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beat someone/something off

succeed in resisting an attacker or an attack.

This is the definition of the phrasal verb, but I am wondering if you say "beat three men off" or "beat off three men", I don't know which one is correct and the most idiomatic and I don't even know if they mean the same thing.

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As a native English speaker, both would make sense and sound idiomatic. As with tkp's answer, I would be more likely to say "beat off three men" than "beat three men off."

I would caution that "beat off" has a slang meaning (urbandictionary) that would make the statement "I beat off three men" unintentionally comical to many native speakers. When I first read your question title, this is where my mind went first and it made me laugh out loud. Because of this I would vastly prefer to say "fought off" over "beat off" unless I were aiming for comic effect.

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Oof, that’s a good question (which is another way of me saying I’m not completely sure!) My view is:

  1. They are both idiomatic, and
  2. They mean the same thing, but
  3. I have a strong preference for not splitting the operative phrase — in this case, “beat off”

The reason is simply to maximize clarity for the reader. Of course if only one or two words are inserted, then there is not much of a problem. So (and forgive me, but I’m going to switch from ‘beat off’ to ‘scare off’ because, well, puerile connotations an’ all that...🙂):

Scare three people off

Is no less clear than

Scare off three people

And in fact, here is an example where splitting is preferable:

Scare him off

Sounds fine, whereas:

Scare off him

does not.

But when there is a large insertion, that threatens clarity, then I try not to split. For example, I’m going to say that:

Scare the 3rd, 4th, and 19th individuals who entered the room, provided of course they were carrying sticks, whistling, and at the same time blinking their left eyes while screaming their ghoulish heads off off

really needs to have that final “off” moved to just after the initial “Scare”!

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