I've been working on dividing phrasal verbs into groups (according to the meaning of their particle aka adverb) and can't figure out the exact meaning of "acting out in class"

From my research, this one is likely to fall into one these 2 categories of meaning:

  1. "aimed at many people"


"send out resumes",

"give out candies"

"handouts for the lecture"

  1. "beyond what's acceptable or possible" or "outside the usual line of behavior"


"Smoking is definitely out among my friends"

"The option of taking on more staff is out for the moment"

"Trousers like that went out (= stopped being fashionable) in the 70s"

"Long hair is out"

Just a couple of thoughts: A more basic meaning of "acting out" seems to be "To perform a role, often an imaginary one (as in a play)" But from my point of view, this is a different meaning of "out", maybe "aimed at many people" or just "out of your body" as in "she lashed out at me" or "He freaked out".

My questions:

  1. What do you think "out" means in "acting out in class"? If my son is acting out in class, could it mean he is "going beyond the acceptable line of behavior?"

  2. What about "I am acting out the part of dutiful daughter"? (this question is optional)

NB: If you're going to explain it with a meaning that's not mentioned in this post, please provide examples of other phrasal verbs with the meaning you're using, so that we can be sure we have a category and not just a "unique" case. (I refuse to believe that this is a "unique" use of "out") And if you're not a native speaker please mention it (your opinion is still equally important to me)

Thank you!

  • Acting may mean playing a role, but adding out shows there is an external element. So you may act polite while being angry, but acting out is a visible display of your reaction. Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 13:52
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    Welcome to EL&U. Like many compound words, the meaning of phrasal verbs is not necessarily a plain combination of its components. Act out originated in the sense of physically representing something, such as acting out a play, and only later on acquired the meaning of making an impulsive antisocial display of frustration or anger. The meaning is now distinct from act and out and that is why it has a separate entry in dictionaries; you cannot directly learn this sense of act out by looking up act and out.
    – choster
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 13:56
  • Thank you. Could you give an example of actions that can be called "acting out in class". I'd appreciate if you provided 1 example of the least anti-social behavior that still can be called "acting out" and 1 example of the most anti-social behavior that still can be called "acting out". Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 14:13
  • 3
    @FumbleFingers ... in the US, act out means: "misbehave, especially when unnhappy or stressed".
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 15:08
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    In other words, I think, this is psychological jargon intended to echo drama jargon. The idea is that students act like students who feel a certain way in order to communicate, or suggest, that they feel that way themselves.
    – Chaim
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 19:07

2 Answers 2


In the US, at least --

"Act out", in this context, means to "act up" loudly/visibly. Ie, cause a disturbance. A very common term for describing classroom misbehavior.

It's an idiom, perhaps a blend of the two idioms "act up" and "shout out".

It's probably fruitless to attempt to apply a dictionary meaning to "out" in this case.

  • That's interesting. I've never heard "acting out" in that sense in the UK, the normal expression would be "acting up" with the meaning you give. If I heard that a child had been "acting out" in class I would assume that the class had been taking part in a role-play exercise.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 1:10
  • @BoldBen Acting up and acting out are a little different, and I disagree with Hot Licks a bit here. Acting out is about making everyone in the room painfully aware that you are unhappy, but it isn't necessarily loud or obstreperous. If a teenager sulks or sighs loudly or literally drags his feet to the table I'd say he's acting out, but I wouldn't consider such behavior to be acting up.
    – choster
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 2:33
  • @choster That's interesting. It must be one of those differences between US & UK English. I've never heard it used to mean that here.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 7:33

As others have said, act out usually means to play a role, and act up means to behave badly. It seems that the way it's used in the USA might be due to confusing the two.

I'd think the meaning of out is similar in the following:

  • act out (the character/event)
  • read out (the list)
  • cry out (in pain)
  • laugh out loud

Although out loud and aloud are usually interchangeable, out loud can be used when you accidentally say something "out loud", as opposed to when you intentionally read something "aloud", so this might be getting closer to the USA version of "act out".

Collins Dictionary has this, which refers to overt behaviour:

act out

verb (adverb)

  1. (tr) to reproduce (an idea, former event, etc) in actions, often by mime
  2. psychiatry to express unconsciously (a repressed impulse or experience) in overt behaviour

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