it can be problematic.


Hopefully, our food supplies will hold out until the snow melts and we can get to the shop again.
Do you think we have enough gas to hold out until we get to the next gas station?

Moreover, this application tends to be used when talking about whether or not the supply of what you have will be sufficient for a specific period of time, or in other words, it will hold out until a certain date. Alternatively, you may also hear this when talking about supplies in difficult times or situations and whether or not the supply will be enough to last until the tough period is over.

I was very careful with how much water I drank and luckily it held out for the duration of the marathon race.
The miners, who were trapped underground, were praying that the oxygen would hold out until they were rescued.
 

MEANING 3: To survive or resist something difficult

The word resist spelled out by people on a beach

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To survive, to resist

Separable?

No

What is your favourite movie genre? Personally, I love horror, fantasy and historical genres the most and the reason that I am telling you this is that this next meaning of 'hold out' is one that features a lot in these types of movies as it means 'to survive or resist something difficult' and in these movies it tends to be sieges of castles etc (perhaps not the horror genre, in this case).


In order to help your understanding of this meaning, let's put it into context with an example. In medieval times it was a common military tactic for invading armies to besiege castles or cities, which meant that they surrounded them and stopped any people, food or water supplies from entering, thus making life within the castle or city so difficult that it eventually surrendered. As you would imagine, life in a besieged place was particularly tough, however in many of the documented sieges in history, they managed to hold out against the enemy. In other words, they did not surrender and consequently survived the siege until the enemy was defeated or went away.


Aside from sieges of castles and cities, 'hold out' can also be used to talk about armies who defend themselves in difficult situations.


Of course, in the modern world, situations like these are not as common, but regrettably do still exist and we can use this application of the phrasal verb 'hold out' for this. Luckily, you are much more likely to come across it in novels, movies and television series and so it is definitely one you should be aware of if you enjoy watching these in English.


In the years 1848-49, the city of Venice was able to hold out against the siege by the Austrian army.
How long do you think that they can hold out in there?

One other time that you may hear this in the modern world is when talking about sport, when one team performs well or better than expected in difficult circumstances, i.e. against a much better team or with less players than normal. If the disadvantaged team manages to win or draw against their opponents, you can say that they held out against them.

Leeds United managed to hold out against a much stronger Liverpool FC team and the result ended in a 1-1 draw.
 

MEANING 4: To feel hope or optimism

People praying in a temple

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To offer

Separable?

No

As the tone of the last usage of 'hold out' that we looked at was a bit dark and sombre, let's reverse that now with another meaning that is a lot more positive and means 'to feel hope or optimism'.


This usage is limited to collocations with only a few nouns, mainly 'hope' and 'possibility', and is used to express whether or not you feel hopeful or optimistic about a situation or not.


If you hold out hope for something, then it means that you still believe and hope that something will be possible.


We are currently in negotiations with the council about holding the sports event in the park and we are holding out a lot of hope that they will agree to our request.
The captain of the England cricket team is holding out the possibility of welcoming some of their old players back.
Rescue teams have been out looking for the missing boys since last night but the police are not holding out much hope of finding them alive.
 

MEANING 5: To wait until you get what you want

A pedestrian crossing button with the word WAIT illuminated

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To wait

Separable?

No

Now we come to our fifth meaning of 'hold out' and for this we require the additional preposition 'for', giving us the construction 'to hold out for something', which means 'to wait until you get what you want'.


For clarity, let's look at an example to illustrate this usage for you.....

Sarah is 25 years old and has been single since she broke up with her last boyfriend two years ago. In that time, she has dated one or two guys but ultimately she turned them down as she did not consider them to be good enough for her. She is determined not to settle for the second best option and is therefore committed to holding out until she meets the right man who does tick all the boxes.


As you hopefully understood from the example, there is a bit more to this application of 'hold out' than just the idea of waiting; rather it is a refusal to accept what is offered to you in the hope that if you wait for long enough, the desired option or thing will come.


I've decided not to book a holiday yet as I am going to hold out for the discounted prices at the beginning of the summer.
Steve has been offered several jobs since graduating from university but he has not accepted them as he is holding out for an offer from a Fortune 500 company.
Kelly didn't buy the last smartphone when it was released earlier this year as she is holding out for the next one, which should be released in the next few months.

For those of you who are into 1980s music, here is an absolute classic from the era featuring this particular usage of 'hold out'....enjoy! 😊



 

MEANING 6: To refuse to give information

A lady with a finger pressed against her lips

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To keep quiet

Separable?

No

We have now arrived at our last usage of 'hold out', so well done for making it this far. For this final application, we require the additional preposition 'on', giving us the construction 'to hold out on someone', which means to refuse to give information to someone.


This usage is an informal one and is used for when someone knows some secret or unknown information, but refuses to disclose it, especially when the information is valuable in some way or the other person has a strong desire to learn it. In other words, if won't tell you the juicy information, they are holding out on you!


John knows who did it but he is holding out on me and won't say who it was.
Come on, don't hold out on us! We need to know!
Sarah was holding out on Roger as she didn't trust him with the information.

In addition to information, 'hold out' can also be used in this way to talk about withholding other things that people urgently require, such as money or help.


I need the money but the bank is holding out on me!
Please, I really need this, stop holding out on me and give it to me.
 
The words Thank You written on a card with a heart underneath it

Sadly, this brings us to the end of this post and I just want to say thank you for clicking on my post and reading it. I hope that you've enjoyed it and have been able to learn something new.


Now it is YOUR turn. Can you think of a sentence yourself using 'hold out'. Write it in the comments section below if you can, or alternatively any comments, suggestions or feedback that you may have....don't be shy!!!


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Also, if you found the post useful, please like and share it on social media. See you next time! James 😊


THE END






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