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In the situation where you want to tell a kid about the expected order of activities, which phrasal verb is correct?

  1. You have to finish off your meal before you may watch the movie.

    or

  2. You have to finish up your meal before you may watch the movie.

3 Answers 3

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They are equivalent to each other. However, to my ears (as a native speaker of American English), finish up sounds better in this context.

More examples:

John finished up the dishes after dinner.

John finished off a bottle of wine before going to bed.

Both have the sense of completion, but there is a subtle difference in feeling between the two. Finish off feels much stronger, which is perhaps why it can also be used to mean to kill something.

It was the blow to the head that finished him off, not the bullet wound.

Incidentally, Finish up is prefered intransitively, whereas Finish off is much rarer, at least in American English.

This sounds more natural than using finish off:

Finish up so we can go.

The race finished up in Boston.

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    Nice summary of the subtle distinction, which doesn't only apply when taken to the extremes of finish off = kill. I really wish people would address questions at this level to English Language Learners, where it would be worth explicitly making the point that if a learner takes on board the nature of the subtle distinction, they don't really need to learn finish off = kill as a special case "phrasal verb". Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 15:30
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    I suppose a lion killing a zebra is very literally finishing off its meal… Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 19:03
  • To my (mostly) British ears, too, "finish off" sounds wrong. In fact, I'm not sure I would ever use it except in the sense of "kill"
    – bobtato
    Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 23:09
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I would just say "finish your meal"-- neither phrasal form adds anything here (unless you're writing a song).

"Finish up" is useful as an intransitive verb, to indicate that you are finishing whatever needs to be finished, rather than any particular subject. "Finish off" is perhaps less obviously useful, but it connotes more finality.

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Although finish off and finish up do have some uses where they are not interchangeable, this is not one of them; here they both mean "bring a task to its completion". So either one works just fine. (In fact, finish with no preposition would work equally well in the example sentence.)

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  • Could you please add examples where finish off and finish up are not interchangeable? Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 14:12
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    Between co-workers, past normal quitting time but with work yet to do: "You go home: I'll finish up here." Between deer-hunting buddies: "You need to find the buck you wounded and finish him off." Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 14:43
  • @Brian: Agreed only finish off can be used for dispatch, kill, but I don't see any reason not to use off in your example of co-workers talking about who will take care of the [few] items remaining to complete a task. Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 15:25
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    @FumbleFingers, I would agree with "finish off the task," but without direct object thus stated I think "finish up" is much the more established usage. Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 15:29
  • @Brian: Google NGrams seems to provide at least some evidence that your distinction applies to AmE, but not to BrE. Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 15:38

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