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The Phrasal Verb 'Turn Up' Explained

Updated: Feb 7

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


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.


The subject of this post is the phrasal verb 'turn up'. I have recently done a post about its phrasal verb opposite, 'turn down', so if you can remember the different meanings of that, then you should find some of the meanings of 'turn up' nice and simple as they are just the reverse. You will note that I said 'some' of the meanings as there are others that are completely unrelated to 'turn down' - that would be too easy! So without further ado, let's have a look at them....


KEY INFORMATION

Usage

High

Number of meanings

7

Separable

Yes, in some usages

Past forms

Turned up / turned up

British or American

Both

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

 

THE BASICS



The phrasal verb 'turn up' consists of the verb 'to turn' and the prepositional particle 'up'.


The verb 'to turn' is a common verb with various meanings, including to change direction, to move in a circular path and to transform from one thing into another. Although the verb 'to turn' is in common use in the English language, you will regularly find it appearing in a lot of different phrasal verbs because we often require extra directional or spatial information to give more precision to the action of 'turning' e.g. 'turn around', 'turn over' or 'turn back'.


In conjunction with 'turn', we have the prepositional particle 'up', meaning in the direction away from the ground or towards the sky ↑.

 

MEANING 1: Literal



CEFR Language Level

A2 - Elementary

Usage

Medium

Separable

Yes

The first meaning of 'turn up' that I want to cover is the literal meaning, which you have probably guessed, is simply to turn or rotate something so that it is facing upwards.

As this is quite self-explanatory, I don't want to spend too much time on this, but I do want to give you some typical examples of usage, which are turning your head up, so that you are looking in the direction of the sky and turning playing cards up, so that the face of the card is visible. In both of these examples however, it should be noted that other synonyms are often used, such as 'look up' turning your head and 'turn over' for the cards.

 

MEANING 2: To arrive unexpectedly



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate

Usage

​Common

Separable

No

Potential synonyms

To show up, to arrive, to appear

So, now we are on to our first idiomatic meaning of 'turn up', which is to arrive or to appear somewhere, often (but not always) at an unexpected time or in an unexpected manner. In other words, we can use 'turn up' as a synonym for the verb 'to arrive', but we tend to use it more when there is something unplanned or surprising about the arrival.


Examples of this unconventional arrival could be the following....

  • the person arrives unexpectedly, without forewarning or invitation

  • the person arrives earlier or later than planned or requested

  • there is something funny, surprising or unexpected about the person when they arrive


Although I have specifically stated a person in the examples above, it is also absolutely fine to use this with objects when talking about deliveries etc.


Examples of usage....

All of the guests turned up for the party, bar one. INTENDED MEANING: Everyone who was invited to the party came except for one person.
My parents turned up just as I was about to leave the house to go shopping. INTENDED MEANING: My parents arrived at my house unexpectedly at the exact time I was leaving the house to go shopping.
Lisa's car broke down on her way to work and she eventually turned up there at 11am. INTENDED MEANING: Lisa's car stopped working when she was driving to work and she finally arrived there at 11am.
John mistakenly thought that the party was fancy dress, so he turned up wearing a Superman outfit, much to everyone's amusement. INTENDED MEANING: John thought that it was a fancy dress party in error and arrived wearing a Superman costume, which made all the guests laugh.
My neighbour turned up on my doorstep last night in floods of tears as her dog was missing. INTENDED MEANING: My neighbour knocked on my door last night, overcome with emotion, because she could not find her dog.
 

MEANING 3: To be found



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate

Usage

Medium

Separable?

No

Potential synonyms

To be found, to show up

This third meaning of 'turn up' simply means to be found. This often refers to when we unexpectedly find something that was previously hidden or lost. When we use 'turn up' in this way, it is usually because we have given up on finding the lost item and don't think we will ever see it again. Of course, we can use the verb 'to find' as a synonym here, however 'turn up' adds an extra nuance of unexpectedness or surprise and sometimes it can also be used to convey a bit mystery to the reappearance of the lost item.


Alternatively, if something is lost or mislaid, but we are confident that we will find it again at some unknown point in the future, it is equally common to say that "it will turn up". By using 'turn up' rather than 'find', we are saying that we are perhaps not actively going to look for the missing item and it will appear in the future.


Examples of usage....

We thought we had lost our cat Arthur when he disappeared. Thankfully he turned up at the house again a week later and we still have no idea where he had been. INTENDED MEANING: We presumed that Arthur the cat had vanished after we didn't see him for a few days but luckily he came back a week after his disappearance.
The stolen car turned up abandoned on a roadside 10km away from where it had been stolen. INTENDED MEANING: The stolen car was found on the side of the road 10 km from place where it had been taken.
I've lost my favourite socks. They must be in the house somewhere but I'm not worried as they are bound to turn up. INTENDED MEANING: My favourite socks are lost somewhere in this house but I am not bothered as I am fairly certain that I will find them again.
 

MEANING 4: To become available unexpectedly



CEFR Language Level

​C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

Separable?

No

Potential synonyms

To become available

For this fourth meaning of 'turn up', we are staying with the familiar theme of something happening unexpectedly, however this time we are talking about unforeseen opportunities or situations that arise when you are looking for something. This could be a new job opportunity, somewhere new to live or a new car that you want to buy. Regardless of what the opportunity is, the main point here is that when it does arise, it is unexpected in some way, often as it is when we have started to lose hope of success.


