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What are the subtle semantic differences in the following three tri-part phrasal verbs:

(1) be up against (2) come up against (3) run up against

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Not to mention "go up against". – Peter Shor Feb 9 '13 at 5:07
That is a little different because it means to "compete" with someone. Whereas be, come, and run up against have the meaning of facing a problem. But thanks for adding that one too!!! – Patrick T. Randolph Feb 9 '13 at 5:12
up vote 2 down vote accepted

The differences, I think, are mostly aspectual rather than semantic. That is,

  • be up against tends to be used to describe the state of wrestling with a difficulty—“I’m up against something here I don’t know how to handle.”
  • come up against tends to be used to describe encountering a difficulty. However, it is often, perhaps usually, employed in the present perfect—*We’ve come up against something we can’t handle, and we wondered if you have any ideas”—which carries the notion of a state created in the past but enduring into the present.
  • run up against is not significantly different from come up against. I would tend to favour it in contexts where a difficulty was encountered unexpectedly, arresting progress abruptly, as if it had overtones of “running into a brick wall”; but that’s quite possibly only a personal preference.

None of these is written in stone; they are tendencies only, and I think you may safely use any of them in any context and they will be perceived to mean exactly the same thing: you’ve got a problem.

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Nice breakdown of these. Would you say "be" is a bit different than the other two? – Patrick T. Randolph Feb 9 '13 at 5:41
@PatrickT.Randolph Ayup: stative v. inchoative I think are the technical terms. – StoneyB Feb 9 '13 at 9:37

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