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The Phrasal Verb 'Look Up' Explained

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

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

A silhouette of a woman looking up to an orange and blue sky

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.


The phrasal verb 'look up' has a number of different meanings in English, some of which I am sure will be very familiar to you. In this post, I will look at each of its different applications and meanings, with examples of typical usage. So, without further ado, let's get started....


LOOK UP: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

5

Separable?

Yes

Past forms

Looked up / Looked up

British or American

Both

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

 

THE BASICS

The letters A-G spelled out using plasticine on a red background

Before we look at the different meanings of 'look up', let's take a second to consider its constituent parts as this can often be a useful way to understand some of the idiomatic meanings of a phrasal verb.


The verb 'to look' is undoubtedly one that you will know very well and means to direct our vision in a particular direction, in order to see something.


The prepositional particle 'up' is one that has featured in many posts on this blog already and is used to specify movement away from the ground or towards the sky.


So, with those in mind let's take a look at the different phrasal verb meanings, starting with the literal meaning....

 

MEANING 1: To look in an upwards direction


CEFR Language Level

A1 - Beginner

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

​To stare up, to glance up, to peer up

This first meaning of 'look up' is the literal meaning of these two words combined and therefore simply means to look in an upwards direction.


As you can imagine, this literal meaning is generally used to describe the action of moving your head back in order to see something that is higher than or above you.


However, it is also used when we are looking down at something and move our heads to "normal" position, in order to see what is happening around us. In this latter case where we start in a looking down position, we need the extra preposition 'from'. This is used more and more in today's world as most people seem to spend a large amount of their time looking down at their smartphones.

A cat sitting in the branches of a tree

Examples of usage....

I heard a meowing noise above me and when I looked up I saw a cat in the tree that I was standing under.
Look up there, can you see the shooting star?
Lisa looked up from her phone and realised that all of her friends had left without her.
 

MEANING 2: To search for information

A dictionary page with a yellow tassle draped over it

CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To search, to find out

The second meaning of 'look up' is one that I think most of you will be very familiar with as it means to search for information, normally either in a book or online using a search engine or informative website.

This application of 'look up' is separable and takes a direct object (the information that you want to find out) and this can be placed either between 'look' and 'up' or after 'up'. Alternatively, the pronoun 'it' can be placed in the middle of 'look' and 'up' if the object has already been specified, to avoid having to repeat it again unnecessarily.


Before the rise of the internet, this usage of 'look up' was limited mainly to dictionaries and encyclopaedias and at the tie people said that they "looked something up in a dictionary". Nowadays however, the usage of this meaning has exploded with the rise of the internet and now instead of the dictionary the majority of people "look something up online".


Examples of usage....

I had no idea what the phrase "make do*" meant in English, so I had to look it up!
Helen wasn't sure about how to cook rice properly and despite looking up the information online, she still managed to get it wrong.
We looked up the word 'set' in the dictionary and were really surprised to learn how many definitions it has in the English language.

* To make do means to manage with what is available although it is not ideal or what you wanted.

 

MEANING 3: To improve


CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American

Both

Potential synonyms

To improve, to get better

Our third meaning of 'look up' is a very positive and optimistic one, which is always welcome, and it means to improve or get better. It should be noted here that this usage is limited to describing general situations and is not used to talk about specific things or people improving. As such, it is very common to use the noun 'things' in collocation with 'look up' here.


Something else to make you aware of with this application of 'look up' is that it is only used in the progressive or continuous ('ing) form to describe a situation which is or is not improving.


Examples of usage....

It has been a really hard few months but things are looking up now and the future is bright!
Business is really looking up and we forecasting a very successful year this year.
Things were looking up for me until I lost my job but hopefully I will find another one soon!
 

MEANING 4: To visit someone

A woman in a red dress and a man with flowers knocking at someone's door

CEFR Language Level

​C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

British or American

Both (perhaps more American)

Potential synonyms

To visit, to contact, to get in touch with

This fourth meaning of 'look up' is a rarer one than the meanings that we have looked at so far and means to visit a person, specifically when you are in the town or city in which they live. To clarify, this application is generally used for interactions with people who you know and who live far away from you and is used as an invitation to say come and see me if you are ever in the area where I live.


In terms of the grammar here, this is separable and the object (the person who you are visiting) goes in between look and up, especially if you are the person inviting the other to visit you ('look up me' is completely wrong).


We do use this meaning of 'look up' in British English and it would definitely be understood, however it does feel more American in usage to me.


Examples of usage....

Look me up the next time that you are in Denver. It would be great to see you again!
If you're ever in Liverpool, you should look my sister up. She will show you around the city and tell you the best places to go.
When I am in New York next, I will be sure to look you up.
 

MEANING 5: To admire and respect someone


CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American

Both

Potential synonyms

To admire, to respect, to idolise, to revere

This fifth and final meaning of 'look up' is to admire and respect someone and I've left it until last as it requires the additional preposition 'to' in order for it to be used.

A statue on a pedestal against a blue sky

If we 'look up to someone' it is something very complimentary and positive and means that we want or aspire to be like that person in some way. This is often (but not always) used for people who are older than us, for people who are respected experts in a field that we are also in or perhaps for famous people who we are fans of or who inspire us in some way. In other words, these people are role models.


Regardless of the specifics, the central idea is that we hold these people on a kind of pedestal above us in our minds and to see them we need to look up (as per meaning one).


Examples of usage....

I really looked up to you when I was growing up and I am so pleased to be able to finally meet you in person.
He is one of the greatest tennis players of all time and I have looked up to him ever since I started playing tennis myself.
Roger desperately wants to a role model for his students and for them to look up to him.
 

Questions marks on different coloured speech bubbles against a black background

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

  1. Helen was staring up at the sky trying to catch a glimpse of the meteor shower.

  2. I searched for the meaning of the word in the dictionary.

  3. We didn't know the answer to the question, so we searched for it on the internet.

  4. Things are definitely improving following the lifting of Covid sanctions last year.

  5. The next time you are in town, please come and visit me.

  6. Roger's role model was Mick Jagger when he was growing up.

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

 

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

  1. What time did you SET OUT this morning?

  2. I had no idea what I was doing when I SET OUT as a singer.

  3. Make sure that you SET OUT your letter according to standard conventions.

  4. This CV is very poorly SET OUT, I don't wish to see this candidate for an interview.

  5. The management team has SET OUT a new set of rules for home working.

  6. I tend to SET seeds OUT in my garden in March ready for Spring.

 

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 'look 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. See you next time! James

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