Don’t tear your hair out over phrasal verbs. Tim Bowen is here to help!
The phrasal verb tear apart can mean to destroy in a literal sense, as in ‘The explosion tore the building apart’ and in a more figurative sense, as in ‘It just tears me apart to see you suffering like this’.
To tear at means to pull very strongly at something, as in ‘The wind tore at her hair’ and if something tears at your heartstrings, it makes you feel a lot of sympathy, as in ‘The video is designed to tear at your heartstrings’.
Tear away is most commonly used with reflexive pronouns and means to force oneself to leave or stop doing something, e.g. ‘She was so intrigued by what he was saying that she couldn’t tear herself away’.
Used in the passive voice only, to be torn between two possibilities means that you cannot decide which one to choose, as in ‘He was torn between two careers: football and rugby’.
If you tear into someone, you attack them either physically, as in ‘He tore into the other kid, punching him furiously’, or verbally, as in ‘She really tore into me for forgetting her birthday’.
To tear off can mean to remove something by force, as in ‘The hurricane tore off the roof’ or to move somewhere very quickly, as in ‘He jumped into his car and tore off down the street’.
If you tear a strip off someone, you criticize them very angrily for doing something wrong, as in ‘The boss tore a strip off him for coming to work late’.
Finally, if you are tearing your hair out, you are very worried or annoyed about something because you do not know what to do about it, as in ‘Your mother’s been tearing her hair out, imagining all sorts of terrible things that could have happened to you’.
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