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The Phrasal Verb 'Put Off' Explained

Updated: Mar 19

A detailed explanation of how to use the phrasal verb 'put off' correctly like a native speaker.


Phrasal verb put off - one sign pointing to now and another pointing to later

Hello and welcome to this instalment of Phrasal Verbs Explained; a blog which aims to help you understand English phrasal verbs in a clear and coherent way, so that you can use them to improve your language level and sound more like a native speaker.


The post this week is all about the phrasal verb 'to put off' and in it we will look its three main meanings and how they are used in everyday English. So, let's not put it off any longer and let's go....


KEY INFORMATION

​Usage

Common

Number of meanings

3

Literal Meaning

No

Idiomatic Meaning

Yes

Separable

Yes

Past forms

Put off / Put off

British or American

Both

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

 

You will notice in the above table that 'put off' does not have a literal meaning in English, so before we look at its different idiomatic meanings, I think it is a good idea as a starting point to consider the two words which make up this common phrasal verb.


Let's start with the verb 'to put', which means to move something to a place or into a particular position. I am sure that you are extremely familiar with this verb as it is in common use in everyday English, but nonetheless I have given you a couple of examples below to refresh your memory.


Examples of usage....

Lisa put her drink on the table.
Can you put your dirty clothes in the washing bin please.

A stick man in a running position.

Accompanying our verb 'put' for this phrasal verb is the prepositional particle 'off', which, like a lot of English prepositions, has many different uses. The use that we are concerned with here for this phrasal verb is when off conveys the idea of moving away from something.


Now that we have briefly looked at the constituent words of 'put off', let's move on to see what the different idiomatic meanings are in English and how native speakers use them.

 

MEANING 1: To postpone something (idiomatic)



CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

​Usage

Medium

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

To defer, postpone, to delay, to put back, to hold off, to procrastinate

The first meaning that we are going to look at of 'put off' is the usage to mean to delay, postpone or push something that is planned back to a later time or date.


As I mentioned above, this is normally used when something is planned and someone decides to delay or postpone it. This is commonly used with meetings, visits and appointments, so logically, this means that it is commonly used a lot in the business world.


In terms of formality, it is less formal than 'postpone' or 'delay', but is still completely fine to use it in business English without sounding too informal.


Phrasal verb put off - Scrabble tiles spelling out Why Not Now

We also often use it when we are hesitating about doing something that we are don't want to do or are afraid to. For example, we may put off going to the gym or telling somebody something that they may react negatively to.



I would say from my perspective as a native speaker that 'put off' tends to be used by native speakers when a decision has been made by someone to postpone something, rather than something being delayed due to something outside of a person's control. For example, we tend not to say that an airplane has been put off if it is late to depart, but rather that is has been delayed.


To 'put off' is a separable phrasal verb and we frequently insert the direct object between 'put' and 'off' to express the thing that we want to move to a later time or date.


It is also fine to add the direct object after 'put off', however it is less common to do so.


Phrasal verb put off - a stressed looking man in an office

Examples of usage....

John was very busy so he decided to put the appraisal meeting off until the next day. INTENDED MEANING: Due to his busy workload, John decided to delay his appraisal meeting.
The customer visit has been put off until next month. INTENDED MEANING: The visit to the customer will now not take this month, but rather next month.
We weren't ready to start the party at 7pm, so we put it off by an hour until 8pm. INTENDED MEANING: As we were not ready, we decided to delay that start of the party by one hour.
I've been putting off telling you this as I was worried about your reaction. INTENDED MEANING: I've postponed telling you this on several occasions because I feared your negative reaction.

PROVERB ALERT!


A common proverb which exists in English is 'don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today'. You can probably understand its meaning, but just in case you are not sure, it means that we should not delay, postpone or put things off that we can do right now and there are certainly times when I wish I had taken this advice in the past.

 

MEANING 2: To make someone dislike something (idiomatic)



CEFR Language Level

​B2 (Upper Intermediate)

​Usage

Common

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

To deter, to dishearten, to discourage, to dissuade

The second usage of 'put off' that we are looking at in today's post means to make someone dislike something, usually when they did like it to begin with. It is common to use this when we have a negative experience of something, which makes us not like it anymore.


Examples of this could be if you eat some bad food, which then makes you sick and you no longer want to eat that food again or if you have a negative experience in a city or country which makes you no longer like it or want to visit there again. In both of these cases you started to dislike, or were put off, the food / country due to the negative experience and perhaps the reminder that they give you of it.


When using 'put off' in this way, we often need to use a direct object, which is the person who starts to dislike or dislikes the item. For this we either need object pronouns (me, him, her etc.) or the name of the person.


A man suffering from a hangover

Examples of usage....

