[ pley ]
See synonyms for play on
  1. a dramatic composition or piece; drama.

  2. a dramatic performance, as on the stage.

  1. exercise or activity for amusement or recreation.

  2. fun or jest, as opposed to seriousness: I said it merely in play.

  3. a pun: On this article about encroaching grizzlies, the headline “Bear with us” is a play on the word “bear.”

  4. the playing, action, or conduct of a game: The pitcher was replaced in the fourth inning of play.

  5. the manner or style of playing or of doing something: We admired his fine play throughout the game.

  6. an act or instance of playing or of doing something: a stupid play that cost us the match.

  7. one's turn to play: Whose play is it?

  8. a playing for stakes; gambling.

  9. an attempt to accomplish something, often in a manner showing craft or calculation; maneuver: They tried to buy up the stock in a takeover play.

  10. an enterprise or venture; deal: an oil and drilling play.

  11. action, conduct, or dealing of a specified kind: fair play;foul play.

  12. action, activity, or operation: the play of fancy.

  13. brisk, light, or changing movement or action: a fountain with a leaping play of water.

  14. elusive change or movement, as of light or colors: the play of a searchlight against the night sky.

  15. a space in which something, as a part of a mechanism, can move.

  16. freedom of movement within a space, as of a part of a mechanism.

  17. freedom for action, or scope for activity: full play of the mind.

  18. attention in the press or other media; coverage; dissemination as news: The birth of the panda got a big play in the papers.

  19. an act or instance of being broadcast: The governor's speech got two plays on our local station.

verb (used with object)
  1. to act the part of (a person or character) in a dramatic performance; portray: to play Lady Macbeth.

  2. to perform (a drama, pantomime, etc.) on or as if on the stage.

  1. to act or sustain (a part) in a dramatic performance or in real life: to play the role of benefactor.

  2. to act the part or character of in real life: to play the fool;to play God.

  3. to give performances in, as a theatrical company does: to play the larger cities.

  4. to engage in (a game, pastime, etc.).

  5. to contend against in a game.

  6. to function or perform as (a specified player) in a game or competition: He usually plays left field.

  7. to employ (a piece of equipment, a player, etc.) in a game: I played my highest card.

  8. to use as if in playing a game, as for one's own advantage: He played his brothers against each other.

  9. to stake or wager, as in a game.

  10. to lay a wager or wagers on (something).

  11. to represent or imitate, as for recreation or in jest: to play pirates.

  12. to perform on (a musical instrument).

  13. to perform (music) on an instrument.

  14. to cause (a phonograph, radio, recording, etc.) to produce sound or pictures: Do you mind if I play the radio?Stop playing YouTube videos and get to work!

  15. to do or perform: You shouldn't play tricks.Compromise plays an important part in marriage.

  16. to carry or put into operation; act upon: to play a hunch.

  17. to cause to move or change lightly or quickly: to play colored lights on a fountain.

  18. to operate or cause to operate, especially continuously or with repeated action: to play a hose on a fire.

  19. to allow (a hooked fish) to exhaust itself by pulling on the line.

  20. to display or feature (a news story, photograph, etc.), especially prominently: Play the flood photos on page one.

  21. to exploit or trade in (an investment, business opportunity, stock, etc.).

verb (used without object)
  1. to exercise or employ oneself in diversion, amusement, or recreation.

  2. to do something in sport that is not to be taken seriously.

  1. to amuse oneself; toy; trifle (often followed by with).

  2. to take part or engage in a game.

  3. to take part in a game for stakes; gamble.

  4. to conduct oneself or act in a specified way: to play fair.

  5. to act on or as if on the stage; perform.

  6. to perform on a musical instrument.

  7. (of an instrument or music) to sound in performance: The strings are playing well this evening.

  8. (of a phonograph, radio, recording, etc.) to give forth sound: The radio played all night.

  9. to be performed or shown: What's playing at the movie theater around the corner?

  10. to be capable of or suitable for performance, as a television or dramatic script: We hope this scene will play well.

  11. Informal. to be accepted or effective; fare: How will the senator's proposal play with the public?

  12. to move freely within a space, as a part of a mechanism.

  13. to move about lightly or quickly: The water of the fountain played in the air.

  14. to present the effect of such motion, as light or the changing colors of an iridescent substance: The lights played strangely over the faces of the actors.

  15. to operate continuously or with repeated action.

  16. Informal. to comply or cooperate: They wanted her to tell them what she knew about the plans, but she refused to play.

Verb Phrases
  1. play along,

    • to cooperate or concur; go along.

    • to pretend to cooperate or concur.

  2. play around, Informal.

    • to behave in a playful or frivolous manner; fool around.

    • to be sexually promiscuous.

    • to be sexually unfaithful.

  1. play at,

    • to pretend interest in: It's obvious that you're just playing at fishing for my sake.

    • to do something without seriousness: He is merely playing at being a student.

  2. play back, to play (a recording, especially one newly made): Play it back and let's hear how I sound.

