A man came up to me and asked for a match.

A man came to me and asked for a match.

What do these sentences mean?


Came up is an idiomatic prepositional phrase.

The important part is that the meaning of "came up" is idomatic, so it can't easily be guessed from the meaning of the words "came" and "up". You can look up come up in the dictionary.

In your example the meaning of your two sentences is very similar and the difference is subtle. "Come up" in this sense means to approach someone or something.`

In the first...

A man came up to me and asked for a match.

... it implies it was more sudden that he appeared to ask for the match, or that he approached you. This phrasing is also more common and natural, especially in casual speech, describing what someone is doing. It is simply describing his actions, without emphasizing that it was "you" that he came up to.

In the second sentence...

A man came to me and asked for a match.

Here it is emphasizing "me" more than the act of coming to them. (I'm not sure why.) "Came to me" makes it sound like there is a special reason for the man choosing you. Other examples: "The man called the dog to come to him" (You would not use 'come up' in this sentence). "He came to me for a match because he knew I was a smoker." (You would not use 'came up' here either).

Hope that helps.

Other "up" phrases you will have to find the meaning of separately. For example "look up", "throw up", "run up" (and "run down"), "do up", "mess up", "step up", "hit up", all have their own special (idiomatic) meanings.

  • Actually I think I'm completely wrong. It's "up to" which is the key phrase here, meaning "as far as". You can also say "walk up to" and "ran up to" and "read up to", etc. "Came up" is only idiomatic in phrases like "came up with". – Qubei Aug 4 '14 at 23:32
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    It's not actually a "prepositional phrase", which is a technical term for a phrase with a preposition as head, for example "to the store" or "in the park". It is an idiom that contains a preposition, though. – snailplane Aug 5 '14 at 0:02

There is no one rule. We just need to read more and more to understand the usage of tricky prepositions! That's what I do.

The word up serves as a preposition here in this context. Such words do not always have literal meaning. If I ask you to look up a word in dictionary, you don't need to look toward sky! Check out this exact description here on The London School of English.

However, in your case, came up means to walk to someone especially to talk. MM Dictionary has this entry:

come up - to move towards someone, usually because you want to talk to them.

As I said, without up, it'd mean the same thing and convey the message that the man came to you to ask for a match.

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