noun \ ˈplā \
|Updated on: 9 Aug 2018

Definition of play

1 a : swordplay
b archaic : game, sport
c : the conduct, course, or action of a game
d : a particular act or maneuver in a game: such as
(1) : the action during an attempt to advance the ball in football
(2) : the action in which a player is put out in baseball
e : the action in which cards are played after bidding in a card game
f : the moving of a piece in a board game (such as chess)
g : one's turn in a game
  • it's your play
2 a obsolete : sexual intercourse
b : amorous flirtation : dalliance
3 a : recreational activity; especially : the spontaneous activity of children
b : absence of serious or harmful intent : jest
  • said it in play
c : the act or an instance of playing on words or speech sounds
4 a (1) : an act, way, or manner of proceeding : maneuver
  • that was a play to get your fingerprints
  • —Erle Stanley Gardner
(2) : deal, venture
b (1) : the state of being active, operative, or relevant
  • other motives surely come into play
  • —M. R. Cohen
  • several issues are at play
(2) : brisk, fitful, or light movement
  • the gem presented a dazzling play of colors
(3) : free or unimpeded motion (as of a part of a machine); also : the length or measure of such motion
(4) : scope or opportunity for action
(5) : a function of an electronic device that causes a recording to play
5 : emphasis or publicity especially in the news media
  • wished the country received a better play in the American press
  • —Hugh MacLennan
6 : a move or series of moves calculated to arouse friendly feelings usually used with make
  • made a big play for the girl
  • —Will Herman
7 a : the stage representation of an action or story
b : a dramatic composition : drama
in play
: in condition or position to be legitimately played
out of play
: not in play

Examples of play in a Sentence

  1. The play is based on a real-life event.

  2. He wrote, directed, and starred in the play.

  3. His fifth grade class is putting on a play about the first Thanksgiving.

  4. I've gone to all of my daughter's school plays.

  5. The book discusses the role of play in a child's development.

  6. As the saying goes, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

  7. Please, no talking during play.

  8. Rain held up play for an hour.

  9. The chess match finally ended after three hours of play.

  10. The two golfers were tied at the start of play yesterday.

Recent Examples of play from the Web

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'play.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Origin and Etymology of play

Middle English, from Old English plega; akin to Old English plegan to play, Middle Dutch pleyen

Synonym Discussion of play

fun, jest, sport, game, play mean action or speech that provides amusement or arouses laughter. fun usually implies laughter or gaiety but may imply merely a lack of serious or ulterior purpose.
    • played cards just for fun
jest implies lack of earnestness and may suggest a hoaxing or teasing.
    • hurt by remarks said only in jest
sport applies especially to the arousing of laughter against someone.
    • teasing begun in sport led to anger
game is close to sport, and often stresses mischievous or malicious fun.
    • made game of their poor relations
play stresses the opposition to earnest without implying any malice or mischief.
    • pretended to strangle his brother in play




Definition of play

played; playing; plays
1 a : to engage in sport or recreation : frolic
b : to have sexual relations; especially : to have promiscuous or illicit sexual relations usually used in the phrase play around
c (1) : to move aimlessly about : trifle
(2) : to toy or fiddle around with something
  • played with her food
(3) : to deal or behave frivolously or mockingly : jest
(4) : to deal in a light, speculative, or sportive manner
(5) : to make use of double meaning or of the similarity of sound of two words for stylistic or humorous effect
2 a : to take advantage
  • playing on fears
b (1) : flutter, frisk
(2) : to move or operate in a lively, irregular, or intermittent manner
c : to move or function freely within prescribed limits
d : to produce a stream
  • hoses playing on a fire
3 a (1) : to perform music
  • play on a violin
(2) : to sound in performance
  • the organ is playing
(3) : to emit sounds
  • the radio is playing
(4) : to reproduce recorded sounds
  • a record is playing
b (1) : to act in a dramatic production
(2) : show, run
  • what's playing at the theater
c : to be suitable for dramatic performance
d : to act with special consideration so as to gain favor, approval, or sympathy
  • might play to popular prejudices to serve his political ends
  • —V. L. Parrington
often used in the phrase play up to
e : to produce a specified impression in performance
  • a movie that plays like a sitcom
4 a : to engage or take part in a game
b : to perform in a position in a specified manner
  • the outfielders were playing deep
c : to perform an action during one's turn in a game
d : gamble
e (1) : to behave or conduct oneself in a specified way
  • play safe
(2) : to feign a specified state or quality
  • play dead
(3) : to take part in or assent to some activity : cooperate
  • play along with his scheme
(4) : to act so as to prove advantageous to another usually used in the phrase play into the hands of
5 : to gain approval : go over
  • her idea did not play well
1 a (1) : to engage in or occupy oneself with
  • play baseball
(2) : to engage in (an activity) as a game
(3) : to deal with, handle, or manage
b : to pretend to engage in the activities of
  • play war
  • children playing house
c (1) : to amount to by one's efforts
  • played an important role in their success
(2) : to perform or execute for amusement or to deceive or mock
  • play a trick
(3) : wreak
  • play havoc
(4) : to use or introduce as a political or rhetorical strategy
  • play the national security card
2 a (1) : to put on a performance of (a play)
(2) : to act in the character or part of
(3) : to act or perform in
  • played leading theaters
b : to perform or act the part of
  • play the fool
3 a (1) : to contend against in or as if in a game
(2) : to use as a contestant in a game
  • the coach did not play him
(3) : to perform the duties associated with (a certain position)
  • played quarterback
(4) : to guard or move into position to defend against (an opponent) in a specified manner
b (1) : to wager in a game : stake
(2) : to make wagers on
  • play the races
(3) : to speculate on or in
  • play the stock market
(4) : to operate on the basis of
  • play a hunch
c : to put into action in a game; especially : to remove (a playing card) from one's hand and place usually faceup on a table in one's turn either as part of a scoring combination or as one's contribution to a trick
d : to catch or pick up (a batted ball) : field
  • played the ball bare-handed
e : to direct the course of (something, such as a ball) : hit
  • played a wedge shot to the green
; also : to cause (a ball or puck) to rebound
  • played the ball off the backboard
4 a : to perform (music) on an instrument
  • play a waltz
b : to perform music on
  • play the violin
c : to perform music of (a certain composer)
d (1) : to cause (a device, such as a radio) to emit sounds
(2) : to cause the recorded sound or image of (something, such as a record, optical disk, or a digital file) to be reproduced
5 a : wield, ply
b : to discharge, fire, or set off with continuous effect
  • played the hose on the burning building
c : to cause to move or operate lightly and irregularly or intermittently
d : to keep (a hooked fish) in action