  3. play down, to treat as of little importance; minimize: He has consistently played down his own part in the successful enterprise.

  4. play off,

    • Sports. to play an extra game or round in order to settle a tie.

    • Sports. to engage in an elimination game or games after the regular season is over in order to determine the champion.

    • to set (one person or thing) against another, usually for one's own gain or advantage: The children could usually get what they wanted by playing one parent off against the other.

  5. play on / upon to exploit, as the feelings or weaknesses of another; take selfish advantage of: She would never think of playing on the good nature of others.

  6. play out,

    • to evolve or progress toward a conclusion; unfold; turn out: Right now it’s too early to tell how all this will play out.

    • to come or bring to an end; finish: The full consequences of the decision have yet to be played out.

    • to play to the end of (something): When the camera started rolling, I knew exactly how much time I had to play out the full scene.

    • to use up or be used up; exhaust or be exhausted: Mining towns quickly sprouted, and just as quickly disappeared once the coal supply played out.And when that groundwater supply is played out, then what?

    • to reel or pay out, as a rope, line, etc.: By the time he reached the bottom of the cavern, his friends on the surface had played out 150 feet of rope.

  7. play up, to emphasize the importance of; highlight or publicize: The schools are playing up their science programs.

Idioms about play

  1. bring into play, to put into motion; cause to be introduced: New evidence has been brought into play in this trial.

  2. come to play, Informal. to be disposed to play or participate in a manner reflecting a determination to win or succeed: We're a small new business, but we came to play.

  1. in / out of play, in or not in the state of being played during a game: The umpire says the ball was not in play.

  2. make a play for, Informal.

    • to try to attract, especially sexually: He made a play for his friend's girlfriend.

    • to attempt to gain by impressing favorably: This ad will make a play for new consumer markets.

  3. play ball. ball1 (def. 26).

  4. play both ends against the middle, to maneuver opposing groups in order to benefit oneself.

  5. play by ear, to play (music or a musical instrument) without printed music, as by memory of what one has heard or by unschooled musical instinct.

  6. played out,

    • out of fashion; hackneyed: New styles in clothing are soon played out in New York.

    • used up; finished: The original tires were played out and had to be replaced.

  7. play fast and loose, to act in an irresponsible or inconsiderate manner, especially to employ deception to gain one's ends: to play fast and loose with someone's affections.

  8. play for time, to prolong something in order to gain an advantage; forestall an event or decision: Their maneuvering at the conference was obviously calculated to play for time.

  9. play hardball. hardball (def. 4).

  10. play into someone's hands, to act in such a way as to give an advantage to (someone, especially an opponent): If you lose your temper when he insults you, you will be playing right into his hands.: Also play into the hands of .

  11. play it by ear, to improvise, especially in a challenging situation when confronted by unknown factors: If you can't come up with a plan, we'll just have to play it by ear.

  12. play it safe, to act cautiously; avoid risk or danger: She usually plays it safe on the red carpet, wearing simple, classic designs.: Also play safe .

  13. play one's cards right. card1 (def. 22).

  14. play politics. politics (def. 8).

  15. play possum. possum (def. 3).

  16. play second fiddle. second fiddle (def. 2).

  17. play the field. field (def. 39).

  18. play the game. game1 (def. 29).

  19. play up to, Informal. to attempt to impress in order to gain someone's favor: Students who too obviously play up to their teachers are usually disliked by their classmates.

  20. play with a full deck. deck (def. 23).

  21. play with fire. fire (def. 57).

  22. play with oneself, Informal. to masturbate.

Origin of play

First recorded before 900; (noun) Middle English plei(e) “merriment, sport, pleasure,” Old English plega “quick movement, play” (as in swordplay); (verb) Middle English pleyen, Old English pleg(i)an (cognate with Middle Dutch pleien “to leap for joy, dance, rejoice, be glad”)

synonym study For play

3. Play, game, sport refer to forms of diverting activity. Play is the general word for any such form of activity, often undirected, spontaneous, or random: Childhood should be a time for play. Game refers to a recreational contest, mental or physical, usually governed by set rules: a game of chess. Besides referring to an individual contest, game may refer to a pastime as a whole: Golf is a good game. If, however, the pastime is one (usually an outdoor one) depending chiefly on physical strength, though not necessarily a contest, the word sport is applied: Football is a vigorous sport.

Other words for play

Opposites for play

Other words from play

  • play·ing·ly, adverb
  • play·less, adjective
  • play·like, adjective
  • coun·ter·play, noun
  • non·play·ing, adjective
  • self-play·ing, adjective
  • un·played, adjective
  • un·play·ing, adjective
  • well-played, adjective Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023

How to use play in a sentence

  • I called it a spinet, because it somewhat resembled that instrument, and was played upon in the same manner.

    Gulliver's Travels | Jonathan Swift
  • And then several hours at Liszt's, where one succession of concertos, fantasias, and all sorts of tremendous things are played.

