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The Phrasal Verb 'Let Down' Explained

Updated: Jan 13

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


A climber being let down on a rope from an overhanging cliff edge at sunrise

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, focussing on the different meanings that it has and the expressions and idioms that it is used in.


'Let down' is a phrasal verb with several meanings that can be applied to very different areas of life. You may already be familiar with its most common meaning, 'to disappoint someone', which we will look at in detail in this post, as well as the other meanings of let down'. So, without further ado, let's get started....


LET DOWN: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

5

Separable?

Yes

Past tense forms

Let down / Let down

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 look at 'let down's different meanings, let's first consider the meanings of the individual words 'let' and 'down'.


'To let' is an irregular English verb and primarily means 'to allow or permit something', or 'to not prevent something from happening'. It is used in a wide number of common expressions and therefore will be a verb that I'm sure many of you will be very familiar with.


The prepositional particle 'down' is the natural opposite of the particle 'up' and is most frequently used to refer to something in a lower position relative to the speaker, or to describe movement towards this lower position. As such, in phrasal verb constructions 'down' can often add the ideas of moving downwards or decreasing.


If you have read my post about the phrasal verb 'let up' (link here), you may remember that it can be used literally to mean 'to allow someone to go up to a higher place'. We can also apply this same logic to 'let down' and it can mean 'to allow someone to go down from a high to a lower place', e.g. down some stairs or to a lower part of a building, however this usage is quite rare and so I only just wanted to briefly mention it here.


So, now that we have covered the basics, let's look at the meanings of 'let down'....

 

MEANING 1: To disappoint someone



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To disappoint, to fail someone

Words commonly used with

Gently

The first meaning of 'let down' is to disappoint someone and is a common usage that you may hear in many popular songs and on popular TV shows.


Although 'to let down' does mean 'to disappoint' and most of the time can be used interchangeably with it, there are some subtle differences in meaning and usage....


If you let someone down', you fail to do something that people expect you to do or hope that you do. This could be anything from just a small unfulfilled promise to not choosing the career that your parents hoped that you would. The verb 'to disappoint' could also be used in most of these cases, however 'to disappoint' refers more to a person's sad feeling when something doesn't go their way.


So, in a nutshell 'let down' is more a failure to do something that was promised or expected and 'disappoint' is more to describe how you feel emotionally after someone lets you down.


On a grammatical level, 'let down' is separable and can be used both ways, however it must always be used separably with indirect object pronouns (me, him, her, them etc.).


Lastly, a common collocation that exists is 'to let someone down gently', which means to give a person bad news in a nice, gentle or kind way.


Examples of usage....

Are you able to babysit my children tonight? My usual babysitter has let me down and I don't know who else to ask.
I feel like I have let my parents down by not going to university.
The company's supplier let us down at the last minute, so they had to try and find someone else who could supply the goods.
We are not able to to go to John's party tonight. I know he really wants us to be there, so we will let him down gently.

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

In addition to the phrasal verb 'let down', there is also the noun 'letdown', which is used to describe the action of letting someone down or disappointing them and is a synonym of the noun 'disappointment'. The noun is usually used to refer to a disappointing situation, but it can also be used to describe a person, although this can often be a little insulting.


Examples of usage....

We tried out the new Italian restaurant in town last night but it was a letdown. We won't go back there again!
Roger thinks that he is a letdown in his parents' eyes but it's not true; they are very proud of him.
 

MEANING 2: To lower something



CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To lower

The next meaning of 'let down' is to lower something from a high position to low position or to the ground, usually in a slow and careful manner'.


In other words, this is to move something towards the ground or in a downwards direction. Often, with this sense of 'let down', the subject is the person who is carrying out the action and the item being lowered or 'let down' is the object.


As I wrote, this application of 'let down' is normally used to describe the act of slowly and carefully lowering something or someone and as such, it is often used in situations with ropes and some types of machinery.


In addition to the this, 'let down' can also be used to talk about when something that is restricted, bound or tied in a high place is untied or released. Typical examples of this are 'letting sails on a boat down' and 'letting your hair down'.


