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The Phrasal Verb 'Pass Out' Explained

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

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

Beefeaters marching and playing in a band in London

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, with a focus on the different meanings that it has and the expressions and idioms that it is used in.


The phrasal verb 'pass out' is used both in British and American English and has three distinct meanings that we will look at in this post. In addition to the phrasal verb meanings, there is also the noun 'pass-out' that we will also cover. So, without further ado, let's get started....


PASS OUT: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Medium

Number of meanings

3

Separable

Sometimes

Past forms

Passed out - Passed out

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 on a red background

As is customary, let's start by taking a look at the components words that make up our phrasal verb of chose as these often give valuable clues to its meanings.

The verb 'to pass' is a regular English verb and will likely be familiar to speakers of other European languages as it has cognate words in many of these languages. It is a very diverse verb in English and has a lot of different meanings, but one of the key concepts behind it is movement, especially the ideas of moving past something or leaving something behind you.


The prepositional particle 'out' is, like the majority of English prepositions, one with a large number of applications within the language. The general idea here though is that it is used to talk about a position on, or a movement towards, the exterior of something. Among its many other applications however, it is worth noting in the context of 'pass out' that 'out' can be used as an adverb to mean 'unconscious' or 'sleeping'.


Ok, so now we have covered those, let's take a look at the meaning of 'pass out'...

 

MEANING 1: To lose consciousness



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American

Both

Potential synonyms

To faint, to lose consciousness, to black out, to zonk out

In the previous section I gave you a little clue regarding the first meaning of 'pass out', which is 'to lose consciousness' or 'to faint'. In my very humble opinion, I would say that this is definitely the most widespread and commonly used of the three meanings that we will cover in this post.


As outlined above, we use 'pass out' to describe when we temporarily lose consciousness, which can be caused by medical conditions, emotional stress or responses to changes in our physical surroundings. In addition to this, we also use 'pass out' to describe someone who quickly falls into a very deep and often unexpected sleep and this is often used by native speakers to describe people who fall asleep in this way due to having drunk a lot of alcohol.


On a grammatical level, this meaning of 'pass out' is intransitive and does not take a direct object. In terms of formality, it is relatively informal compared to the official medical terms that a doctor would use, however it is absolutely fine to use in most situations. If you wish to specify the cause of you passing out, then the additional preposition 'from' is required.


Examples of usage....

Helen was in so much pain that she passed out whilst waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
If someone passes out, it is important to act very quickly and seek medical advice.
John drank so much rum at the party that he passed out on a chair in the corner.
Roger passed out from illness and exhaustion.
 

MEANING 2: To distribute

A lady passing a document to a colleague in an office

CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To distribute, to hand out

The second meaning of 'pass out' is 'to distribute something to a group of people', normally by hand.


This usage is derived from the meaning of the verb 'to pass' where one thing is transferred from one person to another (e.g. the salt and pepper at a dinner table), with the prepositional particle 'out' adding the extra meaning of 'to a group of people'. As such, we don't use 'pass out' to describe passing an object to just one person, it's always to a group.


The typical environment in which this application of 'pass out' is used is a classroom or an office environment where documents are often distributed to groups of people, but the usage is not limited to these and it can be used to describe when something is given to a group of people by hand.


Unlike the previous example, this usage does require a direct object and is therefore transitive. The direct object can either go between 'pass' and 'out' or after them without changing the meaning.


Examples of usage....

Lisa, can you please pass the test papers out to the rest of the class.
On my birthday last year I walked around my office and passed out chocolate treats to all of my colleagues.
The aid workers passed out water supplies to the victims of the disaster.
 

MEANING 3: To graduate from military school

Members of a military band standing in a line and playing wind instruments

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

British or American

British

Potential synonyms

To graduate

The third and final meaning of 'pass out' is a primarily British meaning and means 'to graduate from military school after finishing the initial training'. The idea here is that the serviceman or servicewoman in question is now qualified and is no longer a trainee and therefore takes part in a ceremony to mark this occasion.


In addition to using 'pass out' for graduation from military school, we also use it to describe graduation from training in the police force. Moreover, the graduation ceremony for both these newly qualified police officers and military recruits is called a passing out parade. The noun 'passing-out' also exists in English to describe the act of graduating from police training or a military college.


Similar to the first meaning, this usage of 'pass out' is also intransitive and does not require a direct object.


Examples of usage....

A total of 1000 new servicemen and women have passed out of the Royal Military Training Academy so far this year.
My son is due to pass out of his police training school next week, so my wife and I are going to his passing-out parade to celebrate with him.
 

BONUS

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

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, the noun pass-out also exists in English. It describes a type of ticket or other form of authorisation which allows a person to leave somewhere and re-enter it at a later point of time. This is often used in theatres and other performances where the doors tend to be closed for the show and movement in and out is restricted, however it can be used in a work environment too if you need to leave your place of work for a period of time e.g. for a doctor's appointment.

If you wish to leave whilst the performance is ongoing, you will need to obtain a pass-out from a member of staff.
My boss wouldn't give me a pass-out last week to go and see my child's school play.
 

Question marks in different coloured speech bubbles overlapping one another

EXERCISE Re-write the following sentences using 'to pass out'....

  1. The pain was so intense that I fainted for a short period.

  2. Roger drank so much beer at his work party and ended up falling fast asleep on his sofa at home.

  3. Here are the test papers. Lisa, can you please distribute them to the rest of the class.

  4. Food and water was given to all of the people whose houses had been flooded.

  5. John graduates from military college and we are going to watch his graduation ceremony.

  6. If you want to leave the theatre during the performance you will need authorisation.

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

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'SHOW UP' (other variations may be possible)

  1. No signs of the disease SHOWED UP on the test results.

  2. Despite putting the background on my video call, the picture on wall still SHOWED UP on the computer screen.

  3. This article SHOWS John UP to be an adulterer and a liar.

  4. My mother really SHOWED me UP in front of all my friends yesterday.

  5. My birthday party started at 8pm but nobody SHOWED UP until after 9pm.

  6. Lisa SHOWED UP for Helen when her father was sick.

 

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 'pass out' 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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