I can't drink beer anymore. I had a really bad experience with it, which put me off it for life. INTENDED MEANING: I don't want to drink beer anymore. I used to like drinking it but I had a negative experience with it, which made me stop wanting to drink it.
The high prices of train fares have put many commuters off taking the train to work and they are now commuting by car instead. INTENDED MEANING: Due to the expensive price of train tickets, many people have stopped using the trains to go to work and have started to drive instead.

In addition to using 'put off' to talk about disliking something that we once liked, we can also use it to talk about when we stop wanting to do something that we wanted to do beforehand.


In this case we are generally talking about being put off the idea of doing something.


Examples of usage....

Helen wanted to go to university in the USA but was put off the idea when she learned how much it would cost. INTENDED MEANING: Helen no longer wants to go and study in America because of the high costs.
We thought about going to the new steak restaurant in town but we've been put off a bit by the bad reviews online. INTENDED MEANING: We were considering having a meal in the new restaurant but the negative reviews that we have read have made us reconsider.
 

MEANING 3: To distract someone (idiomatic)



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate

Usage

Medium

Separable

Yes

Potential synonyms

To distract

The third and final meaning of 'put off' that we are looking at in today's post is when we use it to mean to distract someone or cause someone to stop concentrating on something.


Imagine that you are trying to revise for an exam and you are concentrating very hard when suddenly a person in the next room starts playing some loud music. You become distracted by the music and you could then say that the music has put you off.


This is a very common way to express that something has distracted you from doing something, especially in spoken English.


Although this meaning can often be used interchangeably with 'distract', I would say that the meaning of 'put off' is slightly different as it doesn't just mean to cause you stop you concentrating on something, but can also mean to stop you being able to do something properly because something is diverting your attention and you can't focus.


A great example of this happens to me whenever someone watches me type. I instantly start to make spelling mistakes, even though normally I am perfectly capable of typing the same words when nobody is watching me. This is because I know that they are watching, which puts me off.


Note that we normally need to use this meaning separably, with the person who is distracted being inserted between put and off. Like with the previous meaning, this would either be the direct object pronoun (me, him, her etc.) or the name of the person. If we do use this version separably, it sounds wrong and unnatural, so try and avoid doing this.


Examples of usage....

Can you please be quiet, you're putting me off my revision! INTENDED MEANING: The noise that you are making is preventing me from concentrating on my revision so please stop!
The snooker player missed the winning shot and blamed the crowd, saying that their chattering put him off. INTENDED MEANING: The snooker player said that the reason he missed the winning shot was because the talking from the crowd distracted him.
Whenever somebody watches me type, it always puts me off and I start making a lot of mistakes. INTENDED MEANING: When I know that someone is watching me type, it stops me from focusing entirely on the typing and I make errors.
 

EXTRA TIPS TO SOUND MORE LIKE A NATIVE SPEAKER


When we want to follow 'put off' with a verb to talk about an action, the verb needs to be in the gerund (ing) form. This applies to all three of the meanings that we have looked at above.

I was put off smoking when I saw the damage it does to people as they get older.
We put off calling the angry customer for an hour in order to let him calm down.
 


USE IT LIKE A NATIVE SPEAKER! TYPICAL WAYS 'TO PUT OFF' IS USED IN ENGLISH

Memorise and use the sentences below in conversations to help your English come across as more natural and fluent....

Can we put off the [noun] until.....
The [noun] has been put off until....
We have put this off for too long, we need to do it now.
That has really put me off my food.
I wanted to do it but I got put off by....
I did like him at first but seeing the way he treated his family really put me off him.
Don't let one bad experience put you off!
Has that put you off or do you still want to go ahead?
His talking really puts me off my work.
Stop laughing at me when I am doing my speech, it's putting me off!
I have had to turn my phone off as the constant notifications kept putting me off!
 


EXERCISE

Re-write the following sentences using 'to put off'....

  1. Can we postpone the video call until 3.30pm please.

  2. John and Helen's date was going well until John started swearing, which really made Helen decide that he wasn't the man for her.

  3. I used to go to the same barber every time I had my hair cut but the last time I went he didn't cut it very well and so I've decided not to use him again.

  4. We wanted to go and see Ed Sheeran in concert but after we saw the price of the tickets, we changed our minds.

  5. My wife always talks to me and distracts me when i am doing the crossword in the newspaper.

  6. Airline pilots need to fully concentrate during take-off and landing and cannot let themselves get distracted by anything.

For the answers click here

 

ANSWERS FROM GET OFF PART 2 (other variations may be possible)

  1. Roger drank too much coffee yesterday and struggled to get off to sleep last night.

  2. My secretary will ensure to get the signed document off to you today.

  3. The burglar really gets off on the thrill of stealing money from rich people.

  4. I got a new guitar off my wife for my birthday this year!

  5. The cricket game got off to a terrible start as it started to rain five minutes after play commenced.

  6. We were supposed to be brainstorming marketing ideas for the new product but got off the subject and started talking about the company's debts instead.

 

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 'put off' below. I really love reading them. See you next time!








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