Again, this application of 'let down' is separable and is fine to use both separably and inseparably, however I think that we tend to use it more in an inseparable way.


Examples of usage....

The firemen arrived and carefully let the cat down from the tree in a basket tied to a rope.
The rock climber got stuck halfway up the mountain and asked the crew to let him down.
As the wind was increasing, the sailors decided to let down the sails.


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

IDIOM ALERT

One of the examples that I gave for this meaning of 'let down' was to untie your hair, so that it is free to hang down around your face. While this is used in everyday speech, 'to let your hair down' has also become a very popular idiom meaning 'to relax and have fun'. For this idiom, only the separable usage works.


Examples of usage....

Lisa is determined to forget about work and let her hair down this weekend.
You need to stop stressing and go out and let your hair down for a change.
 

MEANING 3: To be a reason for something to fail



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

British

Potential synonyms

To detract

The next meaning is a primarily British usage of 'let down' and is used to give a reason for why something fails or, less commonly, does not do as well as expected'.


This is a similar kind of idea to the first meaning of disappointment that we looked at, however in this sense there is no element of disappointment, but rather the idea that one thing causes something to fail or not be as good or successful as it was expected to be.


This can be used to describe anything for which there is an element of judgment or evaluation from other people, so therefore it could be as diverse as a painting, a candidate for a job, an outfit or the decor of a building.


Often, we use this application of 'let down' separably, however sometimes we can use the unseparated construction "something is let down by something" - see below.


Examples of usage....

He is a really good looking guy but unfortunately his personality lets him down.
The house itself was perfect and the only thing that let it down and stopped us from buying it was that there was no garden.
If there is one that thing that this car model is let down by, it is the high petrol consumption.
 

MEANING 4: To make an item of clothing longer




CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To lengthen

Words commonly used with

Hem, Garment

The fourth meaning of 'let down' is a useful one for anyone who enjoys sewing and needlework as it means 'to make a garment or item of clothing longer'.


This is normally done by unfolding the excess material of a garment that is normally folded over at the bottom of it. It is often used with trousers and skirts that are not long enough.


As with the other meanings of 'let down', this application can be used both separably and inseparably and with this one, I would say that both are equally as common as the other.


Examples of usage....

I need to let these new trousers down as they are too short.
That skirt is far too short, it needs letting down!
 

MEANING 5: To deflate



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

British

Potential synonyms

To deflate

Words commonly used with

Tyre, balloon, ball, airbed

This fifth and final usage is another primarily British usage of 'let down' and it means 'to deflate something'.


The idea behind this meaning comes from another phrasal verb, namely 'to blow up' (check it out here), one of the meanings of which is to 'inflate something'. The opposite of 'up' is of course 'down' and rather than 'blow down' (which doesn't exist), we use 'let down'. We can only use 'let down' for when something deflates with human intervention or action, rather than bursting and this is why the verb 'let' is used as this often implies an idea of intentionally allowing something to deflate and making it happen.


Grammatically, this is no different to the other applications of 'let down' and can be used both in a separable and an inseparable way.


Examples of usage....

Someone has let the tyres down on my bike! How am I going to get to work now?!
We need to let down the airbed and put it away before the guests arrive.
 

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

TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE Re-write the following sentences using 'to let down'....


  1. I am relying on you to get this right. Please don't disappoint me.

  2. Roger feels like he has failed his parents by not going to university.

  3. The caver was slowly lowered into the cave by a rope.

  4. I love the car, however the only problem with it is that it is yellow.

  5. My new pair of trousers didn't fit me, so my mother made them longer for me.

  6. Your tyres are too full of air, you need to deflate them a bit.


The answers will be available on next week's post

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'HANG UP' Other variations may be possible


  1. You can HANG your coat and hat UP in the cloakroom.

  2. Please HANG UP and dial our new telephone number.

  3. John has just HUNG UP on me!

  4. At the age of 40, the boxer decided to HANG UP his boxing gloves.

  5. I really like Emma but I get the impression that she is still HUNG UP on her ex-boyfriend.

  6. John is going bald and he has some serious HANG-UPS about it.


 

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 'let down' 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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