KA WORDCAST: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 11: GAMES PEOPLE PLAY

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KA WORDCAST: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs


Games People Play-Inner Circle

In this season of KA Wordcast, we’ve been introducing you to important idioms, phrasal verbs, and other common expressions that occur all the time in everyday British and American English.  And we’ve shown you how to put the phrases to good use in your own writing and conversation.

Today, we will examine twenty phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions based on the word “play.”  There are dozens of “play”-based expressions in English, but for this lesson, we will look at only the “cream of the crop”—the ones you are most likely to come across in TV and on film, in books and magazines, and in everyday conversation: the ones you will want to try out for yourself right away.

This lesson is available to download in PDF format.  If you would like to test your knowledge of today’s phrases before the lesson begins, try taking the quick “pre-test” that is downloadable from our website.  Then, after the podcast, you can use the answer sheet to see how well you did and how much you have learned.  Always keep in mind that frequent reviewing and practicing is the best way to “build up” your English skills.

  Phrasal Verb: A phrasal verb is an idiomatic phrase made up of a verb and another element such as a particle, preposition, or combination of both.

1. PLAY ALONG (with)

Literally, to PLAY ALONG means to play a musical instrument with someone or with a group.

After only six months of playing the clarinet, Russ was invited to come and PLAY ALONG with the school’s marching band.

More figuratively, however, to PLAY ALONG (with) means to pretend to cooperate with someone or something in a joke, a scam, or a prank.   Close equivalents are to go along with and be a part of.

Gary:  I can’t wait to see Julie’s face when she sees her locker covered with sumo wrestler photos.  

Kyla:   I don’t think I want to PLAY ALONG with this prank, Gary.  You know how sensitive she is about her weight.

Emma decided she would PLAY ALONG with Peter and put on a phony British accent for their evening out on the town.

Billy:  We’re going to pretend that we’ve forgotten it’s Mother’s Day.  Are you PLAYING ALONG, Josie?

Josie:  I guess, but the moment Mom starts getting moody or cranky, I’m going to give her the card I made for her. 

PLAY ALONG can also mean to pretend or appear to support or be friendly towards someone or something, often for personal gain.

My parents are making me go to summer school.  I’m not happy about it, but I’ll PLAY ALONG since they’ve promised to take me to Disney World if I bring my grades up.

I had to PLAY ALONG with the other cheerleaders and taunt the new girl, or I would have become an outcast and victim to their bullying, too.




To PLAY AROUND means to behave in a silly, foolish, or irresponsible way, especially when you should be doing something else.   Fool around, dilly-dally, horse around, and mess around are other informal ways to say PLAY AROUND.  PLAY ABOUT (primarily British) means much the same thing.

Will you two please stop PLAYING AROUND and start getting ready?  We need to be at your grandmother’s birthday party in half an hour.

Leo and Andy were out in the garden PLAYING AROUND when they smacked a golf ball through the kitchen window and shattered it into a million pieces.

Dad:                Stop PLAYING ABOUT and settle down.  Don’t you have homework to do?

Georgie:         It’s Sunday, Mom.  If you can get a day off from work, don’t I deserve a day off from studying?




To PLAY AT means to do or take part in something halfheartedly or without enthusiasm.  It can also mean to pretend to be doing something.

Joanie, could you please stop PLAYING AT doing the dishes and just get the job done?

Why are you PLAYING AT fixing your laptop when you have no idea what’s wrong with it?  Just take it to the experts and let them sort it out for you.

Vicci:  Why did you take the blame for your brother’s shoplifting?  What are you PLAYING AT?

Rich:   He’s in enough trouble as it is.  He’s been caught before, you know. 

The prosecution insisted that the defendant was just PLAYING AT being distraught and overcome with grief and that he feels no real remorse for the heinous crime he committed.



To PLAY BACK has a couple of everyday uses.  Most commonly, it means to replay a recording of a DVD, music, phone message, or the like.

The football coach videotaped the entire match and PLAYED BACK some crucial moments for his players to study. 

William:        What did Aneena’s message say?  Does she want us to meet her at the east exit or the west exit?

Beverly:         I couldn’t hear it very well, either.  Let’s PLAY it BACK and listen to it again.

As a legal transcriber, Donna must PLAY BACK the courtroom proceedings over and over to make sure she catches every word that is spoken.




 To PLAY DOWN something means to make it seem less important or less bad than it actually is.  This idiom is also used as a one-word verb, to DOWNPLAY.

