Fun with Phrasal Verbs: Phrasal Verbs with Hold

The verb “hold” in English is a commonly used irregular verb. If you are unsure of the meaning, you can check out the definitions here. Below is a chart showing how the conjugation:

Present tense: I/They/You/We hold  He/She/It holds

Past tense: held

Past participle: held

Here are a few examples of “hold” in sentences:

The happy couple walked down the street holding hands.

Before the accident, he was driving carelessly, with one hand holding the steering wheel, while the other held his phone.

The cat likes to be petted, but he doesn’t like to be held. (passive voice example)

When you hold the baby, make sure to support his head.

We also use “hold” in another less literal sense where it is similar to “keep.”  In traditional wedding vows, the bride and groom each repeat the phrases: “to have and to hold from this day forward.”

Hold is often used when speaking on the phone.  We put people “on hold” while we talk to someone else on a different phone line. Example:  “I have another call coming in. I have to take it. Can I put you on hold for a minute?”

Sometimes if you are expecting a call from someone important, an assistant will call you first and ask if you can “hold” for the person. The assistant is asking you to wait patiently for the person to come to the phone. 

There are several phrasal verbs used with hold.  Today we’ll examine: hold on, hold up, hold off, hold out, hold back, hold in and hold overFor the native speaker, there are clear distinctions, but it might be hard to grasp the differences for non-native speakers.

(Quick review:  A phrasal verb is a verb with an added element — usually a preposition or adverb — which changes or modifies the meaning of that verb.)

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I. Hold on is often used when someone is asking you to wait. It is usually used during phone and remote communication, but can also be used for  in-person situations.  “Hold on” is NOT separable when used this way.This means we cannot put a noung between “hold” and “on.”

Example (remote):  Could you hold on a minute? I have to get my cat out of the room. He’s walking all over my keyboard!

Example (non-remote):

Client:  If that’s your final offer, I’m leaving. That’s way over my budget! This is a waste of time!

Salesperson:  Hold on! I’m sure we can work this out.  Let me run the numbers again! on can also be used to describe the continuous action of “holding” either in the sense of continuing to own something or in the sense of physically holding something:

They haven’t been able to pay their bills since Jim lost his job, but they are trying to hold on to the house until things turn around (change). 

If you go on the Ferris wheel, you’ll need to hold on tight to the bar or you might fall out!

Hold on is sometimes used to describe someone “holding on” to life itself during a serious illness or after an accident:

The patient is holding on by a thread. (The patient is barely surviving. The patient is holding on to life with all his strength, as though he were on a roller coaster, and life was the bar he was holding on to.)

In the song “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”  the word “hold”  is similar to “grip” or “grasp” but we understand it metaphorically. The “hold” that the beloved has on the lover is emotional. Translation: My love for you is an emotional bind that I can’t free myself of.

Note: You can separate “hold” and “on” when you are using the phrase in the literal sense of holding something on top of something else. For example: The nurse told me to hold this ice-pack on my head until the swelling went down.Hold up  is a phrasal verb with several different meanings.

II. Hold up  is used when someone or something causes a delay. Hold up is separable.

Bob held up the Board’s vote by asking for more amendments. 

Joe should have been here by now. I don’t know what could be holding him up. 

 It can also be used as a noun to indicate an unexpected, usually short,  delay:

The interview should have started an hour ago. I don’t know what the holdup is.

Be careful! Both the verb and noun form can also refer to a robbery:

The masked men entered the bank and announced, “This is a holdup! Put your hands up and cooperate! No one will be hurt.”

Hold up can also mean to literally hold something up — above one’s shoulders:

The police ordered the suspect to hold up his hands so they could see them.

We were told to hold up our hands (raise our hands) if we wanted to ask questions.

Hold up can also be used with the idea of “holding” or grabbing something and keeping it from falling:

Example: I lost so much weight that now I have to hold up these pants with safety pins or they would fall down!

Hold up can be used to describe the state of not falling into pieces, of maintaining equilibrium: John holds up well under pressure.

Sometimes we use “hold up” idiomatically when we need someone to stop and wait for us, or to explain something again before going on. In this sense the meaning is very similar to hold on.

Hold up. I didn’t get that. Could you repeat what you just said?”

Hold up, “ John yelled to his friends, “I had to tie my shoe. I’ll be right there.

III. Hold off is when you decide to delay something usually due to some unexpected change. Often the delay or wait is meant to be temporary. In many cases you could substitute “wait or wait for” for “hold off.”

Example:  We’ve decided not to hire for the new position due to the project’s cancellation. We might hire when funding is available, but we’re holding off for now.

The budget director couldn’t make it to today’s meeting, so let’s hold off on the funding questions until we can reschedule with her. 

