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’

  • play away (from home) – cheat on your partner, be unfaithful
    e.g. My boyfriend has been working late a lot recently. Do you think he’s playing away?
  • play ball – cooperate
    e.g. My ex isn’t playing ball. I’m going to have to involve my lawyer.
  • play by the rules – follow the rules
    e.g. No biting, scratching or hitting in the head. If you don’t play by the rules, you’ll be disqualified.
  • play cat and mouse – tease/pursue before turning violent
    e.g. I’ve been playing cat and mouse with this hot guy, but I think he has got bored of my games.
  • play for time – delay something/someone to gain more time
    e.g. The presentation isn’t opening. You play for time whilst I sort it.
  • play gooseberry – the unwanted third person in the company of lovers
    e.g. It’s couples only. Don’t invite Ricky, he’ll only play gooseberry all night.
  • play hardball – be ruthless and do anything necessary to get what you want
    e.g. Let’s play hardball with the suspect. We need to find out where he dumped the body.
  • play it by ear – don’t follow a plan, deal with things as they happen
    e.g. I’m not sure who should run with the project, we’ll just play it by ear.
  • play second fiddle – be less important than something else
    e.g. I’m sick of playing second fiddle to Jeff. I’m way better at the job than he is.
  • play the field – have multiple partners, bet on all horses not just the favourite
    e.g. He’s not marriage material. He likes to play the field.
  • play truant – absent from school without permission
    e.g. If my son doesn’t stop playing truant, I’ll go to prison.
  • two can play at that game – you can copy another person’s strategy
    e.g. The enemy has started using cannons. Two can play at that game.

Let’s see these idioms with pictures and meaning using real-life scenarios.

verb idioms and expressions - play
Idioms with verbs - PLAY - play away (from home)
play idioms - play ball
Idioms with verbs - PLAY - play by the rules
play idioms - play cat and mouse
verb phrase - play for time
play idioms - play gooseberry
play idioms - play hardball
play idioms - play it by ear
play idioms - play second fiddle
Idioms with verbs - PLAY - play the field
play idioms - play truant
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.