 Luke:  Why are you PLAYING DOWN your intelligence in front of those boys, Leia?

Leia:   I thought boys liked silly girls.

Luke:  Maybe the silly ones do, but not me.

Natalie PLAYED DOWN the importance of her own contributions to the research project and gave the lion’s share of credit to the other members of the team.

Local news stations have tried to PLAY DOWN the extent of the disaster, but satellite images have shown the devastating effects the tsunami has had on the local landscape.

The government is DOWNPLAYING the seriousness of the current flu epidemic.  They don’t want the pubic to panic.



6. PLAY UP  

PLAY UP is another phrasal verb that has several uses.  In British English, when a child PLAYS UP, he or she behaves badly and is difficult to control.  Misbehave, be naughty, get up to mischief, be up to no good, and act up are near synonyms.

All of us in Class 3B got afterschool detention for PLAYING UP in class while the teacher stepped out.

Wife:              The kids have been PLAYING UP all day, and I’m exhausted. 

Husband:       Well, why you don’t sit down, watch a DVD or read, and let me put them to bed?

PLAY UP also means to try to persuade people to believe that something is better or more important than it actually is by praising it very highly or stressing its benefits—just the opposite of to PLAY something DOWN.  A good synonym is to put in a good word for.

Hoping to get kids to sign up, the music teacher PLAYED UP the school’s Glee Club, making it sound as glamorous as the one on TV.   

It’s all right to PLAY UP your good qualities in your resume, but don’t give yourself attributes that you don’t really have.

When something mechanical or electrical PLAYS UP, it fails to work, run, or operate properly.  Act up is the best, and perhaps the most commonly used, synonym.

I’m afraid my printer is PLAYING UP again.  If I send you a document, can you print it out for me?

I’m going to have to call you back.  My phone is PLAYING UP, and I can’t hear you very well.  The reception must be bad here.

My stove and oven are ACTING UP and the repairman won’t be here until Tuesday.  Now how am I going to cook Easter dinner?

Finally, to PLAY UP can also mean to bother or cause someone difficulties or pain.  Again, act up is a good substitute.

Whenever the temperature drops, my old knee injury PLAYS (ACTS) UP, making it difficult for me to get around without my walking stick.

Patient:          My right wrist has been PLAYING (ACTING) UP all week. I can barely lift anything.

Doctor:          Let’s take an X-ray and see if it’s sprained.



In sports, when two or more teams or players that are tied or have equal ranking PLAY OFF, they play a game or games (match or matches) to decide the winner.

The Thomas Jefferson Raiders and the Decatur Gators will PLAY OFF this weekend to see which team will take home the state championship. 

This phrasal verb is even more often used as a noun, PLAY-OFF, as in:

Our quiz team came out on top after a sudden-death PLAY-OFF round.  

The Yankees and Mariners ended up with identical season records and will meet in a one-game PLAY-OFF to see who will advance to the post season.

To PLAY OFF can also mean to perform an action in response to some other action (or person) in a positive or advantageous way.

Robyn and I make great study partners since we have similar goals and personalities and PLAY OFF each other so well.

To win, you’ll not only have to learn to PLAY OFF your opponents’ every move, but also have to be able to foresee what their next move will be.



8. PLAY (someone) OFF AGAINST (someone else)

If you PLAY someone OFF AGAINST someone else, you try to cause an argument or disagreement between the two, usually because you think it will give you some kind of power or control.

It’s not nice to PLAY your mom OFF AGAINST your dad just to get your own way, Matty.  You shouldn’t take advantage of their divorce and feelings like that.

The President has adopted a strategy of PLAYING the Senate OFF AGAINST the Congress to get his anti-gun bill passed. 




PLAY OUT is another phrase with multiple uses.  When talking about a situation, to PLAY OUT means to proceed or end in a particular way.  Synonyms include unfold, happen, transpire, evolve, take place, and progress.

My counselor told me we would have to wait and see how my junior year exams PLAY OUT before we can decide which universities I should apply for. 

Mom:              You shouldn’t let a little disagreement ruin your friendship with Amanda.

Carmen:         Well, I’ll see how it PLAYS OUT. If she apologizes, I’ll patch things up with her.

There are rumors of lay-offs at my dad’s office.  So we’re waiting to see how his job situation PLAYS OUT before we make any definite plans for our summer family holiday.

PLAY OUT can also mean to continue playing until the end of a game or match.

