Lighten up a little, not too much

Lighten up


Learning English is a serious undertaking, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun along the way. This week, let’s lighten up a little.

For Real


1. “OK, no more playing stupid games. This time it’s for real. Everyone back on the field!”

2. “He literally pushed past me to get into the lift. Is this guy for real?

3. “Are you serious? She goes out with you for a week, and next week she doesn’t even recognize you? Is she for real?”

4. “Come on, you seriously believe that our elections are always clean and fair? Are you for real?”

Meanings and usage

There are two distinct senses in which this expression is used. ‘For real’ can refer to being serious–as against joking or pretending.  When you use ‘for real’ in this sense, you are trying to assert the something is true or genuine.

But the expression is also used in a very different way: to express incredulity or surprise. As the examples above show, when you ask if someone is ‘for real,’ you are showing shock or surprise at their behavior or attitude.

Used in this sense, you are saying that someone’s behavior is too strange to be believable, and that they cannot ‘be real’.A quick note on usage. When you use ‘for real’ in its second sense to express surprise, the sentence always takes the form of a question.

For example, it would be odd to say, “She is behaving so strangely I cannot believe she is for real.” But the following usage works fine: “She’s behaving so strangely! Is she for real?”


You know the drill. Use the expression as often as possible—at least two or three times every day for a week. Anytime you don’t agree with someone, exaggerate your reaction and ask loudly if they are for real. Do this while watching a movie or a TV show, or while reading a book, as well as while interacting with people.

Lighten up


1. “I don’t get why he’s so serious all the time. I wish he’d lighten up a little.”

2. “What are you on about? It’s just a game! Would you please lighten up and stop giving me those angry looks?”

3. “Guys, I know you are all serious about work here, but I’m new and I still need to learn a lot. Can you all please lighten up on me a little?”


‘Lighten up’ refers to being less serious, while a slight variation of the idiom, ‘to lighten up on someone’ refers to treating that person with less roughness. The third example above uses the idiom in this second sense.

Meanings and Usage

If you remember our discussion of the idiom ‘knock,’ the expression is mostly used to refer to situations where the criticism is unwarranted or unjustified.

The expression ‘big deal,’ which we examined recently, is also similar: When you say ‘big deal,’ you often mean that it is not a big deal.The expression ‘lighten up’ is similar.

When you tell someone to lighten up, in a strictly literal sense, you are telling them to be more relaxed, to be less serious, and to cheer up a little.

You might say, for example: “My eldest uncle has been a very stern, serious man all his life. Only recently, after becoming a grandfather, he has learned to lighten up a little.”In terms of actual usage, as the examples above will show, there is a subtle tone of disapproval, or of criticism.

Essentially, when you tell someone to lighten up, you are implying that their seriousness is not justified. If you have a friend whose pet dog has died, for example, and you want him to cheer up, telling him to ‘lighten up’ would be extremely inappropriate, since you would be implying that his grieving is unjustified. Another variation of this expression is, as we have seen, ‘to lighten up on someone.’

In this case, the meaning is slightly different, and refers to being less harsh or demanding in your treatment of a person, giving them more time to learn, more help, or being less demanding in terms of the performance expected from them.


1. Do you know someone who needs to lighten up in terms of their personality and overall attitude towards life? Describe this person in a couple of sentences.

2. Can you recall an incident where you or someone you know took a situation too seriously when they actually needed to lighten up? Describe the incident briefly.