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The Phrasal Verb 'Run Out' Explained

Updated: Jan 27

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

A picture of toilet roll with the words sold out

Hello and welcome everyone 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.


In this post, we are looking at the phrasal verb 'to run out', which can be used to talk about many things including shops, words and steam. Read on to learn more....


KEY INFORMATION:

Number of Meanings

3

Literal Meaning

Yes

Idiomatic Meaning

Yes

Separable

No

Past Forms

Ran out / run out

British or American

Both

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

 

MEANING 1: Literal


Three college students running out from class down some steps

CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Medium

Transitive or Intransitive?

Intransitive (no direct object)

Separable

​No

Potential synonyms

​To escape, to flee, to pop to (Brit.), to nip to (Brit.)

As a starting point, let's look at the individual components of the phrasal verb 'to run out' in order to understand how it is used literally.


Firstly, we have the verb 'to run', meaning to move faster than walking (like Usain Bolt) and secondly, we have the particle 'out', meaning to move from an interior or enclosed place to an exterior place. So, logically if we combine these two words together, it gives us the literal sense of an action of running from and leaving an interior space, either to enter another interior space or to an exterior space (outside).


Native speakers only really use this literal form to describe something sudden, dramatic or exciting, such as en escape from somewhere (because otherwise people simply walk out of buildings 😜)....


Examples in context....

Every day when I get home from work, my dog runs out of the house to greet me.
A dog running towards the camera

The schoolchildren ran out of the classroom as soon as the lesson finished.
People started running out of the sea when someone shouted "Shark!".


IDIOM ALERT!


Ok so now we have looked at the literal meaning, let's consider the next expression where we have a direct object between run and out....

John ran Roger out of the city.

What do you think the meaning of the above could be?


In American English (and less so in British English), if we run someone out of a town or city, it means that we chase or force a person to leave a place, normally by threatening them. I guess in the past it was normal for people to chase after someone in order to make them leave their town or city, but nowadays (thankfully) it is not so common and therefore the usage of this is also much rarer. You may still hear this in American television shows and movies however, so it is always useful to know.



EXTRA INFORMATION TO SOUND LIKE A NATIVE #1


It is possible to use 'run out to somewhere' to express when we need to go somewhere and back quickly.

A lady by her parked car outside a shop

For example, imagine that you are preparing a dinner party for 5 guests and you realise that you have forgotten to buy dessert. You may then need to run out to the shop to buy a dessert.


This does not mean that you are physically running to the shop, but rather that you are going there and back quickly (normally in a car). It is also common for people to drop the "out" so that they simply 'run to somewhere', however the meaning is the same with or without 'out'.


This usage is perhaps more common in American English, with 'to pop to' or 'to nip to' being more common alternatives in British English.


Examples in context....

He has just run out to the post office to post a letter, he will be back shortly.
I've forgotten to buy potatoes. I'm going to quickly run to the store to get some.
 

MEANING 2: To have no more left of something



CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

​Usage

Common

Transitive or Intransitive?

Intransitive (no direct object)

Separable

No

​Potential Synonyms

​To sell out, to have no more left, to use up, to exhaust, to expire

​Commonly used with

Money, energy, steam, ideas, time

If you have heard 'to run out' in an English conversation, it is probable that you heard this idiomatic version as it is commonly used by native speakers.


Used idiomatically, 'to run out' means to have nothing left or remaining of something, usually because it has been used or sold.


In order to specify the thing that we do not have anymore or that has run out, we add the additional preposition 'of', followed by a noun e.g to run out of something.


Examples in context...

We have run out of bread and milk.
Many supermarkets ran out of toilet paper at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since we use many different things in our lives, the list of possible nouns that can be used with this phrasal verb is very long, but common examples are money, food, energy, space, ideas, stock and options.


An hourglass having run out

Another very common noun that we use with this phrasal verb is 'time', normally when we have a deadline or future point in time before which something must be completed.



Based on this idea of time and deadlines, we can also use 'run out' as a synonym for the verb "to expire", i.e. to express when the validity of something ends. Typical situations for this would be with a passport or a drivers license, which expire or run out on set dates.


This phrasal verb can certainly be used in formal situations, however in very formal situations a different verb such as 'to exhaust' is definitely more suitable.


Examples in context....

