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The Phrasal Verb 'Rip Off' Explained

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

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

Somebody ripping off a piece of paper

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.


'Rip off' is an informal and relatively modern phrasal verb, whose roots ultimately go back to American prisons at the beginning of the twentieth century. Aside from its literal meaning, it has several idiomatic meanings that all derive from one central idea, which we will examine in this post. So, without further ado, let's get started....


RIP OFF: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

4

Separable

Yes

Past tense forms

Ripped off / Ripped off

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

 

THE BASICS

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

Before we look at the individual phrasal verb meanings of 'rip off', let's first take a quick look at the meanings of the individual words 'rip' and 'off'.

A person holding up a piece of paper in front of their face and ripping it

'To rip' is a verb with several meanings, but the main meaning that most of you are likely to be familiar with already is 'to pull something apart by using force, often in a quick and careless manner' and is similar in meaning to the verb 'to tear'. It is used primarily when referring to thin materials that can be split or pulled apart, such as paper, clothes and plastic bags and is usually a form of damage. Furthermore, 'to rip' also started being used in American prisons at the beginning of the twentieth century to mean 'to steal' and this usage is one that features heavily in the phrasal verb meanings of 'rip off'.


We then have the prepositional particle 'off', which functions as the opposite of the preposition 'on' and has many different applications in English. When used as an adverb, 'off' can refer to something that is no longer contacting or touching a surface, or is no longer attached to something.


So, now that we have covered the basics, let's move on to the different meanings of the phrasal verb 'rip off'....

 

MEANING 1: To remove by violently tearing



CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To tear off

The first meaning of 'rip off' is the literal meaning of the combination of the words 'rip' and 'off' that we have just looked at and is therefore 'to remove something in a violent manner, so that it is no longer attached'.


As with the main meaning of the verb 'to rip', the action of 'ripping off' is usually done in a quick and violent manner. However, in contrast to the meaning of the verb 'to rip', the action of 'ripping off' is often done in an intentional way, with the sole desire of removing or detaching something and it does not always mean that the item is damaged as a result. That being said, it can also be used to describe when something has been damaged and the result is that a part of an item has been ripped off.


Another way that 'rip off' is used in this way is in relation to a person's clothes. We can use 'rip off' with clothes when an item of clothing is pulled so much that it rips and is no longer able to be worn (think of the Incredible Hulk or Hulk Hogan).


Alternatively, we can also use 'rip off' to describe when a person removes their clothes (or someone else's) in a quick and hasty way, normally without damaging the clothes.


Examples of usage....

John ripped off a bit of paper towel to use to soak up the coffee that he had spilled.
My new sweater doesn't fit me and I can't return it to the shop as I have ripped off the label!
Roger and Helen ripped off each others' clothes in a moment of passion.

The word 'bonus' spelt out by different coloured helium balloons being held up by different hands

IDIOM ALERT!

As you can probably imagine, this first meaning of 'rip off' can be used with band aids (plasters in UK) for when we need to remove one from our skin as quickly as possible so as not to prolong the pain and unpleasant feeling that removing a band aid can cause.


However, 'ripping off the band aid' has also developed to become an idiomatic expression to describe when we carry out a horrible but necessary action in a quick way, so that the pain and fear surrounding it is as short as possible. In other words, we do something necessary, yet unpleasant, as quickly as possible so it is out of the way.


Example of usage....

It will be horrible confessing to your wife that you have lost your wedding ring but you just need to rip off the bandaid and get it over with!
 

MEANING 2: To steal something


CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

British or American?

American

Potential synonyms

To steal, to pinch, to nick

The second meaning of 'rip off' is to steal something. This is perhaps the rarest of the meanings of this phrasal verb that we will cover, however it provides the basis for the others that will follow and so logically it works better here.


As you may recall from earlier in the post, the verb 'to rip' has been used in American prison slang to mean 'to steal' since the early twentieth century. The phrasal verb form 'rip off' then developed and evolved from this during the 1960s in African American vernacular to mean to steal from, or also to swindle or cheat, someone.


