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The Phrasal Verb 'Play Up' Explained

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

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

Child emptying out a clothes basket onto her sleeping father

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.

This post is all about the phrasal verb 'play up' and its different meanings and uses in English. 'Play up' has a few different meanings, however some of these tend to be more commonly used in British English and so are very familiar to me but they may not be to English speakers in the USA or elsewhere. So, without further ado, let's take a look at these different meanings....




Number of meanings



Yes, sometimes

Past tense forms

Played up - played up

British or American?


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



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

As is customary at the start of each post, we'll start by looking at the component words which make up our phrasal verb under the spotlight. Firstly, we have the verb 'to play', which can mean to take part in a game or sport, as well as to portray a character in a performance in a theatre show or movie etc. This second meaning is the one that is more relevant for the phrasal verb meanings, as you will see shortly.

Secondly, we have our prepositional particle up, signifying movement to a higher position away from the ground or towards the sky ⬆.

So now we have covered the basics, let's move on to the phrasal verb meanings...


MEANING 1: To exaggerate the importance of something

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate





Potential synonyms

​To exaggerate, to emphasise, to big something up

The first meaning of 'play up' that we will look up in this post requires a small amount of dishonesty, as the meaning is to exaggerate or emphasise something, in order to make it seem better, more important or more interesting to other people than it really is.

In other words, if something is not very important or trivial, but we want other people to think that it is important, we can tell some white lies* and play it up in order to make them think that it is important.

The extra emphasis that we place on something when we play it up can be used for both positive and negative purposes; on one hand something could be played up in order to raise publicity for a good cause and on the other hand a small, insignificant detail about someone's past could be played up by another person in order to make them look bad (this often happens in politics).

Another key aspect of this meaning is expectation as things are often played up by people in order to increase people's interest levels about something upcoming in the future. A new TV show, a musical performance, a new product being launched onto the market or a baby gender reveal are all things which can be played up by people in order to generate interest.

Girl in a pink hat telling another girl a rumour against a pink background

Additional nouns that you may come across with 'play up' are rumours or speculation, both of which could be 'played up' for humorous effect by the people who the rumours are about, especially if they are not true.

In terms of sentence structure, this use of 'play up' requires a direct object, which can either be the noun specifying the thing being played up, or the pronoun 'it'.

Examples of usage....

The government has been accused of playing up the significance of the tax cuts. INTENDED MEANING: People have accused the government of exaggerating the effect that the tax cuts will have.
It was obvious that the footballer was playing up his leg injury. INTENDED MEANING: It was clear to everyone that the footballer was pretending his leg injury was worse than it really was.
The media has played up reports of the quarrel between the two politicians. INTENDED MEANING: The media has exaggerated the politicians' argument to make it seem more fierce than it actually was.

*White lies are lies that people tell which are generally harmless or trivial in nature, often told in order to hide the truth from someone as it will make them unhappy - this is the good kind of lies 😝


MEANING 2: To not be working properly

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced


Common (British)



Potential synonyms

To act up, to malfunction

The second meaning of 'play up' is primarily used in British English and means 'to not work or function properly'. This is often used by (slightly annoyed) British people when they have problems with items such as their car, their computer or smartphone.

When we use 'play up' in this sense, we do not mean that the problematic item has stopped working completely and is now out of order, but rather that it is working erratically, developing problems from time to time or is not working to 100% efficiency.

This usage is quite an informal one and in more formal settings a verb such as 'to malfunction' may be more appropriate. Despite its informality however, this usage is in frequent usage among British people, so you are likely to hear it from time to time if you have British friends or colleagues.

Examples of usage....

I am going to be late into work today as my car is playing up. INTENDED MEANING: I will be late for work because my car has developed a problem.
My laptop has been playing up for the last couple of weeks, I think I should get a new one. INTENDED MEANING: My laptop has not been functioning properly for the last few weeks and so I think it would be a good idea to invest in a new one.

The word 'tips' spelled out using wooden blocks


In addition to complaining about dysfunctional equipment or devices, it is also very common to use 'play up' to describe body parts that are not working properly and causing you health problems as a result. This is typically used to describe chronic problems which come and go, such as back pain or pain from a long term injury and, rather understandably, is used most frequently by the older generation.

