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The Phrasal Verb 'Open Up' Explained

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

A person wearing plastic gloves and unlocking a padlock

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


'Open up' is a common English phrasal verb that will be familiar to many of you, however do you know all of the different ways to use it? For example, do you know the difference between opening up a shop, opening up a lead and opening up to someone? Don't worry if you are not sure as in this post, I will explain the different meaning and uses to you and give you lots of examples of these in context to help your learning and understanding. So, without further ado, let's get started! Don't forget to leave a comment at the end 😊


OPEN UP: KEY INFORMATION For an explanation of the terms in the table, click here

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

5

Separable?

Yes

Past tense forms

Opened up / opened up

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

THE BASICS

Let's get started by taking a look at the words 'open' and 'up' individually and what they bring to the "phrasal verb" table.


'To open' is a common verb in English that primarily means to remove, break or change the outside of something in order to allow access to what is inside it. It is typically used with nouns such as door, window, book and eyes.


I opened the car door and got out.
John opened his eyes and looked around the room.

Aside from this, the verb 'to open' has other meanings and uses and the majority of these all carry an idea of increased accessibility or eliminated restrictions or limitations to something. One of these other meanings that is particularly pertinent to the phrasal verb 'open up' is to make something available....more on that to come later!


The prepositional particle 'up' features in a huge number of phrasal verb constructions. Given that the primary meaning of 'up' as an adverb is to talk about movement in the direction away from the ground, it will come as no surprise to you that it can also add this same directional meaning to phrasal verbs. In addition to this more obvious function, 'up' can also serve to convey other ideas to phrasal verbs, such as completion, preparation and appearance.


So, now that we have looked at the basics, let's explore the different meanings of the phrasal verb 'open up'...

 

MEANING 1: To open something that is closed or locked

A woman carrying crops opening up her door

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

Where is it used?

Everywhere

Potential synonyms

To open, to unlock

Potential antonyms

To close up, to close, to lock

Separable?

Yes

As we have just established, the verb 'to open' means to modify something in order to allow access to what it contains and this first meaning of 'open up' is just a variation of this as it means to open or unlock something that is closed, such as a door, a box, a cupboard, a window or a gift.


I guess at this point you are probably thinking why do we need the form 'open up' when the standard verb 'to open' means the same thing. This is a very good question as they do both generally carry the same meaning and are usually interchangeable, however sometimes we use 'open up' when there is more of an emphasis on, or interest in, what is contained inside the closed object. This may perhaps be because the item is not normally opened, it has never been opened before or because we do not know what is inside it and we are just curious to find out. In other words, there is perhaps more interest or intrigue surrounding what is inside.


John cheerfully opened up his birthday presents.
I wonder what is inside this locked cupboard? I am going to try to open it up to find out.
Open up your books to page 15.

Another very common group of nouns that are commonly used with this of application of 'open up' are buildings and we can use 'open up' for these when we talk about them becoming unlocked to enable people to enter inside them. I would say that this usage tends to be mainly for public buildings, which I will talk more about in the next section, however it is worth mentioning here that 'open up' can be used as an imperative, especially in American English, by someone who is outside requesting to be allowed entry and this can often be private residences too.


Open up! Come on let me in!
I was woken up at 2am this morning by husband yelling 'open up' outside our window. He had lost his key and could not get in.

BONUS INFORMATION

Sometimes, when we want to gain access to the interior of something that is covered or protected, it is necessary to access it by cutting it with a tool or implement of some sort. This is in fact another way that 'open up' can be used, notably with surgical operations in hospitals, where the surgeon needs to open up the patient in order to perform the necessary and often life-saving action.


We could not gain access to the interior of the abandoned ship, so we had to open it up using special tools.
We need to open up the patient and remove the tumour.
 

MEANING 2: To open a business

A woman opening up a shop for the day

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

Where is it used?

Everywhere

Potential synonyms

To open

Potential antonyms

To close, to close down, to shut, to shut down

Separable?

Yes

This second meaning of 'open up' is really two separate sub-meanings, but as both of them are about the world of business and share a clear connection, I thought it would be better to consolidate them all in one section.


In the previous section, I mentioned that we can use 'open up' to talk about opening a building to allow people to enter inside it and this links directly to the first of these two usages, which is to open a business for the day. As you can imagine, this usage is reserved for businesses such as shops, stores, garages, pubs, bars, restaurants etc., which all tend to open and close on a daily basis. The action of opening up here is purely unlocking the premises or building and preparing it so that it is ready for customers.


Aside from companies, this sub-application can be used for any public buildings that are locked or shut (normally overnight), such as museums or government buildings.


What time does the pub open up today?
I need to be at the shop before 8am tomorrow morning as it is my turn to open up.
Lisa arrived half an hour early at the garage and had to wait for the staff to open it up so that she could leave her car there.

For our second sub-meaning, we are sticking with the business theme because 'open up' is also used to talk about when someone starts or opens a new business in general. To clarify, this is when a new business is founded or created and begins trading. You could potentially use this with any sort of business or company, but I think that native speakers tend to use it more for those that customers have to visit in order to use, such as a shop, pub, restaurant, hair salon, vets etc.


There is a new Italian restaurant opening up in town next week. Shall we book a table?
We are planning to open up a new hair salon in Liverpool.

Lastly, 'open up' can also be used for existing companies that are doing well enough to be able to open new agencies, shops or offices in new locations, cities, regions or countries.


We are pleased to announce that we will be opening up a new agency in Edinburgh next year, which will be our first office in Scotland.
The fast food chain has recorded record profits this year and is planning to open up 20 new restaurants around the country over the coming months.
 

MEANING 3: To express your true thoughts and feelings

A lady in counselling talking to her female counsellor

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

Where is it used?

