top of page

The Phrasal Verb 'Let Off' Explained

Updated: Mar 16

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


Fireworks being let off over a lake at dusk

Hello and welcome to my website all about English phrasal verbs! Read on to learn more about the phrasal verb 'let off'....


How well do you know the phrasal verb 'let off' and the different meanings that it has in the English language? Have you ever needed to be let off public transport or have you perhaps been let off from a fine or punishment in your life? Maybe you enjoy letting off steam in the gym or fireworks on New Year's Eve? If some of these sound a little strange to you, don't worry as in this post I outline the different meanings of 'let off' and how they are used in English, so without further ado, let's get started. Don't forget to leave a comment at the end!


LET OFF: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Medium

Number of meanings

5

Separable?

Yes

Past tense forms

Let off / Let off

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

 

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

THE BASICS

In order to understand the meanings of the phrasal verb 'let off' as well as possible, we'll start by considering the meanings of the individual words 'let' and 'off'.


The verb 'to let' is a common irregular verb in the English language, whose main meaning is the idea of permitting or allowing something to happen. While it does have other less common meanings, such as 'to rent out property', its other main function as a verb is in the contraction let's (let us), which is used to introduce a suggestion to do something that involves you and the people you are addressing. 'To let' features in several different phrasal verb constructions, which are all useful ones to have in your active English vocabulary.


The prepositional particle 'off' is the opposite of the particle 'on' and has multiple meaning and uses in English, notably 'to not be supported or attached to something' and to 'move away from something or somewhere'. It is a common inclusion in phrasal verbs and is often used to add ideas of departure, separation and completion, among others.


Now that we have looked at the basics, let's take a look at the individual meanings of the phrasal verb 'let off'....

 

MEANING 1: To allow someone to disembark



CEFR Language Level

A2 - Elementary

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To allow off

Separable?

Yes

To start, let's think again about the individual meanings of the words 'let' and 'off' and consider what the literal meaning of 'let off' would be, which is 'to allow someone to disembark or leave something that they are on'.


In the gif above, you can see Marge Simpson frantically running around on an airplane shouting "let me off" as she is asking - or demanding - permission to be able to disembark, perhaps because she is scared or has decided that she does not want to leave...I haven't seen the episode, so maybe you can tell me in the comments.... Anyway, back to the phrasal verb explanation....so, essentially this usage is a pure combination of the meaning of 'let' as in 'to allow' with the meaning of 'off', as 'in no longer being on something'.


In terms of usage, this meaning can potentially be used with any surfaces or things that you are physically 'on' and for which you need permission to be able to leave or disembark. In reality, this is mainly used with forms of mass transport such as trains, boats and airplanes. You may also hear it, less commonly, with fairground ride such as big wheels or roller coasters.


This meaning is separable and takes a direct object, which is the person or thing disembarking or leaving. The direct object can either go between 'let' and 'off' or after it, however when using an indirect personal pronoun (him, her, them etc.), this must go in between the two.


Examples of usage....

A passenger fell ill on the bus, so the driver stopped in order to let him off.
The ferry docked in Cherbourg to let passenger and cars off, before continuing on to St Malo.
Paralysed with fear, Katherine pleaded with the roller coaster operators to let her off before it started.
 

MEANING 2: To not give someone a punishment



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To get off, to pardon, to be lenient, to get away with, to absolve, to exonerate

Separable?

Yes

If any of you readers are criminals or have criminal tendencies (which I hope is not the case), then this next meaning of the phrasal verb 'let off' will be a very positive one for you as it means 'to not give someone a punishment'.


The idea here is that when someone commits a criminal offence or does something wrong that normally requires a punishment, they do not receive one and there is no retribution for their wrongdoings.


This is of course great news for offenders but often very frustrating for victims. However, what is perhaps equally annoying for victims is when a criminal is found guilty of a crime but receives a lighter punishment than they deserve. The phrasal verb 'let off' can also be used in these situations, however it should be noted that the additional preposition 'with' is required here to specify the lighter punishment that the offender receives.


So, to summarise, the second meaning of 'let off' is to not receive a punishment at all, or to receive less punishment than you deserve!


Examples of usage....

A notorious thief was caught by the police but then let off after he promised to never steal anything again.
There was uproar in the court this morning when the killer was let off with a short prison sentence.
There were fears that she would be let off lightly, however the punishment was severe.
The traffic warden let me off with a fine of £10 as it was an emergency.

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

IDIOM ALERT!

A hook on a rope to show the idiom 'let someone off the hook'

Before we move on to the next meaning, I have a nice idiom linked to this meaning to share with you: 'to let someone off the hook'. This is a common idiomatic expression in English to mean to remove the blame from someone if they have been accused of a crime.