Moreover, if we want to offer some encouragement to someone who is having difficulty finding a job for example, we can say that "something will turn up". Equally, when talking about a time in the past when a new unexpected opportunity arose, we can say that something "turned up".


Examples of usage....

My son has been looking for a job since graduating from uni and he has had no luck so far, but I'm sure something will turn up soon. INTENDED MEANING: My son has not yet found a job since finishing his studies, but I am sure that he will find one in the near future.
They say that the love of your life normally turns up when you least expect it. INTENDED MEANING: It is said that people meet the love of their lives when they do not expect it.
 

MEANING 5: To increase the intensity of something



CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

Separable?

Yes

Potential synonyms

To increase

This next meaning of 'turn up' is one of the most commonly used meanings of this phrasal verb and means to increase the intensity of something such as the volume, temperature or power of a device. It may be quite obvious to you, but just in case it is not, this meaning is derived from when we turn a dial to a higher number on a device (up), thus increasing its level of output or energy (see the gif above).


For this meaning 'turn up' is used transitively, meaning that it requires a direct object, which is the noun whose intensity or output we want to be increased. The direct object noun can either be placed after 'turn' or after 'up', without changing the meaning.


Although we can and do use 'turn up' to describe the action of increasing the intensity of many different nouns, the most common usage is probably with the noun 'volume'. For this reason, if you hear a native speaker say "turn it up", it is highly likely that what they actually mean is "turn the volume up" or "make it louder".


Examples of usage....

I was so cold in my house, so I turned up the central heating. INTENDED MEANING: As I was cold at home, I increased the heating level.
Please can you turn the television up as I can barely hear it. INTENDED MEANING: Could you please increase the TV's volume as I am struggling to hear it.
I love this song! Turn it up! INTENDED MEANING: Make this song louder, I love it!
 

MEANING 6: To fold or modify clothes



CEFR Language

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

To fold up, to unfold

This next meaning of 'turn up' is specific to clothing and logically links back to the literal meaning of the phrasal verb that we looked at earlier in the post. This meaning specifically means to fold parts of clothes, normally the bottoms of trouser legs, upwards in order to make them shorter, so that they fit the owner better. The part of the garment is literally turned upwards.


In everyday speech it is normal to use this in a passive sense and say that you are "getting something turned up" when the garment to be modified is with the tailors.


In addition to this, if something is already folded downwards such as the corner of a piece of paper or a collar on a garment, we also say that we "turn it up" when we unfold it.


Examples of usage....

I have sent my new suit to the tailors to get it turned up before the wedding next week. INTENDED MEANING: My new suit has been sent to the tailors to be modified so that it fits me perfectly for the wedding next week.
There was a chill in the air and so I turned up the collar on my winter coat. INTENDED MEANING: It felt a bit chilly so I opened out the collar on my coat to cover my neck.
 

MEANING 7: To turn onto a different road or path



The last meaning that I want to bring to your attention is one that I also looked at in the 'turn down' post as it essentially means the same thing, which is to turn from one road or path onto another and then continue straight along it. Native speakers use both 'turn up' and 'turn down' here interchangeably and there is no discernible difference in meaning that I am aware of; it is just the speaker's choice. It can also be noted that it can be used both for travel by vehicle as well as on foot.

Example of usage....

We turned up the road towards the church and realised that it was the wrong road!
 


It would be rude of me to finish this post without also giving you some expressions in which the phrasal verb 'turn up' is used, so here are a few for you....


To turn your nose up at something = This idiom means to show disapproval of something or to refuse something in a judgemental way, often when the person believes that something is not good enough for them. It is often used in reference to snobby or arrogant people but can also be used for fussy cats like mine who occasionally turn their noses up at the food they are given to eat.


A turn up for the books! = This is an idiomatic expression in British English and is used to describe a very unexpected but pleasing surprise. The roots of this idiom can be traced back to betting on horses as the records of bets were kept by people called bookmakers (colloquially known as bookies) in 'books' and if something unexpected (that word again!) happened, then some lucky gamblers would be very happy!


To turn up out of the blue = This expression is very common when talking about someone or something which appears or arrives completely unexpectedly, almost as if they suddenly appear out of the blue sky or from the blue ocean. It is possible to use "out of the blue" on its own without 'turn up' and the meaning would be more or less the same.



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

  1. John tilted his head up to look at the stars.

  2. Nobody came to my party until after 11pm!

  3. I lost my cellphone last week and it was finally found a week later behind the sofa.

  4. Roger has taken his suit to the tailor to be modified so that it fits him better.

  5. I can't believe that Birmingham City has won the football league, what a surprising and unexpected outcome!

  6. Can you increase your microphone level as I can't hear you very well.

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'SEE THROUGH' (other variations may be possible)

  1. I SAW you THROUGH in the garden.

  2. Helen could SEE THROUGH John from the very moment that she met him.

  3. You can't wear that swimming costume, it is completely SEE-THROUGH!!

  4. I intend to SEE the French course THROUGH until the very end!

  5. Here is £1000, this should SEE you THROUGH until the end of the month.

  6. Some bread and meat was enough to SEE the family THROUGH until the end of the winter.

 

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

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