43 ways to use the word "work"

You have probably said the word “work” many times: to do a job (I work a lot of overtime), to make an effort (That’s hard work!) or to function (does this thing work?).

But did you know that simply by changing the preposition either before or after, it can mean dozens of different things? That small word makes a world of difference.

The 4 most common collocations with "work" are related to employment:

  1. Work at [a place]: “He worked at the ABC company for over 20 years.”
  2. Work for
    • [an employer]: “I work for The English Farm.”
    • [payment/reward]: “I’ll work for whatever you can pay me. I just need a job!”
  3. Work on
    • [a project]: “Oh, are you working on this project, too? Great!”
    • [a task]: “He can’t go out tonight because he has to work on his presentation.”
  4. Work with [someone/something]: “She worked with him one summer at a riding stable, helping autistic children learn to work with horses.”

You can also use the following collocations to further describe the act of working:

  1. Get to work—
    • start working: “Stop playing video games and get to work!”
    • arrive at your workplace: “What time do you get to work in the morning?”
  2. At work—at your workplace: “I’m at work now. I have a lot to do, so I’ll probably be at work until midnight.”
  3. Work from—do your work at a different place: “Telecommuting is great! I can work from anywhere!”
  4. Work as—have a particular job: “She works as a consultant in the finance industry.”
  5. Off (from) work—time away from work: “He broke his foot playing rugby, so he’s off from work for awhile.”
  6. Out of work—unemployed: “My brother has been out of work for months, so he’s living with our parents to save money.”

Another definition of “work” we mentioned at the start—to make an effort—has its own set of collocations:

  1. Work against
    • to make something difficult: “She lost the election. Her lack of experience worked against her.”

    • to combat a thing or idea:

      • “We’re working against the clock [time] to meet the deadline.”

      • "Working against the idea that girls are bad at math, she strove to win the math competition at her school."

  2. Work around—to move past obstacles: “They ran into a last-minute problem with the new system, but they found a way to work around it and get things up and running.”
  3. Work at—try hard: “He worked at the algebra problem for at least half an hour before he found the answer.”
  4. Work past [a problem/obstacle]—to move beyond: “They weren’t able to work past their differences, so they decided to get a divorce.”
  5. Work through
    • to resolve: “It was hard, but we managed to work through our disagreement and reach a compromise.”
    • to push on despite something: “He twisted his ankle, but he worked through the pain to finish the dance routine.”
    • to finish: “I finally worked my way through that 400-page book!”
  6. Work toward—to try to make something happen: “There’s a problem with the caterer, but they’re working toward a solution and should have everything ready by tomorrow.”
  7. Work with—to use something less than perfect: “Well, it’s not what we really want, but we’ll work with it for now.”

Finally, we use “work” in all sorts of idiomatic ways. For example, the phrase “work out” has five different meanings:

  1. To exercise: “I work out every day so I can eat whatever I want and not get fat!”
  2. To end successfully: “We had some problems, but it all worked out in the end.”
  3. To develop: ”How’s that job working out for you?”
  4. To result in: “So, let’s see… The bill is $52, divided by 4 people, which works out to $13 per person.”
  5. To understand: "Do you understand these directions? I can't work out where we're supposed to go.”

Here are some other “work” idioms to add to your vocabulary:

  1. Work [my/your/… etc.] around to—to progress: “They’re slowly working their way around to speaking to each other again.”
  2. Work away at—erode: “The rain worked away at the cliffs until they crumbled into the sea.”
  3. Work in
    • to make time for: “My schedule’s pretty full, but I could work you in on Friday.”
    • to include: “Can we work in Kahu’s idea to add video, or is that too hard to do?”
  4. Work into—to blend: “Take a cup of flour and work it into the dough by hand.”
  5. Work off
    • calories/weight: "Wow, after that dinner I’m going to have to work off a lot of calories! I want to work off 10 pounds before I go on vacation.”
    • a debt: “It’ll take years to work off my student loan debt.”
  6. Work on [someone]—to try to persuade: “They kept working on him until he agreed to stop studying and go out with them.”
  7. Work over—to examine thoroughly: ‘It should be okay. Our editorial team really worked it over to make sure there aren’t any errors.”
  8. Work up
    • a proposal: “That’s a great idea! Work up an action plan to present to the team tomorrow so we can discuss it.”
    • a sweat/appetite: “I like to work up a sweat when I exercise. Then, after I've worked up an appetite, I have a big, healthy salad.”
  9. Worked up—to get upset: “Why are you getting so worked up about missing the train? There’s another one coming in 5 minutes.”
  10. Work up to—to build towards: “It’s going to take me months to work up to running a 5K race, but I’m determined to do it!
  11. Work yourself (up) into a [frenzy/lather/state]—to become highly agitated: “The dog worked itself into a frenzy trying to get at the rabbit under the shed.”
  12. Work [my/your/… etc.] way up—to do well enough to keep getting promoted: “He worked his way up from line cook to master chef.”

As you can see, the word "work" is a real workhorse in the English language!


preposition—a word that usually goes before a noun or verb to define the meaning; "The book is in my bag, but my bag is at home and I'm already on the train." 
collocation—words that occur regularly together.
riding stable—a place where horses are kept for people to ride.
workhorse—anyone or anything that does a lot of work.