play

1 of 2

noun

1
a
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 fingerprintsErle Stanley Gardner
(2)
b(1)
: the state of being active, operative, or relevant
other motives surely come into playM. 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 pressHugh MacLennan
6
: a move or series of moves calculated to arouse friendly feelings
usually used with make
made a big play for the girlWill Herman
7
a
: the stage representation of an action or story
b
: a dramatic composition : drama

play

2 of 2

verb

played; playing; plays

intransitive verb

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)
(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 endsV. 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

transitive verb

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
playability noun
playable adjective
Phrases
in play
: in condition or position to be legitimately played
out of play
: not in play
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
Choose the Right Synonym for 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

Examples of play in a Sentence

Noun The play is based on a real-life event. He wrote, directed, and starred in the play. His fifth grade class is putting on a play about the first Thanksgiving. I've gone to all of my daughter's school plays. The book discusses the role of play in a child's development. As the saying goes, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Please, no talking during play. Rain held up play for an hour. The chess match finally ended after three hours of play. The two golfers were tied at the start of play yesterday. Verb The children were playing in the yard. Can Sara come out and play? He played by himself in his room. Did you play any sports in high school? No one dares to play chess with him. The children were playing hide-and-seek. I have a chess set. Do you want to play? It's your turn to play. She hurt her wrist but decided to continue playing. He played in every major tournament this year. See More
Recent Examples on the Web
Noun
And people who have helped us self tape auditions, restaurants who have given us free beer after comedy shows and plays. Kelly Wynne, Peoplemag, 25 Feb. 2024 Enthusiasm for women’s basketball has been growing exponentially over the past decade, and now the Caitlin Clark effect, along with stellar and exciting play by a large number of teams, has made NCAA WBB national news. Susan M. Shaw, Forbes, 25 Feb. 2024 John Belushi used to play him back in the day, with Darrell Hammond portraying the author in a play a few years back. Andy Hoglund, EW.com, 25 Feb. 2024 That one was his 22nd overall in MLS, breaking a then-four-way tie for most goals in league play in club history. Andy Greder, Twin Cities, 24 Feb. 2024 The play was executed to perfection as Tang broke free from her defender, caught a pass near the basket and got fouled shooting a layup. Nathan Canilao, The Mercury News, 24 Feb. 2024 The Royals will continue Cactus League play against the Texas Rangers at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona. Jaylon Thompson, Kansas City Star, 24 Feb. 2024 The play’s development has required plenty of tweaking to keep up with the real world’s ever-evolving discourse around emerging technologies. Ashley Lee, Los Angeles Times, 24 Feb. 2024 Hardman’s 52-yard catch in the second quarter seemed destined to set up Kansas City’s first touchdown, but a fumble on the next play nullified that opportunity. Nate Davis, USA TODAY, 23 Feb. 2024
Verb
For example, child care plays a key role in worker productivity. Jason Leverant, Forbes, 26 Feb. 2024 Ramírez has played nonbinary standup comedian Che Diaz since Season 1, during which the character became a meme-generating object of mockery. Kate Aurthur, Variety, 26 Feb. 2024 Each band will play a full set from the headliners, with the National still touring in support of their dual 2023 releases, First Two Pages of Frankenstein and September’s Laugh Track. Gil Kaufman, Billboard, 26 Feb. 2024 Sure, people like Tatum and Billie Holiday played there at the peak of their powers, but unknown Parkers, Foxxs, and Malcolms were gaining new perspectives and worldviews by taking in the scene while simply trying to make a dollar. Tori Latham, Robb Report, 26 Feb. 2024 The National played a lot of concerts last year in support of their twin 2023 albums, First Two Pages of Frankenstein and Laugh Track. Matthew Strauss, Pitchfork, 26 Feb. 2024 Jenkins’ father, Kris Sr., played 10 years in the NFL. Jeff Miller, Los Angeles Times, 26 Feb. 2024 Coogler, who was 17 at the time of the shooting, played varsity football in 2021 for Capital Christian High School in Rosemont and had been set to graduate in 2023, according to his profile on high school sports website MaxPreps. Michael McGough, Sacramento Bee, 26 Feb. 2024 Richards played in the NFL for seven seasons, including five with the Dallas Cowboys. Sean Neumann, Peoplemag, 26 Feb. 2024 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'play.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

Noun

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

First Known Use

Noun

before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Verb

before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at intransitive sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of play was before the 12th century

Dictionary Entries Near play

Cite this Entry

“Play.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/play. Accessed 2 Mar. 2024.

Kids Definition

play

1 of 2 noun
1
a
: a brisk handling or using
the play of a sword
b
: the conduct, course, or action of a game
rain held up play
c
: a particular act or maneuver in a game
a great play by the shortstop
d
: one's turn in a game
it's your play
2
a
: exercise or activity for amusement
children at play
b
: absence of any bad intention
said it in play
c
: the act or an instance of playing on words : pun
d
: the act of playing a game and risking something on an uncertain event : gambling, gaming
3
a
: a way or manner of acting or proceeding : action, conduct
fair play
c
: brisk or light movement
the light play of a breeze
d
: freedom of motion
too much play in the steering wheel
e
: opportunity for action
the new job gave play to my talents
4
a
: the stage representation of an action or story
b
: a dramatic composition : drama

play

2 of 2 verb
1
a
: to engage in sport or recreation and especially in activity for amusement
children playing
b
: to treat or behave lightly or without respect that is due
play with a new idea
c
: to make use of double meaning or the similarity of sound of two words for humorous effect : pun
d
: to handle something in an absentminded way : toy
played with the pencil
2
a
: to take advantage
played upon the people's fears
b
: to move swiftly or lightly
shadows playing on the wall
c
: to move freely
d
: to let go in a stream
hoses playing on the fire
3
a
: to sound in performance
listen to an organ playing
b
: to be staged or presented
what's playing at the movies
4
: to behave in a particular way
play safe
5
a
: to take part in
play cards
play ball
b
: to pretend to take part in the activities of
children playing house
c
: to do for amusement or from mischief
play a trick on someone
6
a
: to perform on or as if on the stage
play a part
b
: to act the part of
play the fool
7
a
: to contend against in a game
playing the Dodgers today
b
: to put or keep in action
play a card in a game
play a fish on a line
8
: to cause something to produce music or sound
play the piano
play a record
playable adjective

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