Everywhere

Potential synonyms

To be frank, to be honest

Potential antonyms

To close up, to close off

Separable?

No

Up until now in the post, our attention has been firmly focused on closed or inaccessible physical places and spaces, but for this third meaning we need to turn our attention towards people. The reason for this is this next meaning of 'open up' is to express your true thoughts and feelings.


You may or may not be aware that the adjective 'open' can be used in English to describe people who do not conceal or hide their thoughts and feelings and who are happy to discuss these with others. Of course, not everyone is like that, and I think that openness is on a spectrum, ranging from those people who are open about almost everything in their lives, to those at the other end who are fiercely private individuals. The vast majority of us probably fall in the middle of these and have our own private thoughts and feelings that we keep hidden or locked inside. When we feel comfortable enough to start sharing these hidden thoughts with others, we can say that we 'open up' to them. Note the additional preposition 'to' here to describe the person to whom you express these innermost thoughts.


Roger doesn't normally talk about his feelings very often but after a couple of beers, he usually starts to open up.
Lisa opened up to me last night about the problems she's been having in her marriage recently.
I am trying to get Helen to open up but she refuses to say what she thinks.
Try and open up to someone if you can and vocalise how you're feeling. You will certainly feel better for it!
 

MEANING 4: To begin to happen or exist

A magician pointing a wand at a rabbit sitting on a top hat

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

Where is it used?

Everywhere

Potential synonyms

To create, to begin to exist

Separable?

No

This next one is for all of the magicians among you as this meaning is to begin to happen or exist, and at its core it is all about creating something from nothing. Unfortunately, we can't use this application for any time something comes into existence, for example, we couldn't use it for a rabbit coming out of a hat (I just liked the picture), however there are many different ways in which we can use 'open up' to talk about when something is created that did not previously exist and I will explain these below....


When access to something is created....

As we have seen already in this post, 'open up' is used when access to something interior is enabled and we can also use it when something becomes accessible to people in general. This may be on a geographical basis, for example a new road may open up access to an area that was previously inaccessible, or it could be a new business market, for example, changes in a country's laws may open up a business or investment market to people who did not have access to it beforehand.


The planned new highway will go over the mountain pass and will open up access to the villages on the other side of it.
Investing apps on mobile phones have opened up investing to many people who previously were unable to do so.

When new opportunities become possible....

If a new opportunity arises, whether it be for a new job, a promotion in an existing job or a new possibility to do something or achieve something, we can use 'open up' to express that this new possibility or opportunity has come into existence. This could also be used when making it possible for people to participate in something that they could not do previously, such as a debate, competition or vote.


A new job vacancy has opened up in the marketing department in my company and I am tempted to apply for it.
The recently announced peace talks have opened up the possibility of an ceasefire in the war.
Now that you have heard the speakers in the debate, we would like to open it up to you, the audience, to have your say.
Voting in the competition was initially limited to member of the website but due to a low vote count, the organisers decided to open it up to the general public.

In sports....

We also regularly use 'open up' in sports games or races when one of the competitors or teams develops a lead over the others.


Usain Bolt took no time in opening up a significant lead in the men's 100 metre final.
Chelsea FC have opened up a 3-1 lead against rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

When opening a new account....

If you apply to a bank for a new bank account, or in fact any type of account, be it with an online retailer or a social media website, you can say that you open one up (again essentially creating it from nothing).


Facebook deleted my account, meaning I've had to open up a new one.
Opening up a bank account is much easier than it used to be.

When a hole or a crack comes into existence....

If you have been unlucky enough to have experienced an earthquake, you will likely be aware that cracks and holes can be created in the ground when one of these happens. In these situations, we can use 'open up' to describe when these come into existence. In addition, we can also use 'open up' to describe when an existing hole or fissure gets wider or bigger. These cracks do not necessarily have to be physical cracks however and this is often used in a metaphorical way to talk about divisions and breakdowns in relationships and politics.


During the earthquake, several large cracks opened up in the middle of the highway.
The cut on my leg from last week opened up again when I was playing rugby.
The new legislation has opened up a division in the far right party and I do not know it they will patch things up.

When barriers are removed....

One last point to mention is here that 'open up' can be used when barriers such as walls, hills or trees are removed and as a consequence a space becomes wider or more spacious. Typically, this is used with roads when you drive past a natural barrier such as a hill or forest or a room when you remove a wall, connecting two or more rooms, creating a wider space.


After a while, the forest will end and the road will open up onto lush green fields.
We are going to demolish this wall and connect the kitchen with the living room, which will open up a lovely and light space.
 

MEANING 5: To start shooting a gun

Two soldiers standing on a sandy beach pointing their guns at something

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

Where is it used?

Everywhere but perhaps more American

Potential synonyms

To fire

Potential antonyms

To hold fire

Separable?

No

The last usage of 'open up' that I want to explain to you is a rarer one that means to start firing a gun or guns.


This usage probably comes from the expression of the meaning 'to open fire', which itself goes back to the meaning of the verb 'to open' as in 'to begin', with the word 'fire' going back many centuries to when the gunpowder in guns had to be ignited by fire from a slow-burning match to become effective.


For this usage, the additional preposition 'on' is required to specify the target of the shooting.


A gunmen opened up on a crowd of people but luckily every bullet missed and nobody was hurt.
All of the guns on the bomber opened up on its target before it swooped around and flew away in the other direction.
 
The words 'thank you' written on a notepad with a heart underneath

We have now reached 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 'open up'. 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 😊


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Pepi Rosique
Pepi Rosique
05 de jul.
Avaliado com 5 de 5 estrelas.

Claire, open up! I left my key in the bar!😀

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James
05 de jul.
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A perfect example, Pepi 😁

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