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To “Flush Out” Or “Flesh Out”: When Do You Use Each Phrase?

dark blue text "flush out or flesh out" on light blue background

The phrases flesh out and flush out are proof of how much difference a single letter can make. They sound very similar, but their meanings are completely different. One is mainly used in abstract contexts, such as ideas and plans. The other is often used in literal contexts involving liquids and things like pipes and fire hydrants, as well as in other ways.

In this article, we’ll flesh out the meanings of both flesh out and flush out, note the different contexts in which each can be used, provide example sentences, and flush out any remaining confusion between the two.

Quick summary

Flesh out means to add substance to something or expand it—like adding more specific details to the “bones” or “skeleton” of an idea. Flush out has a few different meanings. Most literally, it means to cause water or liquid to flow through and out of something, such as a pipe, often as a way to clean it. It can also mean to force someone or something to come out into the open.

flesh out or flush

The phrase flesh out means to give substance to something or to make something more whole by adding details to it. For example, you might say The author fleshed out the main character by explaining their backstory in the second chapter. It’s a metaphorical phrase that likens the addition of details or substance to the flesh on a skeleton. In this way, it’s the “bones” or “skeleton” of an idea or plan—the basic starting point—that get fleshed out.

The phrase flush out means to force water or another liquid through and out of something (like a pipe), typically as a way of cleaning it or clearing it out. For example, you could say The plumber flushed out all of the clogged pipes or Try flushing out your eyes with water to stop the stinging.

The phrase flush out is also used in a different way to mean to force someone or something out into the open. This can apply to literally forcing a person or animal to come out of hiding, as in My cat has been hiding behind the couch, so I’m trying to flush her out by shaking the curtain. It can also be applied in other, more figurative ways, Investigators flushed out the source of the intelligence leak.

Like many idiomatic phrasal verbs, both phrases can be split, meaning that words can appear between the first word in the phrase and out, as in Flesh those ideas out or Please try to flush the grime out.

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fleshed out or flushed out

Something is fleshed out if it is augmented or made more whole, and something is flushed out if it is cleaned with water or forced out into the open. Generally speaking, you can often determine which phrase is appropriate based on the context. Fleshed out is most often used in the context of ideas, especially ideas that are basic and need more detail. Flushed out is most often used in the context of things involving pipes or flowing water, or things that have been hidden or kept secret.

The one you’re more likely to see being used as an adjective (in which case it’s often hyphenated) is fleshed-out, as in Your next draft should be a more fleshed-out story—not just a basic premise.

Examples of flush out and flesh out used in a sentence

Let’s take a look at some of the different ways that flush out and flesh out can be used in a sentence:

  • When I write an essay, I start with an outline of the main points and then flesh out each one.
  • The injured meerkat needed to be flushed out of its burrow so it could be treated.
  • Entrepreneurs usually have plenty of passion, but their business plans often need to be fleshed out.
  • Luckily, Charlie quickly flushed out his eyes with water before the chemicals could cause serious damage.

It might be time to learn when to use "maybe" vs. "may be" next, so read about them here.

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