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The Phrasal Verb 'Pull Up' Explained

Updated: Feb 24

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


A plane pulling up into the sky towards the sun

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


In this article, we are looking at the phrasal verb 'pull up', which has a surprising number of uses and meanings in the English language. You may need to pull up if you are driving your car, doing some gardening, sitting down with a group of people or showing information on your computer screen. If you go to the gym, you may regularly do pull-ups or someone may even tell you to pull your socks up! If all of these seem strange to you, don't worry as in this post we will look at all of the different meanings of this tricky phrasal verb. So, without further ado, let's get started....


PULL UP: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

8

Separable?

Yes

Past tense forms

Pulled up / pulled up

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

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

THE BASICS

The phrasal verb 'pull up' is comprised of the verb 'to pull' in combination with the prepositional particle 'up' and before we look at the different meanings of this phrasal verb, let's just take a quick look at the meanings of the two individual words.



The verb 'to pull' is a widely used English verb, whose main meaning is to apply a force to something in order to bring it closer to you, most commonly with your hands or arms.



A shire horse pulling a man on a carriage

Less commonly, it can also be used to mean 'to make something move with you or behind you', such as a horse pulling a cart. The idea of force or exertion is often an underlying theme with this verb. 'To pull' is a frequent base verb in phrasal verb constructions, normally in situations describing movement or stopping a movement.


The prepositional particle 'up' is perhaps the most commonly used particle in phrasal verb constructions and can add many different elements of meaning, depending on the context, typically ranging from the ideas of movement in an upwards direction and increases to improvement and readiness.


So, now that we have covered the basics, let's take a look at the meanings of 'pull up'....

 

MEANING 1: Literal

Having just considered the words that make up the phrasal verb 'pull up', the literal meaning of these words should be very easy for you to work out, i.e. to pull something or someone in an upwards direction. This is quite similar to the verb 'to lift' or 'to lift up', however 'to pull up' is used more specifically when you are in a higher position than the thing that you want to lift and the lifting motion is towards you.


Examples of usage....

The sailor decided it was time to leave, so he pulled up the boat's anchor.
After the cow fell down the slope, the farmer had to pull it up the hill using a rope.

What about pull-up as a noun?

If you are someone who goes to the gym regularly or who enjoys working out, you may have heard the term 'pull-up' being used in reference to an exercise. Although we do not use the phrasal verb 'to pull up' so much in this context, it has produced the name of a type of exercise called a 'pull-up', which involves using your arms to lift yourself upwards, normally towards a metal bar (like in the gif above).

How many pull-ups can you do in one go?
I hate doing pull-ups because they hurt my shoulders so much!
 

MEANING 2: To uproot


A plant that has been pulled up with a person cutting bits off it with scissors

CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American

British

Potential synonyms

To uproot, to weed

Separable?

Yes

Nouns commonly used with

Plant, Flower, Bush, Shrub, Weed, Tree

Before we start considering the more idiomatic meanings of the phrasal verb 'pull up', I want to consider this next application as it is very much linked to the literal meaning of 'pull up'. This usage is definitely one for the gardeners among you as it is 'to pull a plant and its roots up from the ground, so that no part of it remains in the earth'.


A common expression that you may hear for this action is 'to pull a plant up by the roots'.


This is similar to the synonym verb 'to uproot', however 'uproot' is often used when animals and wind cause a plant to be removed from the ground and I think 'pull up' retains the exclusive sense of being pulled in an upwards direction out of the ground by a person's hands.


Examples of usage....

We've pulled up all of the weeds in the garden and now it looks so much better!
He pulled up the rose plant by the roots as he wanted to move it to a different part of his garden.
 

MEANING 3: To slow down and stop



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To stop, to halt, to pull over, to bring to a stop

Separable?

Yes

Now we have reached the part of the article where we can say goodbye to the literal and logical meanings of 'pull up', because from now on most of them are a bit more idiomatic. This includes our next meaning, which is 'to slow down and stop'.


This meaning is perhaps the most commonly used and is the one that I, as a native speaker, think of first when I hear 'pull up'. With this application, we are talking solely about bringing a vehicle that is in motion to a stop, particularly with cars, buses, trains and airplanes. We do not use it to talk about people slowing down and stopping moving...however we do use it for humans in a slightly different sense, which we will look at later on in the article.


Normally, this application of 'pull up' is followed by a preposition that denotes where the vehicle stops, such as on (the side of the road), at (the traffic lights), in front of, behind etc. However, sometimes you may also hear 'pull up to' something and this means to stop next to something or very close to it, as referenced in the song below....



On a grammatical note, in the table above, I have stated that this application of 'pull up' can be used separably, which is true, although I think that the majority of the time we tend to use it without a direct object (e.g. car, bus) as this is usually determined from the context.


Examples of usage....

John pulled up on the side of the road when he noticed smoke coming from his car's engine.
The police car pulled up to the group of teenagers.
Helen arrived at the train station just as her train was pulling up.
The fishermen pulled their boat up to a little island where they knew there would be a lot of fish in the water.
 

MEANING 4: To move a chair closer



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To join

Separable?

Yes

Nouns commonly used with

Chair, seat, pew

If you're ever in a situation in an English-speaking environment where you ask to join a group of people who are sitting down, they may respond to you by saying 'pull up a chair', which is essentially a way of saying 'yes' to your request. The reason for this is that another usage of 'pull up' is 'to bring something closer to you or to a specific place in order to sit down on it'.


As you can imagine, this application of 'pull up' is principally used with nouns for items that you typically sit on, such as chairs, stools and seats but it could feasibly be used for any object that you can move and subsequently sit on.


