Finish vs. finish up (and other verbs vs. phrasal verbs)

A student asked me, “Is there a difference between finish and finish up?”
The answer is no. There’s no difference in meaning.

I’ll be home soon, I just need to finish a few things at the office.
I’ll be home soon, I just need to finish up a few things at the office.

Finish up is the more informal way to say it, and if we were writing or speaking formal English then we would probably use finish because we try to avoid phrasal verbs in formal English.

Call / Call Up
Another word like this is call or call up when talking about calling someone on the phone. For example you could say:

called my grandmother.
called up my grandmother.

They’re the same.

Is This True For Every Verb / Phrasal Verb?
Is this the case for every verb and phrasal verb? The answer is no. Usually a verb when used by itself is different from the verb when used in a phrasal verb (which is a verb plus a preposition).

Throw / Throw Up / Throw Off
To use an extreme example, the verb throw means to make something go out of your hand with speed – ex. throw a ball. But if you throw up, it means you vomit, and if something throws you off that means it confuses you. As you can see, throw is very different from throw up and throw off!

Fight / Fight Off
Other times the difference is not so drastic. For example if two people fight, it means they engage in violent conflict – but if one guy fights off an attacker that means he used violence to successfully defend himself and make the attacker go away. Both fight and fight off refer to violent conflict but fight off has the additional meaning of successfully defending yourself and making your opponent go away.

Show / Show Off
Another example is show and show off. If a woman shows you her diamond ring it means she lets you see it – but if she shows off her diamond ring, this means she’s doing it arrogantly, she’s showing everybody her ring so that everyone could admire it and make her feel superior. That’s the difference between show and show off.

Stand / Stand Up
Let’s take a look at more of these phrasal verbs with up. Some of them are quite similar and can be used almost interchangeably.

For example, “I asked the students to stand is the same as “I asked the students to stand up.” Both stand and stand up refer to the action of lifting your body up to your feet from a sitting position.

But if referring to someone’s location then we would say “There was a man standing on the sidewalk.” We wouldn’t say “There was a man standing up on the sidewalk.”

Standing up emphasizes the contrast between standing on your feet and sitting down or lying down, but for someone’s location we would say standing and not standing up.

Grow / Grow Up
Another one is grow and grow up. You can grow flowers or the population of a town can grow, it can increase – but grow up is only used for the specific case of children becoming bigger, older, and more mature. You can’t grow up flowers or grow up the population of a town.

Choke / Choke Up
The verb choke means to have something stuck in your throat so that you have difficulty speaking or breathing. For example, if you swallow a large piece of meat without chewing it completely, the piece might get stuck in your throat and you might choke.

However, the phrasal verb choke up means something slightly different. To choke up means to be so overwhelmed by emotion that you find it difficult to talk. For example, if you are giving a eulogy (a eulogy is a speech at a funeral about the person who has died) – so if you are giving a eulogy at your mother’s funeral, you might choke up. You would be so overwhelmed by sadness, the emotion would be so intense that it makes it difficult for you to get the words out. That’s what it means to choke up, and it’s different from the verb choke.

Crack / Crack Up
Here’s one that’s completely different. The word crack is both a noun and a verb, meaning a thin, broken line in a hard surface. If you’re driving your car and a small rock hits your windshield, the windshield might crack, get a small line of breakage in the glass.

Crack up has a totally different meaning. To crack up means to suddenly start laughing. For example, if you tell a great joke to a group of your friends everyone would crack up, they’d start laughing.

Follow / Follow Up
To follow someone means to go wherever they go, for example, if you have a very devoted dog, the dog might follow you around the house.

The phrasal verb follow up means something a bit different. To follow up means to take another action that continues the process of an action that was previously taken. It’s often used for further communication or research. For example, if you’ve emailed your friend and he hasn’t responded for the past week, then you might follow up with a phone call. The phone call continues the process of communication that began with the email. You are following up.

Hold / Hold Up
Finally we have the verb hold. To hold something is to have it in your hand, but the phrasal verb hold up has three different meanings.

First is the literal meaning – to hold up means to hold something in your hand in a high position, for example, at the parade I held up a flag.

If someone says, “Hold up!” – that means “Wait!” You can also say something like the project was held up, that means the project was delayed.

Finally, if criminals hold up a bank or hold up a store, it means they rob the bank or the store. They go in with guns and demand to take all the money – so that’s a third definition for the phrasal verb hold up.

The answer to the original question is that sometimes verbs and phrasal verbs have the same meaning. In other cases the phrasal verb has a slightly different meaning. And then there are some cases where the meaning of the verb and the phrasal verb are just completely different.