Clean vs. wash
Cleaning is a more general action, meaning to remove the dirt from something – for example, you clean your glasses by wiping them with a cloth. To clean can also refer to removing items that are out of place – for example, if you clean your room, you put things away in their proper places.
Washing is a specific type of cleaning that uses water, usually by totally covering something in water – for example, you wash your hands by using water and soap. You also wash the dishes, wash your face, and wash your hair in the shower.
We can talk about washing our clothes, but it’s more common to use the expressions “do the laundry” or “do the wash.” The machine that washes our clothes is called a washing machine. And the place where you take your car when it’s dirty is called a “car wash.”
Sometimes cleaning does involve water. If you clean the bathroom, you might clean the floor by mopping it using water.
Finally, clean can also be an adjective, meaning “without dirt” – we can say “the bathroom is clean” and “my hands are clean” after we have cleaned the bathroom and washed our hands.
Wash up, clean up, clean out, clean off
What about phrasal verbs with wash and clean?
We can use wash up to refer to washing one’s hands and face – ex) if your kids have been playing outside, you might ask them to wash up before dinner. Sometimes wash up is also used for washing the dishes after a meal. Ex) if you are having lunch at someone’s house, you might offer to help wash up afterwards.
We often use clean up to talk about cleaning messes completely. If you spill juice all over the table, you would need to clean up the juice. Sometimes clean and clean up can be used interchangeably – your mother could tell you to “Clean your room” or “Clean up your room.” When talking about the mess itself, though, we usually use clean up – ex. Clean up the sauce you spilled on the stove.
Clean out can be used for cleaning the inside of a space, and clean off can be used for surfaces. You would clean out your purse, and clean off the table if there are papers and books covering it.
There’s also a slang meaning for clean up – to get a large profit (a lot of money), often in a short time period. If your son is selling ice-cold lemonade on a very hot summer day, and he sells $500 in two hours, you could say “He really cleaned up!”
There’s a slang meaning for clean out that is also related to money – it refers to causing someone to lose or spend all their money. If you had a savings account with $2,000, but then you need car repairs costing $1,800, you could say “Those car repairs cleaned me out.”
Finally, we have a more informal meaning for the expression “washed up” or “all washed up” – it means someone or something is no longer successful or useful. If there’s an athlete who used to be at the top of his sport, but now he is getting older and failing to win competitions, you could describe him as “all washed up.” Note: this is negative and would be rude to say directly to someone.