For example, if John accuses Roger of stealing his wallet and then afterwards John finds the wallet under his bed, Roger has been let off the hook as it was clear that it was lost and Roger did not steal it.


In some instances, it can also be used when someone is found to be guilty of a crime but receives no punishment or retribution for it.


Additionally, we can also use 'let someone off the hook' to describe when someone helps us or allows us to avoid a responsibility or something that we do not want to do.


Examples of usage....

The politician was accused of speeding in her car but has been let off the hook as there is not enough evidence to support it.
Lisa has made some horrible comments about Helen recently but Helen is prepared to let her off the hook as she doesn't want to lose their friendship.
I was supposed to be working an extra shift today but luckily my work has let me off the hook and I can rest instead!
 

MEANING 3: To be allowed to not to do something



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Mainly British

Potential synonyms

To excuse from, to relieve from, to exempt from

Separable?

Yes

We all have duties, responsibilities and tasks in life that we have to do but don't always want to do, so once in a while it is really nice when someone tells us that we do not have to do them....or, in other words, that we are 'let off' from doing them. To clarify, this next meaning of 'let off' is 'to be allowed not to do something'.


This usage is primarily British and again takes the meaning of 'let' as in 'to allow' with 'off' adding the idea of not doing something. Typically, this application of 'let off' is used with tasks or responsibilities that an authority figure, parent or boss expects you to do and it is these authority figures who perform the action of 'letting someone off' from a task or job.


Another common way that this is used is when your boss or company management permits you to finish work earlier than normal, in which case you would say that you have been "let off work early".


Examples of usage....

I normally have to do the washing up after dinner but my parents have let me off from doing it today as I have injured my hand.
Lisa's mother is in hospital and her work has kindly let her off a couple of shifts, so she can care for her.
It is the Scotland football game tomorrow and work are letting us off an hour early to watch it.
 

MEANING 4: To make something explode



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To set off, to detonate, to discharge, to fire

Separable?

Yes

Nouns commonly used with

Firework, gun, rocket, firecracker, bomb, gun

For our next meaning of the phrasal verb 'let off', we are thinking specifically about things that explode and go bang as this meaning is 'to make something explode'.


This application takes the idea from the verb 'to let' as in to 'allow something' and combines it with the idea of moving away, release or departure that we get from the particle 'off'. In other words, we are permitting something to be released, in this case explosive energy.


Thankfully, there aren't many things in life that do explode and most of the time we experience them second-hand via movies and tv. One common item that can be let off by normal people like us is a firework and every year many people all around the world let them off during times of celebration. Aside from fireworks, other nouns commonly used with this application of 'let off' are bomb, firecracker and gun.


Examples of usage....

I couldn't sleep last night as somebody was letting off fireworks until 1am!
Luckily, the terrorists plan to let off a bomb at rush hour was foiled by the emergency services.
I am not sure whether or not John let off the gun on purpose.
 

MEANING 5: To release liquid, air or chemicals



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To release, to leak, to emit, to give off

Separable?

Yes

Nouns commonly used with

Steam, gas, water, oil, fart

The fifth and final meaning of the phrasal verb 'let off' is a slightly less frequently used one that means 'to release air, liquid or chemicals'.


This is a usage that you may come across in a wide variety of areas of life as it is used to describe any escape or release of air, liquid or chemical from a container. This is regardless of whether it is intentional or unintentional e.g. a leak. I think that this is perhaps most commonly used with water as we use so much of it, however other common nouns that it is used with are steam, oil and air. 'Let off' can also be used to talk about flatulence, e.g. to let off gas or a fart.


Examples of usage....

When ricotta cheese gets warm, it is normal for it to let off some water.
The air pressure in my car tyres was too high, so I had to let off a bit of air from them.
Plants often let off chemicals to attract bumble bees to them.
Once the water is boiling, remove the lid to let some of the steam off.

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

IDIOM ALERT

Before I finish this post, I just want to make you aware of a super common idiom that exists with the phrasal verb 'let off'.


'To let off steam' means to get rid of negative energy or feelings by doing some physical activity or making a lot of noise. This ultimately comes from the idea of pressure building up inside you (like steam does in a sealed pan when boiled) and when you do something to relieve the pressure, you let off the 'imaginary' steam and you feel calm again.


Examples of usage....

Q: Is John okay? A: He'll be fine, he was a bit angry, so he has gone for a run to let off steam.
If you're feeling stressed, one of the best ways to let off some steam is to have a hard workout at the gym.
 

This brings us to the end of the post, so thanks for reading. Now it is YOUR turn. Leave a comment on the blog post with your own sentence using 'let off'....don't be shy!!!


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 off' 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.

Comments


JOIN THE MAILING LIST TO RECEIVE NEW POSTS DIRECT IN YOUR INBOX!

Thanks for submitting! A new phrasal verb post will be emailed to you every Friday!

bottom of page