Understanding the Idiom: "run up" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English

The English language is full of idioms that can be confusing for non-native speakers. One such idiom is “run up”. This phrase has several different meanings depending on the context in which it is used, making it important to understand its nuances.

In general, “run up” can refer to a sudden increase or accumulation of something. For example, you might hear someone say they have run up a large debt on their credit card. Alternatively, “run up” can also mean to approach someone quickly or unexpectedly. In this sense, you might hear someone say that a dog ran up to them in the park.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “run up”

The phrase “run up” is a common idiom in the English language that has been used for centuries. Its origins can be traced back to the early 16th century, where it was first used in reference to ships running up their flags as a sign of surrender or submission. Over time, the phrase evolved to encompass a variety of meanings and contexts.

Throughout history, “run up” has been used in both literal and figurative senses. In its literal sense, it refers to physically running towards something or someone. Figuratively, it can mean building up something gradually over time or accumulating debt or expenses quickly.

In modern usage, “run up” is often associated with financial matters such as credit card debt or bills. However, its historical context reveals that it has much broader applications beyond just money-related situations.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “run up”

The idiom “run up” has various meanings and can be used in different contexts. It is a versatile phrase that can be applied to different situations, both positive and negative.

One common usage of the idiom “run up” is related to finances. It means to accumulate or incur debt or expenses over time. For example, if someone says they have run up a large credit card bill, it means they have spent more than they can afford and now owe a significant amount of money.

Another variation of this meaning is when someone runs up a tab at a bar or restaurant. This means that they keep ordering drinks or food without paying for them immediately, resulting in an accumulating bill.

In sports, the idiom “run up” refers to scoring many points quickly and easily against an opponent. For instance, if one team wins by 50 points against another team, it could be said that they ran up the score.

Additionally, “run-up” can also refer to the period before an event where preparations are made for its success. For example, there may be a run-up period before an election where political parties campaign heavily to gain support from voters.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “run up”


– Accumulate

– Pile up

– Amass

– Build up

– Increase rapidly


– Decrease

– Reduce

– Cut back

– Minimize

Cultural Insights:

The idiom “run up” is commonly used in sports contexts, such as when a team runs up the score against their opponent. This can be seen as disrespectful or unsportsmanlike behavior in some cultures. In business settings, running up expenses or debts can also be viewed negatively. However, in certain situations such as investing or building a successful career, running up achievements and accomplishments is highly valued.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “run up”

Exercise 1: Fill in the blanks

In this exercise, you will fill in the blanks with appropriate forms of “run up” based on context clues. Read each sentence carefully and choose the correct form of “run up”.

Example: She ___________ a huge bill at the restaurant last night.

Answer: ran up

1. He ___________ five flights of stairs to get to his apartment.

2. They ___________ a lot of debt over their credit cards.

3. The company ___________ a large profit last quarter.

4. We need to ___________ some supplies before we start our project.

5. The children were so excited that they ___________ and hugged their teacher.

Exercise 2: Rewrite sentences using “run up”

In this exercise, you will rewrite sentences using “run up” instead of other phrases or words.

Example: She accumulated a lot of debt over her credit cards.

Rewritten sentence: She ran up a lot of debt over her credit cards.

1. They incurred a big expense during their vacation.

2. He climbed all the way to the top of Mount Everest.

3. The business made significant profits last year.

4. We need to purchase some materials before starting our project.

5. The students sprinted towards their classroom after recess.

Exercise 3: Conversation practice

In this exercise, you will have conversation practice with a partner using different scenarios where “run up” can be used. Practice using the idiom in different tenses and forms.

Example scenario: You went shopping with your friend and spent a lot of money.

Conversation practice:

Partner 1: What did you do yesterday?

Partner 2: I went shopping with my friend and ran up a huge bill at the mall.

Partner 1: Wow, what did you buy?


1. You had to rush to catch your flight at the airport.

2. Your car broke down on the way to work this morning.

3. Your child got into trouble at school for misbehaving.

4. You forgot about an important deadline for a project at work.

5. You won a big prize in a contest.

By practicing these exercises, you will become more confident in using “run up” in different situations and contexts. Keep practicing until it becomes second nature!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “run up”

When it comes to using idioms, it’s important to understand their meanings and how they’re used in context. The idiom “run up” is no exception. However, even if you know what the idiom means, there are still some common mistakes that people make when using it.

Mistake Correction
Using “run up” as a verb without an object The correct usage is “to run up something”, such as a bill or debt.
Confusing “run up” with other similar idioms like “build up” “Run up” specifically refers to accumulating something quickly or unexpectedly, while “build up” can refer to gradual accumulation over time.
Using the wrong preposition after “run up” The correct preposition depends on the object being referred to. For example, you would say “I ran up a debt of $10,000 with my credit card”, but you would say “I ran up to the store.”

Avoiding these common mistakes will help ensure that your use of the idiom “run up” is clear and effective in conveying your intended meaning.

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