The word ‘play’ can mean many different things. As a verb, the meaning is to do a sport or activity for fun.

For example:

  • I love playing badminton. (do a sport)
  • Libby is playing with her dolly. (do an activity)


Play is a regular verb. The past tense and past participle is played.

idiomatic phrasal verbs

Did you know phrasal verbs are sometimes used in idioms? See if you can spot any. If you don’t know any phrasal verbs with ‘play’, click here to learn them.

idioms list with ‘play’

verb idioms and expressions - play

play away (from home)

meaning – cheat on your partner, be unfaithful
example – My boyfriend has been working late a lot recently. Do you think he’s playing away?

Idioms with verbs - PLAY - play away (from home)

play ball

meaning – cooperate
example – My ex isn’t playing ball. I’m going to have to involve my lawyer.

play idioms - play ball

play by the rules

meaning – follow the rules
example – No biting, scratching or hitting in the head. If you don’t play by the rules, you’ll be disqualified.

Idioms with verbs - PLAY - play by the rules

play cat and mouse

meaning – tease/pursue before turning violent
example – I’ve been playing cat and mouse with this hot guy, but I think he has got bored of my games.

play idioms - play cat and mouse

play for time

meaning – delay something/someone to gain more time
example – The presentation isn’t opening. You play for time whilst I sort it.

verb phrase - play for time

play gooseberry

meaning – the unwanted third person in the company of lovers
example – It’s couples only. Don’t invite Ricky, he’ll only play gooseberry all night.

play idioms - play gooseberry

play hardball

meaning – be ruthless and do anything necessary to get what you want
example – Let’s play hardball with the suspect. We need to find out where he dumped the body.

play idioms - play hardball meaning and example

play it by ear

meaning – don’t follow a plan, deal with things as they happen
example – I’m not sure who should run with the project, we’ll just play it by ear.

play idioms - play it by ear

play second fiddle

meaning – be less important than something else
example – I’m sick of playing second fiddle to Jeff. I’m way better at the job than he is.

play idioms - play second fiddle

play the field

meaning – have multiple partners, bet on all horses not just the favourite
example – He’s not marriage material. He likes to play the field.

Idioms with verbs - PLAY - play the field

play truant

meaning – absent from school without permission
example – If my son doesn’t stop playing truant, I’ll go to prison.

play idioms - play truant

two can play at that game

meaning – you can copy another person’s strategy
example – The enemy has started using cannons. Two can play at that game.

Idioms with verbs - PLAY - two can play at that game


Hey, did you know the verb ‘play’ has many phrasal verbs. Since you like idioms and phrases, you obviously want to improve your fluency and speak like a native.

Am I right?


I thought you might like to learn the phrasal verbs with ‘play’ too. They are very common in informal English and great to know/be able to understand if you happen to be speaking to a native. We use them all the time, like literally ALL the time.