25 Uses of the Word WORK: Phrasal Verbs, Idioms (+ Bonus Audio Lesson)

we can work it outMost English learners know the main definition of work is to LABOR. Some even know that when something works well, it FUNCTIONS. But there are SO MANY MORE ways that native speakers commonly use the word WORK that most learners have no idea about.

For example, here are 9 phrasal verbs that completely change the meaning of work: Work OUT, Work UP, Work ON, Work AROUND, Work THROUGH, Work TOWARDS, Work OFF, Work IN, work OVER. Do you know what those mean?

Today we’re going to explore these 9 phrasal verbs with the word work (and their 12 meanings), as well as 13 popular idioms. PLUS, as a special bonus, we’ll share with you a fantastic RealLife audio lesson AND transcript on this very topic (with RealLife Radio Power Lesson Sample).

Awww yeah! Let’s get to work.

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9 Phrasal Verbs With Work

1. Work Out (4 Different Uses)

  •  Exercise (vb, n): To work out (vb), or do a workout(n), is to do any form of exercise with a focus being on the physical activity. Different ways to work out include: go for a bike ride, run, swim, lift weights, do yogaHiking (walking in nature), for example, would not generally be used with the verb “work out,” but if it works your body, you might use it as a noun by saying, “that hike was a good workout.”

–I try to work out 3 times a week after work. (vb)
–How often do you work out at the gym? (vb)
–The run was only 15 minutes long, but it was an amazing workout. (n):

  •   To result in success (vb): When something works out, an arrangement or relationship results in success. Common examples of this include:

–When he first started his new job, he was scared things wouldn’t work out, but after a few months, his boss told him that things were really working out really well.
–Everything always works out in the end. (common collocation)
–If things aren’t working out in your job or relationships, it’s best to try to fix it or change.

  •  To Fix/Solve Something (vb): To work (something) out is to fix or resolve a problem or issue you’re having with something.

–When you’re having relationship problems, it’s best to try to work it out.
–The famous Beatles song, “We Can Work it Out” is a great example of this use of the phrasal verb, “work it out.”

  • To Calculate the Answer to a mechanical or math problem. Examples below:

–The 13 year old was a complete genius. He had already worked out the most difficult physics equations that even Einstein couldn’t ever solve.
–Most math teachers will allow you to work out algebra problems on a calculator or even on a piece of scratch paper (blank paper used to work out equations by hand for a test).

2. Work Up

  • Work up the feeling: To evoke an emotional state (ex: Work up the courage, the excitement, an appetite).
  • Work up to something: To arrive at something through preparation (ex: Even though he could only run 5 km, he was determined work up to the full 42 km distance of a marathon little by little over the next 6 months.)
  • To be/ Get Worked Up: To get stressed or upset about something. (ex: he doesn’t like to drive during rush our [when there’s a lot of traffic] because he gets worked up and honks his horn all the time.)

3. Work On 

  •  To spend time and effort improving something (ex: I have a lot of problems with my pronunciation, but I’m working on it.)
  •  To try to influence a person (ex: the manager didn’t want to hire me, but my friend Sarah works there, and she is working on him, so I hope he changes his mind.)

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 7.10.29 PM4. Work Around 

To successfully circumvent (find your way around) an obstacle or a problem without having to directly deal with it or solve it. (ex: I  didn’t have all the ingredients to make the dish from the recipe, but I worked around it by substituting a few items)

5. Work Through

To work through a problem is to gradually deal with or solve (a generally more complicated problem). In a relationship, to work through something can be to “talk through it.” (ex: the couple was having serious problems, so they decided to go to a relationships counselor to help them work through their issues.)

Note: There’s also a literal use of work through as you can “work your way through college” (pay your university expenses by simultaneously working a job).

6. Work Towards 

To work towards is to make an effort with the intention of achieving a future objective. (ex: The marathon runner woke up at 5 am every day as he worked toward his goal of running under 3:00 for the 42 km marathon.)

