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The Phrasal Verb 'Make Up' Explained

Updated: Mar 19

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


A young girl applying make up to a man's face

Hello and welcome to my website for English learners all about English phrasal verbs! Read on to learn more about the phrasal verb 'make up'...


This week's blog post is all about the phrasal verb 'make up', which is definitely one that you will have come across before as it is super common and is one that I have used many times on these blog posts before. In this post we will look at its different meanings including inventing stories, making a decision and applying cosmetics. So, without further do, let's get started....don't forget to leave a comment at the end 😊


KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

7

Separable?

Yes

Past forms

Made up / made 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 in different coloured plasticine

The phrasal verb 'make up' is formed of the verb 'to make' and the prepositional particle 'up'.


The verb 'to make' is a very common verb and is often confused with the verb 'to do' by English learners as the two are quite similar and can often be translated into other languages as the same word. Both 'to make' and 'to do' have an extensive number of uses in English, but one of the main ideas of the verb 'to make' is creation and production, while a dominant idea of 'to do', in contrast, is performing an action. This concept of 'to make' will be useful to keep in mind when we look at the different uses of 'make up' shortly.


Next we have the particle 'up', meaning a movement in the direction away from the ground or towards the sky ↑. When we combine these words, there is no literal meaning whatsoever, so let's just move straight on to the different figurative meanings.....

 

MEANING 1: To make peace after an argument


Two people shaking hands in the sunlight

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

Separable

No

Potential synonyms

To reconcile, to make peace, to patch things up

Let's start off the meanings of 'make up' on a positive note. For this we are going to need the additional preposition 'with' and the reason for this is that 'to make up with someone' means to reconcile or become friends with them again after an argument or disagreement.


'Make up' is not just limited to friendships though, and is used a lot to talk about romantic couples who have disagreements or break up and then make peace again afterwards. The use of this meaning is, however, limited to personal relationships and is not used so much to describe business or professional relationships.


One expression that we often use in a tongue-in-cheek* way to talk about when people reconcile following a dispute or argument is "to kiss and make up". This is used regardless of whether or not the people in question are friends or in a romantic relationship.


A variation of 'make up' that you may hear is 'to make it up', which has the same meaning. This is especially common in the past form i.e. 'made it up'.


Examples of usage....

All John and Helen seem to do is break up and then make up the next day.
I wish you and your brother would make up!
She's deeply offended and refuses to make up with me.

* The expression 'tongue-in-cheek' is used to describe something that is not seriously intended and used in a jokey or humorous way.

 

MEANING 2: To invent a story or information


A man typing something on a typewriter

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Common

Separable?

Yes

​Potential synonyms

To create

Used commonly with

Story, excuse, character, information

For our second usage of 'make up', we are entering into the realm of fantasy and fairy tales as the meaning is 'to invent or create something that does not exist by using the powers of our imagination'. These imaginary creations can range from stories, characters and people to excuses, lies and false information. The key idea is that it is created in our imagination and is not real.


Unsurprisingly, this meaning is used very commonly with children who tend to enjoy making up stories, characters and scenarios as part of their play activities. However, as you will know, adults are also very good at creating fictional information, excuses and lies and this usage of 'make up' can therefore be used with both innocent and immoral intent.


Aside from the verb form, the past particle 'made-up' is also frequently used as an adjective (note the hyphen) to describe something fictional that someone has invented and as such, you will often hear such terms as "made-up story" and "made-up word", among many others.


Examples of usage....

When I was a child, I used to make up imaginary friends because I was lonely.
I didn't go to the party - I was too tired so I made up an excuse and said thatI was ill.
Although the novel features made-up characters, the story is based on real life events.

The word 'tips' spelled out using wooden blocks

EXTRA INFORMATION TO SOUND MORE LIKE A NATIVE SPEAKER

There are a couple of well-known expressions of this usage of 'make up' that I really like and want to make you aware of...