I need to find a petrol station before I run out of petrol*! INTENDED MEANING: The person does not have much petrol left and so needs to find a petrol station before all the petrol is used.
There are only 5 minutes left in the match; the England football team is running out of time to score another goal and win. INTENDED MEANING: There is not much time left in the game in which England can score a goal and win the match.
Roger is running out of money fast, so he needs to find a job quickly! INTENDED MEANING: Soon Roger will have no money left, so he needs a job in order to earn some more.
I've booked a holiday to Spain in April and I've just realised that my passport runs out in March! I hope I can renew it in time. INTENDED MEANING: The person's passport expires in March and it will no longer be valid, so they will not be able to travel to Spain if they do not renew it in time.

* Petrol in British English is Gas in American English


EXTRA INFORMATION TO SOUND LIKE A NATIVE #2


When the item or thing is no longer available, it is normal to use the present perfect tense to express this....

We need to stop, we have run out of time!

In informal conversations, it is also extremely common to simply drop the word 'run' and use the informal construction 'to be out of something' as a synonym.




Examples in context....

We need to stop, we are out of time.
SHOP CUSTOMER: Excuse me, I can't find any bread anywhere. Whereabouts is it? SHOP ASSISTANT: I'm afraid we are out of bread. The next delivery will be tomorrow. INTENDED MEANING: There is no more bread in the shop for the customer to buy until tomorrow.

A variation of this informal usage is 'to be all out of something'. Again, this is something that should only be used in informal conversations and situations:

Oh no, we are all out of coffee! I will run out to shop to get some.
 

MEANING 3: To Abandon



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

​Transitive or Intransitive?

Intransitive (no direct object)

Separable

No

Potential synonyms

To abandon, to quit, to leave

Commonly used with

​Family, partner, job


In this second idiomatic meaning we are replacing the extra preposition OF with ON, to give a new and completely different meaning.


To run out on someone or something means to abandon a person, a family or a responsibility and leave, normally suddenly.


This is definitely more of an informal usage and I would say that it is mainly used to talk about someone suddenly leaving a relationship or a family.


Examples of usage....

My ex-husband ran out on me and our 6-month old baby. INTENDED MEANING: The person's ex husband left them suddenly when their baby was 6 months old.
Helen was so stressed that she ran out on her job and never went back. INTENDED MEANING: Due to Helen's high stress, she quit her job suddenly (and possibly unexpectedly) and never went back.
 

A mixed British & American flag

SPEAK LIKE A NATIVE: TYPICAL EXAMPLES OF HOW “TO COME ACROSS" IS USED BY NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKERS


If you can memorise the sentences below and use them in your conversations, it will help you to come across like a native speaker.....

We have run out of [noun] but apart from that we have everything else on the menu.
[Person] is running out of options.
We are running out of time to [verb]
I've run out of ideas for what to make for dinner.
Unfortunately we have run out of time today, so we will continue with this next time.
I'm afraid we have run out of that. Would you like something else?
Go and get some more before you run out!
I am running out of patience!
[Pronoun] ran out on [possessive pronoun] family.
 

EXERCISE:


Re-write the sentences below using to run out:

  1. John's wife hurriedly left the room after their argument.

  2. My wife has just gone to the airport to collect our son and bring him home.

  3. We had to apply to the bank for a loan when our business had no more money left.

  4. The author had no more creative ideas in his head so he decided to take a break.

  5. I originally wanted to order the roast chicken at the restaurant but it was all gone!

  6. The amount of time left for me to finish my assignment before the deadline was getting less and less so I was starting to panic.

(Answers at the end of the post)

 

IDIOM ALERT!


The idiom 'to run out of steam' is a common expression that we use to express when the progress of something slows down or stops because we lose energy or interest in something.


Example in usage....

The Scotland football team played brilliantly in the first half of the game but they ran out of steam in the second half.
 

QUESTIONS FOR WRITING & SPEAKING PRACTICE

  • Have you ever run out of things to say when answering a job interview question? Did you get the job?

  • Would you rather run out of gas for your heating on a cold day or electricity for your air conditioning on a hot day? Why?

  • When was the last time that you ran out of patience (became angry) with someone? What happened?

  • Do you think that we are running out of time to save the planet from climate change? How can we change the situation?


 

EXERCISE ANSWERS (other variations may be possible)

  1. John's wife watched as Helen hurriedly ran out of the room after their argument.

  2. My wife has just run out to the airport to collect our son and bring him home.

  3. We had to apply to the bank for a loan when our business ran out of money.

  4. The author ran out of creative ideas in his head so he decided to take a break.

  5. I originally wanted to order the roast chicken at the restaurant but it had run out!

  6. The amount of time left for me to finish my assignment before the deadline was running out so I was starting to panic.

 

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 go ahead and share it, 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 'run out' below. I really love reading them. See you next time!





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