7.  Work Off

To work off means to pay somebody with work to compensate for money owed (or any other type of debt.) You can also work something off with physical activity (stress, excess weight). (ex: The kid didn’t have money to pay for his meal, so the restaurant owner let him work it off by washing dishes for an hour).

 8. Work In

To work something in means to consciously include integrate something. (ex: He said he was too busy to exercise, but I convinced him to work in a few sessions at the gym.)

9. Work Over

  •  (Slang) To beat or inflict injury on something or someone. (i.e. Brazil didn’t expect to get worked over by Germany in the world cup final.)
  •  (Literal) To subject to intense examination.
  •  (Literal) To redo something (do again)

 13 Expressions & Idioms With Work

  1. Work the System: To take advantage of the system, often in an unethical way, to get what you want. (ex: Once elected, the corrupt politician began to use his power to work the system and increase his personal fortune).
  2. In the Works: When an item or project is currently being produced or developed. (ex: While the band was touring for their newest album, they revealed that their next album was in the works and would soon be available.)
  3. Work(s) like a charm: When something functions perfectly. (ex: After his friend fixed his computer, it worked like a charm for the rest of the year.)
  4. Work Wonders: To have a very positive effect to solve a problem. (ex: He soon discovered that listening to RealLife Radio every day worked wonders for his listening comprehension)
  5. Put to Work: To assign a job or to make somebody work [who was previously inactive] (ex: His school vacation didn’t last long, as his parents soon put him to work in the family business.)
  6. Out of Work: To be unemployed, or to not have a job [when one previously had a job] (ex:After losing his job last year, he was out of work for 6 months)
  7. Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 7.06.10 PMAll in a Day’s Work: Used to express that something is very routine (even though it’s often difficult), and it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. (ex: You may say this after finishing a day filled with difficult tasks that are expected in your job.)
  8. All Work and No Play (Makes Jack a Dull Boy): When one is working so hard that they don’t have the time to enjoy life or cultivate joy for living.
  9. Piece of Work: An expression meaning that somebody is difficult to get along with in a complex way. Usually said with some degree of disgust.  (ex/common collocation: After getting upset with a person for mistreating you in a clever way, you might say “she/he’s a real piece of work.”)
  10. Dirty Work: The work nobody else want’s to do. “To do somebody’s dirty work” is to do the unethical, dishonest work that the person doesn’t want to do.(i.e. A mob boss might have somebody do their dirty work- i.e. kill people, get money, conduct deals, etc) 
  11. Work Up a Sweat: To put a lot of effort into something, to work hard enough to start to sweat. Often used figuratively.
  12. Have your work cut out for you: To have a lot of work to do in order to achieve a goal/objective.  (ex:before starting a job that’s going to be difficult and last all day, “We better get started. We’ve got our work cut out for us.” ) 
  13. Working Hard or Hardly Working? A friendly play on words you can ask somebody to discover how much they are working.  Working hard, obviously, means to exert a lot of effort, while hardly working means to not be working very much at all. The humor is that they sound the same but are complete opposites.

I hope you had fun learning about all the many phrasal verbs and idioms using the word WORK. If you’ve enjoyed this, I encourage you to listen to RealLife Radio, our weekly podcast that makes listening to and learning English fun, natural, and convenient.

RealLife Radio: Expressions & Phrasal Verbs with WORK

Listen to Part 1 Below

LEFT COLUMN: Transcription | RIGHT COLUMN: Reference Glossary

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RLR Work 1

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RLR Work 3

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RLR Work 4

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RLR Work 5

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RLR Work 7

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RLR Work 9

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RLR 12

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  • Ashvin malviya says:

    Oh My God it is awesome

  • Ashvin malviya says:

    It has no parallel

  • Motaz Gassar says:

    Excellent explanation, you make the complexities of phrasal verbs simple to understand. Thank you.

    • Agnieszka from RealLife English says:

      Aww yeah! Great that you found it helpful, Montaz!

  • Naser says:

    Bully …..