Imagine you’re helping at a birthday party for children. The kids are playing, eating cake, and drinking sweet juice. However, things start to get a bit chaotic when the sugar kicks in, and they become unruly. In this case, is it correct to say the party “got out of hand”?
It is correct to use “get out of hand” to describe any situation that was previously under control but has since become unmanageable. The phrase depicts a shift in the overall situation so that it has become less manageable and more chaotic. For example, you can say, “The sugar has made the kids get out of hand.”
Here, we’ll look at the meaning and idiomatic usage of the phrase “get out of hand.” Then, we’ll explore other idiomatic expressions that use prepositions.
What Does “Get Out of Hand” Mean?
To “get out of hand” means falling outside someone’s control. It combines the verb “to get” – which in this case means “to become” – with the idiomatic prepositional phrase “out of hand.” We can use the idiom “out of hand” to mean “out of control” or “not under someone’s control” (source).
So, “get out of hand” means to go from a state of being under control or managed to a state of being out of control or unmanageable. This shift in circumstances is a big part of the phrase’s meaning!
As an adverbial prepositional phrase, “out of hand” can also mean “without any thought or consideration” or “without any preparation” (source). However, when we use the phrase with this meaning, we use a different verb (not “to get”).
For instance, we can say, “The project manager rejected the proposal out of hand; she didn’t give it any thought or ask for input from her team.”
“Get Out of Hand” versus “It’s Out of My Hands”
There is another similar idiomatic way to use the preposition “out” and the object “hand.” For example, you can say, “It’s out of my hands,” when you explain a situation where you don’t have any control or power over the outcome.
For instance, you can say, “It’s out of my hands,” if you’ve just submitted an extensive application. This is because you are not the one who will make the final decision, and you’ve done all you can to make a great application.
However, since you don’t have any sway over its result, the process is now out of your hands.
Be careful with these two idiomatic phrases! People often confuse “get out of hand” and “out of my hands,” even though they describe two very different situations.
How Do You Use “Get Out of Hand”?
You can use the phrase “get out of hand” as a verb plus predicate modifier. The verb is “to get,” and the prepositional phrase “out of hand” modifies this verb to explain how the situation changed or developed.
So, when you use “get out of hand,” you should use it like any other verb-and-predicate-modifier combo. However, when it’s time to conjugate “to get out of hand,” only the irregular verb “to get” will change.
For the simple past form of the phrase (also known as “verb 2”), you can say “got out of hand.” For the past participle (also known as “verb 3”), you should say “gotten out of hand”; just don’t forget the helping verbs when you’re using the perfect tenses!
You can also use the phrase with modal verbs, such as “will,” to show the future tense or “might” to show a possibility. Just use the primary form of the verb (also known as “verb 1”) directly after the modal. For example, you can say, “The situation might get out of hand if we don’t address the problem right away.”
When Can You Use “Get Out of Hand”?
You can use “get out of hand” when explaining a series of events and/or changes. Since the phrase describes a shift in the state of being or situation, you can use it to show the results of someone’s actions or a big event.
For example, you can use “get out of hand” to describe how an activity, meeting, or situation started calmly but then devolved into an unmanageable mess due to a series of events. The key is that things changed: they went from calm and under control to unruly and incorrigible.
When Not to Use “Get Out of Hand”
You shouldn’t use “get out of hand” if you’re describing a situation that has always been chaotic. When you use “get out of hand,” there is a difference in the situation before and after. It was under control in the past but is out of control now.
If the situation you’re describing has always been unmanageable, then you shouldn’t use “get out of hand.” That’s because “get out of hand” represents a change and devolution in a situation or state of being.
Using “Get Out of Hand” in a Full Sentence
As mentioned above, “get out of hand” contains a verb and a predicate modifier. So, to use this phrase in a complete sentence, you need to add a subject. In many instances, you’ll see general subjects such as “things” or “it” with “get out of hand.”
Take a look at these examples:
- After the jury announced their verdict, things got out of control in the courtroom.
- The situation is getting out of hand, so we might have to call the authorities soon.
- These gas prices are insane; it has gotten out of hand in the past year or so!
- Water is leaking from the shower. Let’s call a plumber before it gets out of hand.
As you can see, “get out of hand” works in all verb tenses: even the continuous and perfect tenses! So make sure that you conjugate the irregular verb “to get” correctly in each case, and just keep the prepositional phrase the same.
For more information about conjugating irregular verbs, check out our article Past Tense of Run: Understanding Regular and Irregular Verb Tenses.
Additionally, we often see “get out of hand” in conditional sentences. Conditional sentences almost always contain “if” or “when,” and they explain the necessary conditions for an action to happen.
For example, you might say, “If the teacher doesn’t address the behavior problems, her class will get out of hand.” Here, the class’s getting out of hand depends on what the teacher does or doesn’t do. This is a popular construction for the phrase “get out of hand.”
What Can You Use Instead of “Get Out of Hand”?
Some of the most popular alternatives to “get out of hand” include “get out of control,” “get rowdy,” and “become uncontrollable.” All three of these phrases include a verb and a predicate modifier, just like “get out of control,” so grammatically, you can use them in the same way.
Here are a few other ways you can describe things getting out of hand:
- The situation devolved.
- It became disorderly.
- Things got wild!
- It got stroppy.
- Things fell out of control.
- The situation fell apart.
- Chaos reigned supreme!
For more examples of native-like phrases in English, read our article Humor Me: Understanding the Meaning and Usage of This Phrase.
Idioms with Prepositions
An idiom is a word or phrase with both a literal meaning and another meaning that differs from the literal meaning (source). This second meaning is called the “idiomatic meaning” of the word or phrase.
We can also use the adverb “idiomatically” when someone explains something with words that don’t employ their literal meaning.
In English, we often use prepositions idiomatically. For example, perhaps you’ve read an article “in ten minutes.” However, you didn’t literally climb inside the concept of “ten minutes”! Instead, this phrase uses a preposition of physical location to idiomatically explain an abstract idea (i.e., time).
Here are some other popular idioms you’ve probably encountered in English. You’ll notice that all of these idiomatic phrases also include prepositional phrases:
- To look forward to something
- To do something in advance
- To buy something in bulk
- To do something for a living
- To finish or accomplish something by all means
- To do something on accident
- To be out of the question
- To be up in the air
- To be within reason
In all of these examples, the preposition isn’t giving its literal meaning. For example, you can’t literally be “out” of a question, and “looking forward to” something has nothing to do with which direction your eyes are looking.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Instead, these prepositional phrases have a non-literal, idiomatic meaning that we can understand based on the linguistic and cultural setting where we read or hear the phrase.
“Get out of hand” has nothing to do with what is literally in your hands. Instead, it describes a situation that has gone from a state of control to chaos.
When we use a non-literal meaning of a word or phrase – especially when we’re explaining something abstract, like a state of being – it is called an idiom. So, “get out of hand” is an idiomatic expression.
When you use “get out of hand” in a complete sentence, you must add a subject before the verb “to get.” In many cases, the subject will be general, such as “things,” “it,” or simply “the situation.”