In many cases, it often serves as a figurative form of invitation to join someone or a group and participate in what they are doing. This could be anything from a business meeting to eating a meal or watching a movie with a group of people.


Pews in a church

Another common idiomatic expression in British English that you may come across is 'pull up a pew', which again means the same thing, i.e. 'sit down and join us'. For those of you who do not know, a pew is a long seat, similar to a bench, that is specifically found in churches and places of worship. Due to their size, they are not so easy to move and are rarely found anywhere outside of a place of worship, hence the figurative sense!


Examples of usage....

Hi Lisa, do you want to sit with us for lunch? Pull up a chair and join us!
I want to show you something at my desk. Pull up a chair next to me and I can show it to you.
Q: Is this seat free? A: Absolutely, pull up a pew!
 

MEANING 5: To reprimand someone



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To reprimand, to rebuke, to castigate

Separable?

Yes

When someone makes a mistake in their work or does something wrong, it is likely that they will be reprimanded for their mistake, or in other words, they will be 'pulled up on it'.


The reason for this is that the next meaning of 'pull up' is 'to rebuke someone when they have made a mistake', or in other words to criticise or shout at them. This is not only limited to mistakes and can also be used for people's behaviour too, especially when they break rules.


For this application of 'pull up', we require an additional preposition and for this you have the choice of THREE different words to choose from: on, about and over. Don't worry, whichever of these you choose will not affect the meaning.


So, the structure of this particular usage of 'pull up' is....


To pull someone up on / about / over something


Note also here that this is separable and the direct object (the person who has done something wrong) always goes between 'pull' and 'up'.


This usage of 'pull up' is one that you commonly hear in the workplace, schools and in dealings with the police and other authority figures. Often, this is used for small errors and less significant mistakes that do not incur severe punishments and for which a verbal warning is sufficient. At other times, an experienced or naive person may be pulled up on something to ensure that they do not do it again.


Examples of usage....

Lucy's teacher pulled her up about talking too much in class.
I don't think John realises that what he is doing is not permitted. I will make sure that I pull him up on that, so that he is aware.
The police stopped me in my car and pulled me up as my rear brake light was not working. Thankfully, I avoided a fine!
Megan's parents have pulled her up on using swearwords so many times, but she doesn't seem to listen.
 

MEANING 6: To stop what you are doing suddenly



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To stop, to interrupt

Separable?

Yes

Earlier in the article, I explained how 'pull up' can be used to mean to bring a moving vehicle to a stop and that this usage could not be applied to humans but another usage could...well this is that usage!


If a person pulls up, it does not mean that they stop moving, but rather that the action that they are performing, whatever that may be, is interrupted or stopped somehow. Like the first meaning that we looked it, there can an element of motion if the person is moving or walking but it can be for any action that is in progress at the time of the interruption. It's also very important to note that the interruption or disturbance to the action is almost always surprising or a shock, which is normally implied in this application of 'pull up'.


There is also a fairly common expression that derives from this usage: 'to pull someone up short', which means 'to make someone stop what they are doing suddenly or abruptly'.


For those of you who love grammar, it may interest you to know that this usage of 'pull up' is ergative. This means that it can be used both transitively and intransitively (with or without a direct object), with the subject of the intransitive verb becoming the direct object in an equivalent transitive sentence....

Transitive: The beautiful scenery pulled Linda up short.
Intransitive: Linda pulled up short at the sight of the beautiful scenery.

Examples of usage....

The sight of my mother standing at my front door pulled me up short.
The runner suddenly pulled up and fell over onto the floor, screaming in pain.
 

MEANING 7: To show information on a screen



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To open, to bring up

Separable?

Yes

Well done if you have made it this far...we are nearly done I promise! For this next meaning of 'pull up', we are thinking about computers, smartphones and other devices with screens as this meaning is 'to make something appear on a screen'.


If you pull something up on a screen, you open a file or programme in your computer so that it appears on the monitor.


If you have read my article about the phrasal verb 'bring up' (link here), this may sound familiar to you as this is actually a synonym of this particular application and both of these have exactly the same meaning. I would say however 'bring up' is perhaps more commonly used but it is nevertheless very useful to have this in your vocabulary too.


Examples of usage....

Can you pull up the sales forecast spreadsheet for me so I can look at it quickly, please.
I pulled up the results of the game on my screen.
 

MEANING 8: To make an airplane move upwards



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To ascend, to climb

Separable

Yes

The eighth and final meaning of 'pull up' that we will look at is quite a specialist niche usage for airplanes and means 'to make an airplane move in an upwards direction'. This usage is actually a shortened form of 'pulling up the nose' for when the pilot makes the nose of the plane point upwards.


This is similar to the phrasal verb 'take off', but while 'take off' specifically describes when an airplane leaves the ground, 'pull up' is used to describe any time that the pilot makes the airplane go higher, whether that be during takeoff or in mid-flight. This is often used for when an airplane has to change its course or cannot land safely due to bad weather and the pilot must then pull up in order to circle around to try and land again.


Example of usage....

The was not able to land the aircraft due to the strong winds and so he pulled up in order to make a second attempt.
 

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

IDIOM ALERT!!

Before I finish this article, I want to make you aware of a nice idiom that exists featuring the phrasal verb 'pull up', which is 'to pull your socks up'.


If someone tells you to pull your socks up, it means that you are not doing well at school or, sometimes, in a job and therefore you need to make more of an effort in order to get better grades or not lose your job!

John doesn't work hard in class and next year he really needs to pull his socks up if he wants to pass all of his exams.
 

This brings us to the end of the 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.


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