let off: meaning and explanation

to let someone off = to allow someone to escape without punishment (or without full punishment) when they have done something wrong.

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For example, imagine one of your employees makes a big mistake and loses a client. This is serious – normally you would give the employee a warning or even fire them. However, you know that the employee has been having problems at home, and you want to give him another chance. You decide to let him off – you don’t punish him.

If you use the phrasal verb on its own (e.g. I was late for work 5 times in a row, but my boss let me off), then you are saying that the person avoided punishment completely.

If they were given a smaller or reduced punishment, then you can specify this using ‘to let sb off with sth…’. e.g. Because it was his first offence, the judge decided not to send the teenage car thief to prison, and let him off off with a fine.

This phrasal verb can also be used as a noun: a let off. This communicates the idea of something being a lucky escape. e.g. Arsenal were very lucky not to lose that game. It was a real let off for them.

Have a go at these micro-dictation exercises to hear this expression being used in context – how much can you understand?

Listening exercises

Micro-listening #1

Accent: Ireland

speeding but the police with a .

About the sentence

…for some reason the police let me off

For some reason is a useful phrase to use when we are unable to explain something. e.g. The conference was cancelled but for some reason they didn’t tell me.

Micro-listening #2

Accent: England (RP)

, .
I’ll this time, turn up it will have to record.

About the sentence

…if you turn up late again…

The phrasal verb to turn up means to appear or arrive somewhere, often when you are not expected. e.g. I think you should call ahead and let him know you’re coming. You can’t just turn up at his house.

You can practise this phrasal verb here.

Micro-listening #3

Accent: North America

, .
partner’s birthday, but because I’ve work.

About the sentence

…I’ve been so busy at work…

The present perfect (have been) is used here because the speaker is talking about an unspecified time up to the present or around now, i.e. recently or lately. Compare with the past simple, which would be talking about a specific, finished time, e.g. I was so busy at work last month. I’m glad things are a bit calmer now.

Extra practice

Here are some questions/links to help you learn the new vocabulary:

  • Have you ever done something wrong but not been punished (or given a smaller punishment than you expected)?
  • When was the last time you let somebody off?

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