Could you tell me if there is any difference in meaning between play on something and play off something in the sense of using it get an advantage? For example:

Don't let people play on/play off your emotions.

Some people may play on/play off the fact that you've made mistakes in the past to pass you over you promotion.

2 Answers 2


The difference is pretty subtle. Using "off" may imply something temporary or short-lived, perhaps carrying something away or with an indirect consequence, whereas "on" implies keeping contact, so more persistent and more direct. The latter would probably be more common.


"Play on" is the correct phrase for this context, meaning to exploit, or take advantage of. A slightly more formal version of is "play upon". Using "play off" in this specific context of exploiting someone's emotions is, I believe, an error.

To "play off" something or someone is far less exploitative. It is synonymous with expressions like to "bounce ideas off" someone, and means to make legitimate and fair use of their skills and knowledge.

To use a sporting analogy - as "playing" evidently is - if a football player exploited a weakness in an opposing team member you would likely say that they "played on their weakness". But if two players on the same team worked cooperatively you might say they "played off each other's strengths".

It is also worth noting that, away from these expressions, 'on' and 'off' are sometimes interchangeable and sometimes not. For example, people say "live on" and "live off" (as in "I can't live on this wage" or "he lives off his parents' money"), but we only ever say "prey on" (or "upon"). My answer should give you a broad sense of the difference between 'play on' and 'play off', but you may have to check dictionaries or other references to check if a particular use is correct.

  • Thank you the answer! But I'm confused as this dictionary says it means pretty much the same as "play on". www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/play-off Nov 9, 2020 at 8:09
  • @DmytroO'Hope I suggest you read my answer again, and then that dictionary definition again along with the example. I have said that you would "play on" someone's emotions which is the specific context of your example. To play off something in the context of your dictionary example is very similar to my example of 'bouncing ideas' off.
    – Astralbee
    Nov 9, 2020 at 8:35
  • Thanks again! What about "play on the fact" and "play off the fact"? Nov 9, 2020 at 9:45
  • @DmytroO'Hope Well, what do you think - is it possible for a fact to cooperate as if another person?
    – Astralbee
    Nov 9, 2020 at 9:59
  • I'm not sure. I'm confused. I can't see any difference between "play on the fact" and "play off the fact"? Thanks to your answer I now know that it's incorrect to say "play off emotions". I dictionaties say that "play off" and "play on" mean to use a fact or whatever to gain an advantage. I'm confused where there are really any difference between the two and whether both even correct. Nov 9, 2020 at 18:24

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