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I have been watching many American movies and it seems they often say "hold up" to stop someone from proceeding a next action.

See this scenarios, a group of criminals are pointing their guns at a bystander and about to fire, but their leader says "hold up".

However, "hold on" seems to be used more in Australian and British English but I am not sure.

Can we say "hold on" to stop someone from proceeding a next action?

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  • Uh, yes, "hold on" can be used there: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hold%20on "hold on a minute—it's not your turn". However, I don't really know how to comment on the differences or how it differs across regions.
    – Riolku
    Feb 18, 2022 at 0:37
  • "Hold up" isn't that common in the U.S., I've mostly heard it in older movies. Hold on is much more common as hold up is considered a bit inappropriate unless it comes from a position of authority. Feb 18, 2022 at 14:41
  • As an American speaker, I would interpret "hold up" in this context as representing a sudden interruption of an action or plan, while "hold on" would be a more general indication that one should prepare to wait, but an immediate action which is in progress may be continued. For example, if someone were machining a sequence of parts, and expected to be told when one had done enough, "hold on" would indicate that one should finish the part which was in process, since even if it wasn't immediately needed it might be useful as a spare. "Hold up" would have a connotation more like...
    – supercat
    Feb 18, 2022 at 16:33
  • ..."the one of grooves in every part you're machining is being cut too deep, meaning every part you machine fully will be scrap. If you're machining a part and stop now, it might be salvageable, but if you finish it, it won't be, so you should stop immediately."
    – supercat
    Feb 18, 2022 at 16:35
  • Both are colloquial and can be used. Formally, the imperative is "Hold!" (That might seem archaic or obsolete to many, but it still works in practice.)
    – Wastrel
    Feb 18, 2022 at 17:25

9 Answers 9

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Both "hold on" and "hold up" can have the same strict definition, though the intensity and register vary slightly. (The two phrases each have other uses that differ in other ways, which we don't really need to discuss in this answer)

For this particular usage, "hold up" is a bit more forceful, and a bit less formal, than "hold on".

If a region tends to use one form more often than another, it is more likely to be related to a cultural/regional preference for certain registers rather than an actual dialectal difference.

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    Emphasis on “a bit more forceful.” I don’t disagree, but the difference is extremely slight, at least to my ear (American, primarily the northeast, 30s).
    – KRyan
    Feb 18, 2022 at 15:00
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    As someone with roughly the same background I don't really perceive a difference at all. Just seems like a different choice of dialect. Feb 18, 2022 at 20:33
  • ‘Stop, Sam, stop!’ said Mr. Winkle, trembling violently, and clutching hold of Sam’s arms with the grasp of a drowning man. ‘How slippery it is, Sam!’ ‘Not an uncommon thing upon ice, Sir,’ replied Mr. Weller. ‘Hold up, Sir!’ This last observation of Mr. Weller’s bore reference to a demonstration Mr. Winkle made at the instant, of a frantic desire to throw his feet in the air, and dash the back of his head on the ice. Feb 19, 2022 at 10:40
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AmE speaker from the PNW here.

I would say that the two terms are similar, but "hold up" has a connotation of "stop", while "hold on" has a connotation of "pause".

If I say "hold on" to someone, it's likely that I will later ask them to continue from where they left off, or that I will later continue from where I left off.

If I say "hold up" to someone, it's likely that I will suggest a different course of action, or at least a re-examination of the goals or presumptions that prompted the original course of action.

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    As an AmE speaker from the northeast, I also very much agree with this. So it's probably not just a regional thing. (just in case anyone was thinking so)
    – David Z
    Feb 20, 2022 at 2:49
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"Hold up" is unusual in British English, although it is well-understood due to exposure to American media where it is common. As I understand it, both "hold on" and "hold up" are common in American English.

In this particular instance though, I'd probably say "hang on" or "hang on a minute" instead of either.

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    This seems to me to be the best answer, addressing the specific question about usage in Britain. Feb 19, 2022 at 11:15
  • I'd say "hang on" too, though I'd recognise the OP's alternatives. The closest I can think of in Northern BrE is 'How up" [pronounced ho/hoe] which can be an interjection meaning anything from "Hello, how do you do?" to "Wait on a minute/hang on". Feb 19, 2022 at 11:43
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I would say that “hold on” and “hold up” are both used in AmE, which is what I speak, but with subtle differences in context and connotation. “Hold up” is certainly more colloquial of a term, and I tend to associate it with a more forceful and sometimes negative tone.

For instance, “hold on” can be used in a variety of contexts: if your mother is speaking on the phone when you try to talk to her, she may say, “hold on.” It would be highly unusual for her to say “hold up,” which may come across as oddly casual or unnecessarily short. The phrase “hold on” is more generally applicable and flexible in terms of tones it can carry.

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In British English "hold up" would be most often used in a robbery, often at gun point, like your example.

"hold on" would be used in other situations where you want someone to stop what you are doing, often to confer before moving on to the next step.

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    It's worth remembering the original sense of the term: if A says "hold on" to B, it implies that B is under pressure to make some move or that B's position is somehow under threat, and A is encouraging B to resist the pressure or threat until A can somehow come to the rescue. So it's often "hold on while..." or "hold on until...". Feb 18, 2022 at 14:49
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    Worth adding: the traditional BrE sense of “hold up” you’re describing can be either a noun or am active verb, whereas the AmE sense the question is asking about exists just as imperative/interjection, analogous to the imperative sense of “hold on”.
    – PLL
    Feb 18, 2022 at 18:56
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In the English-speaking Caribbean, where there is a blend of both British and American influence, the usage of each expression is not strict with respect to the situation in which each term is used. However, generally, depending on which island you are on, "hold up" would more often be used if someone was saying or doing something you did appreciate and you wanted to respond whereas "hold on" would be used if you were asking someone to wait for a bit whether you were on the telephone or standing at the counter in a pharmacy. The implication is that "hold up" will be quicker used to counter an aggressive situation/person/animal than "hold on"...

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I think they are technically interchangable. They share the same definition, but "hold up" is for a bit extreme cases. Like, stop immediately. "Hold on" is a bit more relaxed and for relaxed cases, like you're searching for the key to your car and you're telling your (friend) to not go in yet.

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  • That's only for American. I couldn't clarify for British English since i know so low of the dialect except for the suffix differences. Feb 19, 2022 at 17:54
  • Oops, not really dialect. American is more of a dialect than British because English originated from Britain. Feb 19, 2022 at 17:55
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    – gotube
    Feb 21, 2022 at 2:04
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As a native British English speaker, I would never use "hold up" to mean "hold on" or "hang on" in that context.

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Here in the UK, I hear those as very different, although most people would still understand if they were swapped round. I do think many US Americans will hear the two as interchangeable.

(I'm assuming "… proceeding a next action…" here means "proceeding with an action." Is that right?)

I hear "hold on" as "stop what you're doing" just as yes, we say "hold on" to stop someone from proceeding a next action. "Hold on" can be an expression complete in itself.

I hear "hold up" as "interrupt or delay something else", as for instance "Hold up the traffic (until the procession has passed)". That works only with a stated object.

That the criminals pointing their guns at a bystander are carrying out a "hold up" is a co-incidence, isn't it? Similarly, this doesn't touch on "You hold up that end of the shelf while I fix the bracket" or "Grab something solid and hold on."

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