You can use “hold off” even when the delay is very brief: 

 “I know everyone has feelings about the proposed changes, but could we please hold off on the comments until the speaker finishes her presentation? 

IV. Hold out, like many of these expressions, also involves a wait.  This term is often used in meetings when discussing strategy.  It can be used in a few different ways.  If someone is “holding out” that person is usually delaying or refusing to agree  for some strategic purpose — to get more money or other change of condition.  Here are some examples:

Management has been trying to negotiate a new contract with the union for weeks, but the negotiations aren’t moving. The union is continuing to hold out for better working conditions and a substantial raise in starting salaries. 

Jane was offered the position, but she held out for a higher salary, and ultimately the team decided to offer the job to someone else.

A “holdout” (noun)  is someone who holds up the resolution of a situation because they are waiting for more favorable terms or because they don’t want to reach a resolution:  

All the property owners sold their old homes to the developer, but there was one holdout. Ultimately, the developer went ahead. That’s why there is one old house still standing on the corner where the new apartments are. 

V. Hold back often means to not reveal part of the truth.  Here are some examples:

Peter told me his mother wasn’t feeling well, but I had a feeling he was holding something back. The truth is his mother is seriously ill and won’t recover.

Don’t hold back! Tell me how you really feel about my painting! 

We often use “hold back on” when there is an object after the phrase:

Don’t hold back on me! Tell me how you really feel.

We also hold back when we refuse to make a payment or meet the terms of a contract because some condition has changed or not been met: 

We held back our final payment until the contractors repaired the damage they had caused to the terrace.

To literally “hold something back” would mean to use physical force to stop something or someone from entering or attacking:

They held back the enemy by blowing up the bridge to prevent them from crossing the river. (Note: you could use “held off” as well, but “held off” implies that this was a temporary measure — a delay that couldn’t work in the long term.)

Here it’s used in a similar way:

When I found out I didn’t get into the program, I held back my tears, and acted as if it were no big deal, but my heart was breaking.  

Idiomatically, we also use this to describe a situation in which someone cannot go forward:

Lena should have gotten a promotion by now. It’s her own bad attitude that holds her back. 

We use “hold back” or “left back” when a student has to repeat a year in school:

Austin was held back in the fifth grade because of a reading problem. Fortunately, his parents had him tested and it was discovered he had dyslexia. Thanks to some good intervention, he was able to catch up with his classmates. 

VI. Hold in  means something, often a feeling, is not being expressed. It is similar in use but not the same as “held back” and often used when we keep our feelings to ourselves.

When I fell during practice, and Beth started to laugh at me, I felt awful, but I held in my feelings, and held back my tears. I couldn’t let her see me as weak. 

Small children (and sometimes adults) often use “hold in” when they need to use a bathroom.

“Mommy, I have to go to the bathroom.”

“We’re almost home, sweety. Can you wait just a couple of minutes?”

“I really have to go, Mommy! I don’t know if I can hold it in!”

VII. Hold over and the noun holdover are used less frequently than some of the other phrases with hold, but they might come up. To hold something over someone can literally mean to hold something above or out of reach:

My older brother would grab my hat and then hold it over my head so I had to jump up to reach it.

We can also use this metaphorically when someone is using information to threaten or intimidate someone:

Bob is the only one here who knows I was fired from my last job. He indirectly holds it over me, by constantly asking me for favors.

As a noun a holdover is used a little differently. In business, a “holdover” is often an employee who continues working at a company after the company changes ownership or management. It can also be used as an adjective. It can also be used as  an adjective describe rules or regulation that belonged to a previous time but haven’t been changed yet. See the examples below:

Ms. Jones, the Executive Assistant is a holdover from the old team. She’s near retirement, and I think they were afraid she would sue if they tried to fire her.

The judge is a holdover appointee from the last administration. He’s going to be replaced as soon as the President appoints someone else.

The senator is trying to change some of the holdover rules from years ago that are now irrelevant.

Quick quiz:  Try filling in the blanks. (Scroll down for answers.)

  1. “I’m sorry. I have to take this call. Can you ______  _____ a minute?
  2.  Stewart was holding _______  ____ us. He didn’t want to tell us what really happened at the meeting.
  3. We’re going to hold ____ on the plan to return to non-remote meetings at least for the next couple of months.
  4. Hold ___ a second! Could you explain that again, from the beginning?
  5. I don’t understand what the _________ is. We were supposed to have started an hour ago.
  6. We were offered a lot of money to sell the property by the developers, but a few people held ____ . I don’t know if they wanted more money or just didn’t want to sell at any price.  7. Those ________ cost us millions of dollars!



  1. ..hold on (2)..out on OR back on (3) off (4) on OR up (“on” is more common here) (5) holdup (6) out (7) holdouts