play \ˌplā-ə-ˈbi-lə-tē\ noun


play \ˈplā-ə-bəl\ adjective
play ball
play both ends against the middle
: to set opposing interests against each other to one's own ultimate profit
play by ear
: to deal with something without previous planning or instructions
play games
: to try to hide the truth from someone by deceptive means
play one's cards
: to act with the means available to one
play possum
: to pretend to be asleep or dead
play second fiddle
: to take a subordinate position
play the field
: to date or have romantic connections with more than one person
play the game
: to act according to a code or set of standards
play with a full deck
: to be rational or sane
play with fire
: to do something risky or dangerous
play with oneself

Examples of play in a Sentence

  1. The children were playing in the yard.

  2. Can Sara come out and play?

  3. He played by himself in his room.

  4. Did you play any sports in high school?

  5. No one dares to play chess with him.

  6. The children were playing hide-and-seek.

  7. I have a chess set. Do you want to play?

  8. It's your turn to play.

  9. She hurt her wrist but decided to continue playing.

  10. He played in every major tournament this year.

Recent Examples of play from the Web

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'play.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

First Known Use of play

before 12th century

in the meaning defined at intransitive sense 1a

See Words from the same year
NEW! Time Traveler

Financial Definition of PLAY

in play

What It Is

A stock is in play when it is widely believed to be a takeover target.

How It Works

Let's say Company XYZ has a ton of cash on its balance sheet, and activist investors have been pressuring it for nine months to sell. Company XYZ finally decides that it is for sale, and announces that it is exploring "strategic partnerships" with interested investors.

Company XYZ stock is in play.

Why It Matters

When a stock is in play, it can run up quickly. That's because the eventual buyer is likely to pay a premium over the current stock price in order to induce the shareholders to sell the company and to beat out any competing bidders. For that reason, some traders are interested in stocks that are in play, and perhaps more important, stocks that could become in play soon.

PLAY Defined for English Language Learners


Definition of play for English Language Learners

  • : to do activities for fun or enjoyment

  • : to participate in (a game or sport)

  • : to compete against (someone) in a game

PLAY Defined for Kids



verb \ ˈplā \

Definition of play for Students

played; playing
1 : to do activities for enjoyment
2 : to take part in a game of
  • play cards
3 : to compete against in a game
  • We are playing the Dodgers today.
4 : to produce music or sound with
  • play the piano
  • play a CD
5 : to perform the music of
  • He played my favorite tune.
6 : to act or present on the stage or screen
  • She was chosen to play Annie.
  • What's playing at the movies?
7 : pretend 1
  • Let's play school.
  • The dog played dead.
8 : to perform (as a trick) for fun
9 : 2act 2, behave
  • She doesn't play fair.
10 : to handle something idly : toy
  • Don't play with your food!
11 : to affect something by performing a function
  • Luck played a part in their winning.
12 : to move swiftly or lightly
  • Leaves played in the wind.




Definition of play for Students

1 : a story performed on stage
2 : the action of or a particular action in a game
  • That was a great play by the shortstop.
3 : exercise or activity for enjoyment
  • children at play
4 : a person's turn to take part in a game
  • It's your play.
5 : quick or light movement
  • We felt the light play of a breeze through the room.
6 : freedom of motion
  • There is too much play in the steering wheel.
7 : a way of acting : conduct
  • fair play
8 : the state of being active
  • Now she would have to call into play all of her climbing ability …
  • —Brian Jacques, Redwall

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