It Pays Off to Pay Off, so Take the Payoff and Pay Off Your Loans: Phrasal Verb Confusion

pay offThis installment will focus specifically on the combination of two words: “pay” and “off.” It’s amazing how many different meanings we can get out of just two words depending on the context and how we use them! Learn these verbs well because they are all very common!

Pay … Off/– To eliminate a debt

  • After winning the lottery, she paid off all of her family’s debts.

Note: In certain contexts, this phrasal verb can be used as a synonym for the verb “bribe”, which means “to buy favorable treatment from an authority figure,” such as a politician or, in some countries, the police.

Pay … Off/ – To bribe

  • The drug cartel paid off the local police and the mayor’s office so they would be able to do business without any interference from the authorities.

Note: This is another phrasal verb whose elements can be combined to make a compound noun. In this case, “payoff.”

  • The investigators had video and documentary evidence of the governor taking the payoff from the mining company’s executives in exchange for favorable treatment.

Note: It is important to remember that the compound noun “payoff” can only be used to talk about bribes, not about loan payments, as in the example below.

  • I’m so happy because I made the payoff on my loans!

Pay off/ – To produce results/be successful

  • All of those trips to the gym are starting to pay off. Today I wore a pair of pants that I haven’t worn since before I was married!

Note: For this phrasal verb to have this particular meaning, it must not be separated. Sometimes, the “off” is omitted and “pay” alone has the same meaning of “produce results/success” as it does in the sentence above. For example:

  • It pays to be friendly. “You catch more flies with honey,” as Confucius said.

Eventually, all the time you spend studying is going to pay off. Take a look at our main phrasal verbs page and find more practice material!