The Seven “Steps” of English

English is infamous for (famous for, but in a bad way) lots of confusing phrasal verbs. So today I’ll try to explain one set (group) of common phrasal verbs using “to step.”

Many of these phrasal verbs with “step” have a simple “physical” meaning. They describe an action you take with your legs.

But often they refer to a more “metaphorical” meaning, one that is not related directly to (in this case) a physical action.

A good case of this is the phrasal verb to step forward. To step forward can mean to move your legs so that your body goes forward.

If you’re waiting in a long line for a cashier (person who takes your money at a store), the cashier might ask the next person in line to step forward.

But to step forward is also used to mean “to volunteer,” to offer to do something when asked: “I was looking for someone in my company to help with the new project, and Julie stepped forward and said ‘Yes, I’ll help.’”

To step up can mean either to move forward with your legs OR to do a very good job with a difficult task: “Margo had a tough project last month, but she really stepped up and did a great job.”

A related expression is “to step up to the plate,” which comes originally from baseball. The plate or “home plate” is where the batter (hitter) stands. To step up to the plate means to give something a try when you have an opportunity to do it, to make a good effort at something.

Similarly, to step down can mean to use your legs to go down, say, a set of stairs in your house. But it can also mean to resign or to quit: “The president of the company stepped down last month after the directors saw the Instagram photos of his vacation with his secretary.”

To step aside can mean to move your legs so that your body goes either left or right, such as when you need to get out of someone’s way on a busy subway train.

But to step aside can also mean to quit or simply to let someone else try something that you are not able to do: “The producers asked Martin, Sam, and Quentin to step aside and let Bong finish the movie.”

If you watch a lot of American crime shows, you may have heard the police say something like “Step away from the door!” to a criminal. That just means to move away from a place using your legs.

Informally, we also use “step away” at work, when we leave our desk for a short time: “Ms. Robbie has stepped away from her desk for a few minutes. Can I help you?”

Stepping back can mean the opposite of stepping forward, in the sense of physically moving your body by going backwards.

To step back (from) also means to be less involved with something, to do less of a thing: “I’ve decided to step back from some of my duties at work because I am working too hard.”

Finally, we have the phrase to step out, which can mean to leave a building for a short time. It is similar to “to step away” but implies that the person left the office or building completely: “I’m going to step out for an hour to visit a client (customer).”

To step out on someone means to cheat on one’s boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife. To cheat on means to be romantically involved with someone who is NOT one of the above: “Juan is married to Maria, but I think he’s stepping out on her with that new blonde in accounting.”


P.S. For more information on phrasal verbs, see these Unlimited and Select English lessons:

Daily English #14 – Going to the Post Office

Daily English #552 – A Homeowners’ Association

Cultural English #288

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