Despite intermittent rain and two interruptions, we managed to PLAY OUT the entire game.

Mom:              Scrabble is so boring, Mom. We’ve already been playing for over an hour. Can’t we just quit?

Parker:          No, Parker.  We’re going to PLAY OUT this game, and only then will you be allowed on the Wii. 

It looks as if Rio Ferdinand is planning to PLAY OUT the rest of his career with Manchester United. 

When a person is PLAYED OUT, he/she has used up his/her energy or patience, or reached the limit of his/her abilities. Synonyms for this usage include used up, exhausted, depleted, and wiped out.

From the sidelines, we could see that Adam’s energy had been PLAYED OUT early in the game, but he still tried his hardest throughout the game.

With all our options PLAYED OUT, we had no idea what our next move would be.

Finally, if you PLAY OUT a situation, it means that you pretend or perform in such a way as to convince others (or yourself) that it is really happening.  Act out is a common synonym.

Mrs. Harper:  My sons often PLAY OUT violent scenes when they play Knights and Castles.

Counselor:       Boys will be boys, Mrs. Harper.  As long as no one gets hurt, there’s no harm in letting them get a little aggressive during imaginative play.

When I was growing up, my big sister Sophie was left in charge whenever my mother was at work, but if you ask me, she PLAYED OUT her role as a bossy “mom” a little too well.  




PLAY ON literally means to continue to play a game or piece of music, even after a change in situation or conditions.

They PLAYED ON despite the icy rain, but by the end of the soccer game, many of the kids on both teams were shivering and crying.

If you continue PLAYING ON, you could do some real damage to your knee, so my advice is to take a break and let it heal completely before you start playing again.

The heroic musicians of the RMS Titanic PLAYED ON with the intention of calming the passengers of the sinking ship for as long as they possibly could.

But more figuratively, to PLAY ON something like a condition, situation, or another person’s emotions (such as worry or fear or pity) can also mean to take advantage of that something to get what you want.

I hate the way Will PLAYS ON his good looks to get special treatment from the teachers.

I have the greatest admiration for Lydia because she never PLAYS ON the fact that she is in a wheelchair to get others to do things or feel sorry for her.  

In his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, director Michael Moore points out that the U.S. media PLAYS ON our fears by exaggerating the threat of crime and terrorism. 


IDIOMS: An idiom is a combination of words that has a figurative, that is, a metaphorical or symbolic, meaning separate from its literal or real meaning, which usually can’t be understood or guessed just by looking at it.


1. PLAY something BY EAR

When someone PLAYS a piece of music BY EAR, he/she can play it perfectly, without having to look at the notes, after listening to the piece only a couple of times.

Wendy has “perfect pitch” and can PLAY just about everything BY EAR.

Mozart had the gift of not only being able to compose beautiful music but also of being able to PLAY other composers’ music BY EAR after hearing it only once.

You can also PLAY an instrument BY EAR, which means that you can play it without having received any formal training.

June:   Hey, you’re really good.  Who’s your guitar teacher?

Hans:  Me.  I taught myself how to PLAY BY EAR by watching YouTube videos.  

If only I could PLAY the piano BY EAR, I wouldn’t have to take lessons from crotchety old Mrs. Nesbit!

But to PLAY something BY EAR has a non-musical, more figurative meaning, too.  It means to see how well (or badly) an activity or situation is going before deciding what to do next.

Nate:               Where should we go today?

Nancy:            Why don’t we just hop on a train and PLAY it BY EAR and see where the day takes us?

I wasn’t sure what my class’s English-speaking level was, so for the first lesson or two, I had to PLAY it BY EAR.



When you PLAY HARDBALL with someone about some problem or situation, you deal with that person strongly and aggressively.

I don’t want to have to PLAY HARDBALL with you, Peter, but if you continue to disrupt the class, I will have no choice but to send you to the principal’s office.

According to one political analyst, PLAYING HARDBALL with Russia by placing economic and political sanctions on the country will not resolve the situation in Crimea.



Fire, as we all know, can be dangerous, which is why “fire” is often used as a metaphor for danger.  So it should be easy to figure out that the idiomatic expression to PLAY WITH FIRE means to do something dangerous or risky.

Thomas:        My parents are away for the weekend, and I was thinking of having a big party.

Kaylee:           I don’t know, Thomas.  I think you’re PLAYING WITH FIRE.  What if someone breaks something or the neighbors call the cops?