  • Jean clung to his English nurse, who played the fascinating game of pretending to eat his hand.

  • Haggard merely played for the excitement, and Spunyarn because it was a lesser bore to play than to look on.

  • Though the amount played for is serious, a good deal of rather bald conversation and chaff goes on.

British Dictionary definitions for play


/ (pleɪ) /

  1. to occupy oneself in (a sport or diversion); amuse oneself in (a game)

  2. (tr) to contend against (an opponent) in a sport or game: Ed played Tony at chess and lost

  1. to fulfil or cause to fulfil (a particular role) in a team game: he plays defence; he plays in the defence

  2. (tr) to address oneself to (a ball) in a game: play the ball not the man

  3. (intr; often foll by about or around) to behave carelessly, esp in a way that is unconsciously cruel or hurtful; trifle or dally (with): to play about with a young girl's affections

  4. (when intr, often foll by at) to perform or act the part (of) in or as in a dramatic production; assume or simulate the role (of): to play the villain; just what are you playing at?

  5. to act out or perform (a dramatic production)

  6. to give a performance in (a place) or (of a performance) to be given in a place

  7. (intr) to be received: How will these policies play in Middle England?

  8. to have the ability to perform on (a musical instrument): David plays the harp

  9. to perform (on a musical instrument) as specified: he plays out of tune

  10. (tr)

    • to reproduce (a tune, melody, piece of music, note, etc) on an instrument

    • to perform works by (a specific composer): to play Brahms

  11. to discharge or cause to discharge: he played the water from the hose onto the garden

  12. to operate, esp to cause (a record player, radio, etc) to emit sound or (of a record player, radio, etc) to emit (sound): he played a record; the radio was playing loudly

  13. to move or cause to move freely, quickly, or irregularly: lights played on the scenery

  14. (tr) stock exchange to speculate or operate aggressively for gain in (a market)

  15. (tr) angling to attempt to tire (a hooked fish) by alternately letting out and reeling in line and by using the rod's flexibility

  16. to put (a card, counter, piece, etc) into play

  17. to gamble (money) on a game

  18. play ball informal to cooperate

  19. play fair or play fair with someone to prove oneself fair in one's dealings

  20. play false or play fair with someone to prove oneself unfair in one's dealings

  21. play by ear See ear 1 (def. 19)

  22. play for time to delay the outcome of some activity so as to gain time to one's own advantage

  23. play into the hands of to act directly to the advantage of (an opponent)

  24. play the fool See fool 1 (def. 7)

  25. play the game See game 1 (def. 22)

  1. a dramatic composition written for performance by actors on a stage, on television, etc; drama

    • the performance of a dramatic composition

    • (in combination): playreader

    • games, exercise, or other activity undertaken for pleasure, diversion, etc, esp by children

    • (in combination): playroom

    • (as modifier): play dough

  1. manner of action, conduct, or playing: fair play

  2. the playing or conduct of a game or the period during which a game is in progress: rain stopped play

  3. US and Canadian a move or manoeuvre in a game: a brilliant play

  4. the situation of a ball that is within the defined area and being played according to the rules (in the phrases in play, out of play)

  5. a turn to play: it's my play

  6. the act of playing for stakes; gambling

  7. action, activity, or operation: the play of the imagination

  8. freedom of or scope or space for movement: too much play in the rope

  9. light, free, or rapidly shifting motion: the play of light on the water

  10. fun, jest, or joking: I only did it in play

  11. call into play to bring into operation

  12. make a play for informal

    • to make an obvious attempt to gain

    • to attempt to attract or seduce

Origin of play

Old English plega (n), plegan (vb); related to Middle Dutch pleyen

Derived forms of play

  • playability, noun
  • playable, adjective

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Other Idioms and Phrases with play


In addition to the idioms beginning with play

  • play along
  • play a losing game
  • play around
  • play at
  • play a waiting game
  • play back
  • play ball
  • play both ends against the middle
  • play by ear
  • play cat and mouse
  • play down
  • played out
  • play fair
  • play false
  • play fast and loose
  • play footsie
  • play for
  • play for keeps
  • play for laughs
  • play for time
  • play games
  • play hardball
  • play hard to get
  • play havoc
  • play hide and seek
  • play hooky
  • play in Peoria
  • play into the hands of
  • play it close to one's chest
  • play it cool
  • play it safe
  • play musical chairs
  • play off
  • play on
  • play one's cards close to one's chest
  • play one's cards right
  • play one's trump card
  • play on words
  • play out
  • play politics
  • play possum
  • play safe
  • play second fiddle
  • play the devil with
  • play the field
  • play the fool
  • play the game
  • play the heavy
  • play the market
  • play to the gallery
  • play up
  • play upon
  • play up to
  • play with fire

also see:

  • all work and no play
  • child's play
  • devil's advocate, play
  • fair play
  • foul play
  • game that two can play
  • grandstand play
  • in play
  • make a play for
  • musical chairs, play
  • squeeze play
  • trump card, play one's

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.