As an ESL teacher, I was teaching my students some verbal idioms. I did not encounter any problems explaining to them the definition of each until we reached make up, think up vs come up with. I find that in certain context, they are interchangeable and in some they are not. When they are not, I have problems explaining to my students the reasons. I would really appreciate if someone can point me to the right direction.

think up an idea

come up with an idea

but we can't say make up an idea

think up an excuse

make up an excuse

come up with an excuse (seems to sound right, but I am not 100% sure. Can anyone help to confirm?)

come up with a solution

but think up a solution doesn't sound right

I have looked up in multiple dictionaries and most of them define think up with invent. I was guessing maybe think up is for inventions of original and only original ideas while come up with is for whether the idea is original or not. And is make up only for stories and excuses?


As you say:

  1. Think up implies new, independent creation; we never say "think up with". Consider: Think up a motive for the chicken to cross the road.

  2. Make up implies a fabrication or fantasy idea; "make up with" has an entirely different meaning. Consider: Make up a story about trains.

  3. Come up with does not imply what the source of the information might be, merely that it has been (or needs to be) produced. Consider: You'd better come up with a solution by the end of the day!

  • Thank you for your input! Could you help explain why "Steve Jobs came up with the idea of the iPhone." sounds better than "Steve Jobs thought up the idea of the iPhone." when the invention of the iPhone is an original idea? – Miss Joey Mar 22 '17 at 6:33
  • That would require speculation on the source of this idea. Was it his original concept? The product of his team? Acquired elsewhere? This wording leaves it vague - possible for legal reasons. – Davo Mar 22 '17 at 11:29

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