I’m no expert, but isn’t genetically modifying the food we put in our bodies PLAYING WITH FIRE?



While PLAYING WITH FIRE means to do something risky, to PLAY IT SAFE means the exact opposite.  When you PLAY IT SAFE, you avoid taking risks by doing things very cautiously.

There isn’t a cloud in the sky at the moment, but you know how changeable the weather can be.  Why don’t you PLAY IT SAFE and take an umbrella with you, just in case?

Joseph:           PLAYING IT SAFE all the time will never get you anywhere.  Why not take a risk and apply to one of the Ivy League universities?  You never know. 

Donna:           I know I should but, but I don’t take rejection very well.  



The expression PLAY IT COOL is used informally to mean to do something without showing your fears or insecurities or incompetence.

When the principal calls us in, she’ll try to get you to confess by intimidating you, but don’t let her get to you.  Just PLAY IT COOL.

Aaron:            Are you sure it’s okay for me to be here at this party?  I’m not exactly one of the “popular” kids.

Betsy:             You look great.  You are great.  Just PLAY IT COOL and act like you belong here. 

PLAY IT COOL also means to hold back your temper.

“Don’t let the students upset you so much. They’re just kids.  Just PLAY IT COOL,” the headmaster told the new teacher.




When you PLAY your CARDS RIGHT, you work or negotiate something carefully and skillfully for your advantage.

If you PLAY YOUR CARDS RIGHT son, someday, you’ll be sitting right here in this very chair, running this construction business I’ve worked so hard to build up.

Emi:                I really want to get into Keio University, but I’m not sure I’ve got what it takes.

Teacher:        Well, if you PLAY YOUR CARDS RIGHT, study hard, and take some classes at a cram school, your chances are as good as any.



To PLAY HOOKY is an American term that means to not go to school or work, usually in order to go somewhere or do something else.

Albert:           Let’s PLAY HOOKY and go see that new Spiderman movie today.

Steph:             I’d love to, but what if we get caught?

Valerie was caught PLAYING HOOKY, and the school suspended her, which is kind of ironic and defeats the purpose, don’t you think?

Amy:               I haven’t PLAYED HOOKY from work in years.

Donovan:       Sometimes, you’ve just got to get out and live a little, Amy. Let’s get out of here.



To PLAY HARD TO GET means to act coy, shy, aloof, or uninterested, usually to make yourself more attractive or interesting to a person of the opposite sex.  The expression can also be used in other situations, as you will see from the last example.

Dominic:       I think Marianne is PLAYING HARD TO GET.  I text her ten times a day but she never replies.

Dorothy:        Well, Dominic, maybe you’re just not her type.

All the boys think Chloe is PLAYING HARD TO GET, but I happen to know that she’s focusing on her studies and can’t be bothered with boys right now.

We offered Declan the position in sales, but as he was PLAYING HARD TO GET and making unreasonable demands, we hired someone from outside the company.



A PLAY ON WORDS is a humorous or sometimes cynical use of a word that has more than one meaning or that sounds like another word.  Pun, wordplay, double entendre, and innuendo are close equivalents.   Here is an example of a PLAY ON WORDS.

When the teacher confiscated the rubber-band pistol from algebra class, he made a joke and called it “a weapon of math disruption.”

Here, “a weapon of MATH DISRUPTION” is a PLAY ON WORDS for “a weapon of MASS DESTRUCTION,” which is a nuclear bomb or other weapon that causes huge death and destruction.

Listen to how the phrase PLAY ON WORDS itself is used in a sentence.

William Shakespeare was not only known for his immortal plays but also for his many clever and often provocative PLAYS ON WORDS.

If you read this essay carefully, you’ll see that the opening paragraph is not really negative, but that it is actually a PLAY ON WORDS. 



If some job or task or assignment is CHILD’S PLAY, it is very easy.

Ordonez is a great outfielder and can make the most difficult catches look like CHILD’S PLAY.

For someone like you who has lived and studied abroad, the TOEFL is probably CHILD’S PLAY, but for me, it’s a major challenge, which is why I was wondering if you might like to be my tutor.




Now that you have a good understanding of all the key phrases we have examined today, you can go back and check out your score on the “pre-test” exercise.  How did you do?

KA WORDCAST Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 11 PRETEST

We’ll be back again next week with more idioms and phrasal verbs for you to get to know!

KA Wordcast Lesson 11 Pretest Exercise ANSWERS