Examples of usage....

My back is playing up again, I am in agony! INTENDED MEANING: My backache has returned and it is very painful!
Speak up! My ears are playing up and I can't hear you properly! INTENDED MEANING: Speak louder, my ears are not so good, so I can't hear what you are saying!

Moreover, with this usage it is also very common for people to add an object pronoun (me, you, him, her or them) to say that the particular malfunctioning body part is causing them pain or discomfort.

Examples of usage....

My eyes play me up from time to time but that's just a normal part of getting old I guess! INTENDED MEANING: Sometimes my eyes do not work as well as they should but that is all part of the normal aging process.
My feet have been playing me up something dreadful since I ran the marathon! INTENDED MEANING: My feet have been very painful ever since I ran the marathon rice.

MEANING 3: To misbehave

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced


Common (British)



Potential synonyms

To misbehave, to act up

For our third meaning, we have another usage that is primarily used in British English and that is 'to misbehave'. Logically, this is really the same as the previous meaning, however instead of a device or body part not working in the way it should, we are rather talking about a person not behaving in the way that they should, in other words they are misbehaving.

As this meaning is primarily concerned with bad behaviour, it will come as no surprise to you that it is used often to talk about naughty children. However, we can certainly also use it to talk about pets (my cats play up all the time) and occasionally even adults. Again, this usage is largely informal and more formal alternatives such as 'to misbehave' should be used in formal environments.

Furthermore, it is also possible to play someone up. We use this variation when someone is responsible for looking after a child e.g. a babysitter, and the child misbehaves whilst in that person's care. We could then say that the child plays the babysitter up.

Examples of usage....

The kids were so well behaved today, they didn't play up once! INTENDED MEANING: The children behaved well today and were not naughty at all.
Our cats have started playing up ever since the building work on our home started. INTENDED MEANING: Our cats have started to be badly behaved since our home renovations started.
Ok children, we are off now so please do not play the babysitter up. INTENDED MEANING: We are leaving now, so please behave well for the childminder.

Meaning 4: To influence someone to make them like you

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced





Potential synonyms

To curry favour, to suck up

Our fourth and final meaning of 'play up' is a return to the dishonesty that we looked at in the first meaning of this post because it means to act in a certain way in order to make someone like you and treat you well. This could be by flattering them, doing something to help them or buying them gifts - regardless of the action however, the ultimate aim is to gain some sort of advantage from them.

For this usage the additional preposition 'to' is required since we 'play up to' the person that we are trying to impress.

A typical example of when this is used would be in work environments when someone wants to play up to the boss in order to get a promotion or special treatment of some sort. This usage is not limited to the world of work though and can be found in any situation where someone wants to gain an advantage with another person.

Example of usage....

Lisa is blatantly playing up to the boss, she's desperate to get his secretary's job! INTENDED MEANING: It's obvious that Lisa is trying to impress the boss, she really wants to get his secretary's job.


Before finishing this post, I want to give you one more expression which features our phrasal verb 'play up'. The expression in question is 'to play up for the camera', which is used to describe when a person acts in a certain way when they are being filmed, in order to come across well. The idea is that they do not not normally act that way in reality and their behaviour is all just for the camera. Another variation of this is also 'to play up to the camera'.


Questions marks in different coloured speech bubbles overlapping each other

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

  1. The politician emphasised his rival's past connections with a criminal gang.

  2. The marketing department told the employees that the seminar was very important but it was a waste of time!

  3. John's car has not been working properly for the last couple of weeks.

  4. My cat Arthur misbehaved a lot yesterday.

  5. Helen gets back pain from time to time.

  6. Look at the way that Lisa acts around the boss - she is clearly desperate for a promotion!

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


EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'GET BY' (other variations may be possible)

  1. Can you move your car please? I need to GET BY.

  2. My ancestors GOT BY on a diet of mostly bread, meat and vegetables.

  3. My car is not ideal but I can GET BY with it until I can afford a new one.

  4. You can GET BY onto the next stage with this result but you could have done better.

  5. My brother GETS BY on a low salary.

  6. We managed to GET BY the police barrier without anyone seeing us.


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 'play up' below. I really love reading them. See you next time! James

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