For this usage, we use 'rip off' with a direct object, which is the item that is stolen, and this can go either between 'rip' and 'off' or after them without changing the meaning.


Examples of usage....

John has just ripped off a couple of cans of lager from the local store.
The seasoned criminals casually went into the boutique and ripped a pair of designer shoes off without the staff noticing.
 

MEANING 3: To overcharge someone


CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To overcharge

The third meaning of the phrasal verb 'rip off' is an informal usage that means 'to charge someone too much money for a product or service'.


The idea behind this meaning links back to the previous one of theft that we have just looked at, however it develops this idea further to encapsulate the concepts of 'cheating' or 'swindling' someone by fraudulent methods. In modern English, when we say that someone has been 'ripped off', we mean that the person has paid too much money for a product or service and therefore they have been cheated or exploited by the vendor.


Another way that this can be used is not when a person has been charged too much money for a product, but rather when the product that has been sold is broken or damaged in some way, thus continuing this central idea of cheating the buyer.


Grammatically, when we use 'rip off' in this way, the victim of the cheating activity is the direct object and can go between or after 'rip' and 'off' as a proper noun or between them only as a pronoun.


Examples of usage....

How much did you pay?! You've been well and truly ripped off!
If you pay more than $5 for a loaf of bread, then you are being ripped off.
The taxi driver rips tourists off all the time as they do not know their way around the city.
I bought a new car last week but I think I have been ripped off as it has a lot of problems and faults that the seller did not tell me about.
 

MEANING 4: To copy someone's work


CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To plagiarise, to copy

Our fourth and final usage of 'rip off' is to 'copy someone's work', generally with the intention of presenting it as your own work. This can be in the form of written words, ideas, concepts or designs, however regardless of the form that it takes, the general concept is that one person's work has been imitated or copied, normally without their permission.


Again, this takes us back to the root concept of 'theft', as this is essentially one person or company stealing the ideas and work from somebody else.


Examples of usage....

As soon as I heard this new song, I could tell that the artist had ripped off an older song and didn't think that anyone would notice!
Hey! Stop ripping off my work and think for yourself for a change!
 

The word 'bonus' spelled out by different coloured helium balloons being held by different hands

BONUS INFORMATION


Before finishing this post, I want to make you aware of the uses that the noun 'rip-off' or 'ripoff' has in modern everyday English.


Perhaps the most commonly used meaning of the noun 'ripoff' is used when referring to the price of something that is unreasonably highly priced, especially in comparison to the actual perceived worth or value of the item.

$4 dollar a gallon of gas for your car is an absolute ripoff! You can buy it for $3 a gallon at the gas station down the road.

A second usage of 'ripoff' as a noun is used for goods, products or work that are either stolen or are copies of other, more superior, work.

While some people appreciate this painting, others are convinced that it is a ripoff of a painting by Cezanne.

Lastly, we can also use 'rip off' in adjectival form and the adjective 'ripped-off' can be used to describe goods or products that are stolen or, less commonly, counterfeit or copies of something else.

My brother's friends is selling some ripped off smartphones at a really good price. Let me know if you are interested!
 

Question marks in different coloured overlapping speech bubbles on a black background

EXERCISE Re-write the following sentences using 'to rip off'....

  1. It was December 1, so I tore the November page from my calendar.

  2. Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and get the horrible thing over and done with.

  3. The two boys ran into the clothes shop and stole $100 worth of shirts.

  4. John realised that he had paid too much for his new television when he learned that Roger had bought the same model at half the price.

  5. The singer has obviously copied the melody of the other singer's song but refused to admit it when they were asked about it.

  6. I am not paying that much! That is far too much!

 

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

  1. BREAK the chocolate bar UP into individual squares and add it to the mixture.

  2. John and Helen BROKE UP last week and they are no longer together.

  3. The meeting BROKE UP at 4pm sharp and everyone went back to their desks.

  4. I can't hear you properly, the line is BREAKING UP.

  5. Lisa's children BREAK UP tomorrow for the summer holidays.

  6. We all BROKE UP laughing when we saw what Roger had done.

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

 

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 'rip off' 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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