You couldn't make it up - We use this expression when talking about things that happen in reality that are so strange or bizarre that a person would not be able to create them using their imagination.


To make it up as you go along - This second expression is used for situations in which we do not know what we are doing and we just do things by instinct, without preparation or planning. We decide how to do it in the present moment (and hope for the best).

 

MEANING 3: To constitute a whole


A pie chart on a card showing different percentages with a pen on top

​CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Common

Separable?

No

Potential synonyms

To constitute

For our third meaning of 'make up', we need to make a 180 degree turn away from the poetic world of fantasy to the much more prosaic and serious world of data, statistics and facts. This meaning of 'make up' is 'to form or to constitute a whole and is used to talk about the different elements or things which combine together to form something bigger or complete.


This meaning of 'make up' is commonly used in statistical information, especially when talking about percentages and fractions.


Examples of usage....

It is estimated that the 100 most common words in any language make up about 50% of the words regularly used in it.
Greyscale colours currently make up three quarters of cars produced worldwide.

Furthermore, 'make up' is also used when we have already given percentages or proportions and we want to talk about the part that completes the remainder of the group. We can use 'make up' here, often with the 'the rest' or 'the remaining X%'.


Examples of usage....

The three of us have all paid a quarter of the bill each, so if you could also pay a quarter and make up the rest, it would be great. INTENDED MEANING: We've all paid our share of 25%, so if you can pay the final 25% and the remainder of the bill, it would be really good.
In the English exam the weighting of the speaking section is 40%, the listening section is 30% and the reading and writing sections together make up the remaining 30%. INTENDED MEANING: The weightings for the English exam are 40% for speaking, 30% for reading and the remaining 30% will be for reading and writing combined.

Lastly, it is very common to use the passive form 'made up' with the additional preposition 'of' to express the different things which something consists of.


Examples of usage....

Air is made up of nitrogen, oxygen, argon and small amounts of many other gases.
All matter is made up of very small particles known as atoms.
 

MEANING 4: To compensate for something


A piece of paper with "Sorry" written on it and a smiley face

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

Separable?

No

Potential synonyms

To compensate

Our next usage of 'make up' is one that is very common in the workplace. If you work for a company in the anglophone world and you need to take some time off e.g. for a doctor's appointment, your boss may authorise the time off but might also say that you need to make the time up.


The reason for this is because the next usage of 'make up' means to compensate for something that is lost, lacking or missing. The example above with working hours is a very commonly used one in the English speaking world.


Another typical way that this usage of 'make up' can be heard in English is when we have a target or required amount of something e.g. money and we do not have enough of it to reach the target amount. We can use 'make up' here to talk about the amount that is required in order to reach our target amount, i.e. the difference between how much we have and how much we need to have.


A common expression featuring this usage of 'make up' that you may hear is 'to make up for lost time', which we use to describe when we do something more quickly, intensely or regularly, in order to compensate for not having done it in the past. For obvious reasons this is often used by middle-aged and older people, perhaps during or after a midlife crisis!


Examples of usage....

Yes, you can have the time off this week to go to the funeral but can you please make the time up next week.
Now that my injury has healed I'm training more than ever as I'm making up for lost time!

The word 'tips' spelled out using wooden blocks

EXTRA INFORMATION TO SOUND MORE LIKE A NATIVE SPEAKER

If you are ever in a situation where an English speaker disappoints you in some way, it is likely that they will say sorry (especially British people as we apologise for everything) and that they will make it up to you.


In the case of disappointing someone, as mentioned above, the idea here links back to the first meaning of making peace following an argument, but the focus here is that we are saying we will do something to remove the negative feelings caused by the disappointment (essentially apologising), with the end objective being reconciliation and peace.


Note that the extra particle 'to' is required here to designate the person who we have disappointed and want to make happy again.


Examples of usage....

I'm so sorry that I forgot your birthday. Let me make it up to you by taking you out for a meal.
I can't be there this weekend but I will make it up to you, I promise!
 

