Cleanup vs. Clean Up: How to Choose the Right Word

Either an Event or a Set of Actions

Mom cleaning up with her kids

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The words "cleanup" and "clean up" are clearly related, but one is a noun describing an event, and the other is a phrasal verb, describing an action.

How to Use "Cleanup"

The noun "cleanup" (one word), sometimes written as "clean-up," refers to an event during which some type of cleaning takes place. For example, a "cleanup" can refer to the tidying up of a person, place, or thing, or it can mean an exceptional financial success or a robbery and its proceeds.

It can also mean the removal or stamping out of immoral influences or pockets of enemy resistance. In baseball, "cleanup" means the fourth position in a team's batting order, the person responsible for cleaning the field of runners by batting them home.

How to Use "Clean Up"

The two-word verb phrase "clean up" refers to an action: to free from dirt or clutter or bring up to a certain level sanitariness, to clear land of weeds or brush, to rid oneself of alcohol or other drug addiction, to vanquish an enemy, or to obtain a sizable profit.

Examples

In these examples, the word "cleanup" is used to signify an event or process:

  • Paul scheduled next Saturday for spring cleanup in his garden.
  • If the cleanup of your garage is so important, you may need to rent a dumpster.
  • Imani made a cleanup when she sold her antique car collection.
  • The candidate pledged that she would conduct an investigation and cleanup of the corruption in local government.
  • The player batting cleanup tied the baseball game in the ninth inning, bringing in three runs.

These examples, however, describe the action of cleaning up, rather than an event:

  • If you really want to clean up your garage, rent a dumpster.
  • The neighbors pitched in to clean up the abandoned lot.
  • He decided to really clean up and quit drinking before the kids came to visit.
  • The candidate pledged, "I'm going to get rid of corruption and clean up this town!"
  • The PTA hoped to clean up from the bake sale and buy new uniforms for the school's basketball teams.

How to Remember the Difference

The difference between "cleanup" and "clean up" has to do with whether the topic is an event or an action or process. If it's an event, the words can work together as "cleanup"—think of a group working as a unit to get the event done. If it's an action or process, "clean up" can take a tense: A "cleanedup" isn't grammatically correct, but "cleaned up" is.

Related Grammatical Concepts

Idiomatic uses of "clean up" include "clean up one's act," and "clean up after." The expression "clean up one's act" means to follow certain standards of behavior or improve the way one behaves; it can only be an action:

  • The teacher told Kim she would have to clean up her act if she expected to pass the class.

To "clean up after" (someone or something) means to remove a mess or fix problems made by something or someone else.

  • Harold was forced to clean up after his roommate before his parents came to visit.

Sources

  • Cleanup.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster.