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The Phrasal Verb 'Turn Down' Explained

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

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


A denied loan application

Hello and welcome to my blog all about English phrasal verbs. The phrasal verb 'turn down' is a commonly used phrasal verb that has several idiomatic meanings used in everyday English. In addition, there are also some specific situations in which we can use it. We will look at all of them in turn, so let's not put it off any longer and let's get started....


KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

5

Separable?

Yes

Past forms

Turned down / turned down

British or American

Both

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

 

THE BASICS


The letters A-G spelt out in Play Doh on a red background

Although I am sure that you are already familiar with the phrasal verb 'turn down', it is always a good idea to look at the individual words as a starting point, as these can often help us understand some of the idiomatic meanings of phrasal verbs.

Firstly, we have the verb 'to turn'. This is a verb with a few different meanings, including to move in a circular path, to change direction or to change and become something else. I think that the overarching (main) idea of the verb 'to turn' though is a change of position or state.


Secondly, we have the prepositional particle 'down', which can be used as an adverb and a preposition and broadly means be in, or to move towards, a lower position or place ⬇️ (from a higher one).


So, now that we are familiar with the words, let's check out the different meanings that we have in English when we combine these two words to get the phrasal verb 'turn down'....

 

MEANING 1: To reduce the intensity of something



CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

To reduce, to lower, to decrease

Commonly used with

Volume, heat, music, television

Our first meaning of the phrasal verb 'turn down' is to reduce the intensity of the output of an item of equipment, such as a television, a heating system or a radio. When we turn something down, we ultimately want the amount of energy produced by the equipment to be lower, for example because a television is too loud, an oven is too hot or a light is too bright.


As you may have already worked out, this meaning of 'turn down' originated from the action of adjusting switches or controls by turning them from a higher setting or number to a lower one.


'Turn down' is a separable phrasal verb and is used very commonly in separable form by native speakers, often with the pronoun 'it' when we have already mentioned the equipment. Note that there is no change in meaning between the separable and inseparable form.


Examples of usage....

Your music is so loud! Can you turn it down please? INTENDED MEANING: Can you lower the volume of your music as it is too loud.
It was like a sauna in here earlier, so I turned the heating down. INTENDED MEANING: It was very hot in the room so I reduced the heating level.
Bring the liquid to the boil, then slightly turn down the heat before adding the pasta. INTENDED MEANING: Heat the water until it boils before reducing the heat a little and adding the pasta.
 

MEANING 2: To refuse or reject something



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate

Usage

Common

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

​To refuse, to reject, to decline

Used commonly with

Invitation, application, offer, job

Another extremely common meaning of 'turn down' is one that you are likely to come across in everyday English and means to refuse, reject or not accept something.


Broadly speaking, there are two different ways in which 'turn down' can be used here.


The first is when you actively decide to refuse something such as an invitation or an offer. An example of this could be that you are offered a job, however it is in another city and you are not prepared to move house, so you decide to not accept the job, or in other words, you turn it down. Other situations in which this meaning is commonly used would be when you do not accept an invitation to a party, social event or an offer of a place at a university.


The second way that 'turn down' is frequently used in English as a way of rejecting something is in the passive sense, i.e. when you apply for something and your application is rejected or turned down. Using the example of a job application again, imagine that you apply for the job of your dreams, however you receive a response from the company advising you that your job application has not been successful. In other words, your application has been turned down.


Hopefully you will never be in the above situation, but if you are, it is worth remembering that 'turn down' is quite informal and companies are more likely to say that your "application has not been successful" in their communication to you (as in the above example). Other synonyms that companies may use as an alternative to "turned down", could be "rejected" or "denied". We are more likely to use "turn down" when telling our friends and family about it in a more informal setting.


Remember that in the passive form, it is not possible to use 'turned down' separably.


Examples of usage....

Unfortunately I have to turn down the kind invitation to your wedding as I will be on vacation on that date. INTENDED MEANING: I cannot come to your wedding as I will be on holiday, so I must decline your invitation.
I turned down the offer of a job promotion as I didn't want the extra stress that it would bring. INTENDED MEANING: I did not accept the offer of a promotion because I did not want the extra stress that would come with it.
Our application to build an extension on our house has been turned down by the planning office. INTENDED MEANING: The application to build the extension has been rejected.

Phrasal verb 'turn down' - the word 'tips' spelt out using wooden blocks

EXTRA TIPS TO SOUND MORE LIKE A NATIVE SPEAKER

When using "turn down" in the passive sense, as mentioned above, it is also very common to use the construction 'to get turned down' instead of the more standard 'to be turned down'. This is common usage among native speakers in spoken English, although I would say that this is perhaps even more informal than 'be turned down'.


Examples of usage....

My army application got turned down because I am not fit enough! INTENDED MEANING: My application to join the army was rejected due to my lack of fitness.
What will you do if the application gets turned down? INTENDED MEANING: What will you do if your application is rejected?
 

MEANING 3: To decrease


A graphic showing a line graph turning down

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

Separable

​No

Potential synonyms

​to decline, to decrease

Used commonly with

Stock market

A much rarer meaning of 'turn down' is used specifically to mean a decline or a decrease in the rate of something. This is most frequently used to talk about the stock market, but can also be used to talk about birth and death rates, rates of diseases (e.g. Covid-19) or rates of unemployment.

A line graph on a Post-It note showing a rate turning down

Generally speaking, it could be used with anything that can be plotted on a line graph (showing a decline).


Pleas note that this usage of 'turn down' is not separable.


Examples of usage....

Investors will lose money if the market turns down. INTENDED MEANING: If there is a general drop in the stock market, investors will lose money on their investments.

Phrasal verb 'turn down' - the word 'tips' spelt out using wooden blocks

EXTRA TIPS TO SOUND MORE LIKE A NATIVE SPEAKER

The reason that I wanted to include this rarer usage of 'turn down' on this post is because it also has a corresponding noun, 'downturn', which is used much more commonly in everyday English than its verb counterpart. Like the verb, 'downturn' is commonly used by native speakers to describe declines in activities and rates, especially across the business and economics world.


Example of usage....

In the year 2020 there was a sharp downturn in the world's major economies as the Covid pandemic struck.
 

MEANING 4: To fold or face downward

A book with the top right corner of a page turned down

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

To fold, to fold over, to turn over, to face downward

This fourth usage of 'turn down' means to fold something, i.e. to bend something, such as paper or cloth, so that a part of it rests on top of the other. 'Turn down' can be used as a synonym of 'fold' specifically when we are folding the top part of piece of paper in a downward direction, so that it covers a part or all of the top surface. This could be done to hide what is on the paper or to act as a marker. A prime example of this is when people turn down the top corner of a page in a book that they are reading, so that they know which page they last read.


This isn't such a common usage, but it is still worth being aware of it.


Playing cards turned down

Another way that 'turn down' is used is when you turn something over, such as a piece of paper or a playing card, so that the detail or the information on it is now facing downwards and is not visible to people. This is used a lot in card games.


It is also common to use 'turned down' in an adjective form to describe cards that are facing downwards.


Examples of usage....

I hate it when people turn down the page corners of their books! Why can't they use a bookmark?! INTENDED MEANING: I hate it when people fold down the corners of book pages.
All of the cards must be turned down at the start of the game. INTENDED MEANING: All of the cards must be facing downwards when game begins.
 

The word bonus spelt our using different colour helium balloons being held up by different hands

MEANING 5: To turn onto a different road

An extra way that native speakers use the phrasal verb 'turn down' that you may hear in everyday conversation is when giving directions or talking about a journey. Often when referring to roads and streets, native speakers will use the prepositions 'up' and 'down' to talk about a movement along them (as far as I know, there is no difference between them, it is just something that we do 🤷‍♂️). When talking about turning from one road onto another and also sometimes then driving along it, it is very common to hear native speakers say things like "turn down that road" or "turn down the first road on the left for 100 metres".



 

A mixed British and American flag

SAY IT LIKE A NATIVE: TYPICAL EXAMPLES OF HOW 'TURN DOWN' IS USED BY NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKERS


If you can memorise some of the below and use them in a conversation, it will help your English to come across as more natural and like that of a native speaker. You'll need to use your imagination to complete some of them.

Can you turn the volume down please? I can't hear myself think!
Does anyone mind if I turn the heating down?
Turn down the lights!
I've turned down a job offer for....
Our application for [noun] has been turned down.
I asked [person] out on a date and [pronoun] turned me down 😢
There has been a sharp downturn in.....
Take a brief look at your card and then turn it down again.
Turn down that road over there!
 

Question marks with different colour backgrounds

EXERCISE Re-write the following sentences using 'to turn down'....

  1. That oven temperature is too hot, you need to lower it!

  2. John refused Roger's offer to buy his company.

  3. I really hope that my job application does not get rejected this time!

  4. The birth rate decreased during the 1970s.

  5. Fold the corner of your test page over so that it covers your answers.

  6. You need to take the second road on the right.

 

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

  1. I have been trying to give up smoking for a year.

  2. Helen had to give up reading the psychology book as it was too difficult for her.

  3. Don't ever give up on romance, you will find true love one day.

  4. I had to give up my car as I could not afford to keep it.

  5. The drug dealer went to the police station and gave himself up.

  6. Please can everyone give it up for John!

 

HAVE YOU EVER HAD TURNDOWN SERVICE?

A hotel bed with a heart and petals on it after turndown service

Before ending this post, I just want to make you aware of one last usage of 'turn down' that you may come across, especially when staying in hotels. Turndown service is where hotel staff enter a guest's room whilst they are out and prepare it for them by making the bed and sometimes even leaving a mint or small chocolate on the guest's pillow. The end result is that the bed is nice and fresh for the guest when they come to sleep in it that evening.

 

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 'turn down' below. I really love reading them. See you next time! James




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