phrasal verbs: spending money unwillingly for boring stuff you don’t want


Hi and welcome to Better at English!

Do you ever have to pay for things that you wish you didn’t have to spend money on? For example, if you get a parking ticket, do you enjoy paying the fine? If your computer breaks, do you enjoy buying new parts for it or having to pay to have it fixed? If it’s been a really hot summer, do you like paying for that huge electric bill you got because you had to run your AC so much just to keep yourself from melting in the heat? I sure don’t like having to pay for those things. In fact, it’s a real drag to have to fork over my hard-earned cash to pay for boring things like that.

Today we have an upper intermediate lesson for you, and a slightly different, longer format than our normal two-minute English podcasts.

We’re going to look at a group of phrasal verbs that all have the meaning of to unwillingly or reluctantly pay for something. What do reluctant and unwilling mean? Well, if you’re reluctant or unwilling to do something, it means you don’t want to do it.

I’ll say each phrasal verb twice slowly so that you can listen and repeat:

to shell out

to fork out

to fork over

to fork up

to cough up


All of these phrasal verbs have the idea of reluctance or unwillingness built into them. You can use them when you have to pay for things that you aren’t happy about.

For instance, buying a sexy new laptop because it’s super cool, you really want it and don’t mind spending the money on it is one thing. But buying a new laptop because you spilled coffee all over your old one and ruined it beyond repair is something you probably wouldn’t be too happy about.

If you use an attitude-revealing phrasal verb like to cough up or to fork out instead of a neutral verb like to spend or to buy or to pay for, you let the listener know not only that you spent some money, but also how you feel about spending the money: in this case, it made you feel unhappy, unwilling or reluctant.

To fork over and to fork up are a bit broader in meaning than the other three in this group. We mainly use to fork over and to fork up about spending money, but you can also use these two to talk about having to give people things in general. For example, if your annoying little brother Nigel has taken something of yours, you want him to give it back, and you know he won’t be happy about it, you can tell him:

Hey Nigel, that’s mine! Fork it over!

This means, “Hey Nigel, that’s mine. Give it to me.” Of course, you could also ask him a bit more politely: “Excuse me, Nigel. Would you mind giving that back to me?” But sometimes the more direct approach works better with annoying little brothers. ;-)


These five phrasal verbs are all separable. That means that you can put objects between the mighty VERB and its cute little adverb or preposition friend. So you can say, for example,

to shell out money or to shell money out

to fork over 50 dollars or to fork 50 dollars over

to cough up a lot of cash or to cough a lot of cash up

to fork out two billion dollars or to fork two billion dollars out

Just remember that when you have separable phrasal verbs and pronoun objects, you always put the pronoun between the verb and adverb or preposition. So you say

Cough it up! Shell it out! Fork it over! Fork it out!

But not

Cough up it. Shell out it.. etc. [Your can find a concise overview of the do’s and don’ts of phrasal verbs here link ].

Even though you can separate these verbs and still be grammatical, native speakers prefer to keep them together. It’s far more frequent to say something like “Darn! We’ll have to shell out 500 dollars for a new printer” than to say “Darn! We’ll have to shell 500 dollars out for a new printer.” It’s definitely not WRONG to separate, but it’s more common not to.

Authentic example

Here are seven authentic example sentences for you to investigate. Do you notice any usage patterns, like which prepositions are used?

1. So, the tax payer is asked to shell billions of dollars out to try and fix this mistake of a war and Bush decides to go ahead and throw a party? [ link] [this is an example of a rare separable use of this phrasal verb]

2. In June, BT said it owned the patent to hyperlinks and wanted ISPs in the US to cough up hard cash for the privilege of using them. [link ]

3. The county is facing the prospect of having to cough up well more than $2 million to renovate the dilapidated facility, which has been decertified by the Tennessee Corrections Institute for failing to comply with the state’s minimum standards for local jails. [link ]

4. Five big Wall Street brokerages coughed up $8.25 million in fines in December for failing to preserve electronic messages, as securities rules require. [ link ]

5. Employees in some U.S. metropolitan areas may soon be forking over nearly 10% of their salary for gas needed to commute to and from work. [ link ]

6. …he doesn’t have any money because he’s had to fork it over to all his ex-wives [link ]

7. No way am I forking out $100 or whatever insane price they want for it. [ link ]

Finally, the phrasal verbs we’ve looked at here today are often used in combination with to have to for obligation — when have to means must. Like in example 3:

The county is facing the process of having to cough up

or in example 6: He doesn’t have any money because he’s had to fork it over

Combining phrasal verbs like fork over or cough up with have to really emphasizes the idea of unwillingness, don’t you think?

Thanks for tuning in to this edition of Better at English! Here’s hoping that you won’t have to fork over any of your hard-earned cash on anything dull or boring in the near future; only fun things, cool things, things that make you happy! See you next time!

Look up these phrasal verbs in the dictionary
to shell out
to fork out
to fork up/over
to cough up

Note: The opinions expressed in the authentic example sentences do not necessarily reflect our views here at Better At English. They are provided in the sole interest of giving learners a variety of examples of real-life, authentic English usage.