MEANING 5: To prepare something from ingredients or parts


Different food ingredients on a green background

​CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

Separable?

No

Potential synonyms

To prepare

Nouns used commonly with

Dish, meal, medication, bed

The fifth usage of 'make up' means to prepare, build or create something by combining different ingredients or parts.

As you can probably imagine from the word 'ingredients', food is frequently used with this meaning of 'make up' and it is very common to use this with any dish or item that can be made by mixing and combining different ingredients together.


Another example of where this meaning of 'make up' is in common usage is with material and fabric where we create garments or curtains. Moreover, we can also say that we 'make up a bed for someone' when we create a new, often temporary, bed for them using blankets etc. This is different to making a bed, where we arrange the blanket and pillows on an existing bed.


Examples of usage....

Let me give you some tips on how to make up an amazing and tasty casserole. I
You can sleep here tonight, I will make up a bed for you in the spare room.
 

MEANING 6: To apply cosmetics


Someone applying lipstick to a woman's lips

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

To do up, to put on one's face, to do your makeup

For our sixth meaning of 'make up', we are diving into the world of cosmetics. I'm sure that most of you reading will be familiar with the noun makeup, meaning cosmetic products that are used to add colour to the face and change or improve one's appearance. It may therefore come as no surprise to you that the noun makeup is derived directly from our sixth phrasal verb meaning, which is to apply cosmetics to the face and body.


For this usage, reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself etc.) are required when talking about a person who is applying their own makeup. This is of course not the case for people who get their makeup applied by somebody else e.g. actors and celebrities.


Although this usage is still used in everyday English, I would say that the construction 'to do your makeup' is perhaps more common than this phrasal verb form, but it is good to be aware of it nevertheless.


Example of usage....

Lisa made herself up and put on her best evening gown.
 

Meaning 7: To decide


A man holding his head and looking at his laptop

CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

​Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

To decide, to make a decision, to choose

This final meaning of 'make up' that I want to bring to your attention means to make a decision and is used in the construction "to make up your mind". This is actually more of an idiomatic expression than an entirely different meaning, but it is so common that I wanted to include it as a separate meaning of its own.


The structure of this expression is flexible and 'mind' can be placed both in the middle of and after the phrasal verb 'make up', without changing the meaning.


Examples of usage....

John took ages to make up his mind about what food to order at the restaurant.
I've made my mind up about where I want to go to university.
 

The word 'bonus' spelled out by different coloured balloons being held up by different people's hands

One extra thing to make you aware of before the end of this post is the expression "to be made up about something". This is a common idiomatic expression in British English to mean to be delighted or extremely happy about something, normally good news.


Examples of usage....

That's amazing news! I'm made up for you.
Roger is made up about his new work contract!
 

Question marks set against different coloured speech bubbles

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

  1. Helen and Lisa had an argument last week but they are friends again now.

  2. I didn't want to go to work today so I invented a fake illness and called in sick.

  3. Vegetarians now constitute 10% of the British population.

  4. I had a dentist appointment this morning so I have to work extra hours this evening to compensate.

  5. You can sleep here tonight, I will prepare a bed for you in the spare room.

  6. She needs to make a decision about what she wants to do by this evening.

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

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'COME OVER' (other variations may be possible)

  1. Do you want to COME OVER to mine tonight for dinner?

  2. My grandparents CAME OVER here from Europe after the war.

  3. The speech CAME OVER very well.

  4. I suddenly CAME OVER all hot and sweaty and needed a drink of water.

  5. One minute he was fine and then all of a sudden he CAME OVER all angry.

  6. I've changed my view on the matter and have COME OVER to your way of thinking.

 

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


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Guest
Mar 19

I am MADE UP to learn about these different meanings of make up 😀

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James
Mar 19
Replying to

I am made up that you are made up! Thanks for the comment 😁

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