Phrasal verbs are simultaneously one of the most common and confusing aspects of the English language. Though few native speakers can imagine a conversation without them, it can sometimes be difficult to understand the differences between seemingly identical expressions. For example, though “burn down” and “burn up” seem fairly straightforward they have no less than five distinct meanings between them! Fortunately we are here to help you understand when to use which:
Burn … Down – to destroy using fire
- You should always make sure you blow out* any lit candles before you leave the house; if not they might burn the house down while you are away!
Burn Down / – to be completely consumed by fire
- One day, suddenly and without warning, the abandoned mansion burned down. Nothing was left on the site except the vague outline of what had once been a gorgeous building.
Note: Though seemingly identical, the first use of “burn down” is separable and active while the second is inseparable and passive (meaning, for example, “he burned the mansion down” but “the mansion burned down.”)
Burn … Up – to destroy by fire
- The spy was under strict orders to burn any sensitive material up in the event of his capture.
Burn Up / – to be consumed by fire
- The forest fire came so close to our neighborhood that officials feared that the entire area might be burned up.
Note: Like “burn down” above, these two phrasal verbs might seem identical but are not. Here, too, the first use of “burn up” is separable and active while the second is inseparable and passive.
Burn Up / – to be hot
- “Wow, you really must be sick – your forehead is burning up!”
- Turn the air conditioner on – it’s burning up in here!
Note: Two things distinguish this phrasal verb from its cousins: while it, too, is inseparable, as the above example illustrates, it is used figuratively (not literally) and almost always in the –ing form.
For more information on other phrasal verbs discussed in this series be sure to check our dedicated phrasal verbs blogs.