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1. To violently pull, rip, or attack someone or something. Billy tore at the presents, flinging wrapping paper behind him in a wild frenzy. The wolves were tearing at the hiker when I found him.
2. To elicit a strong emotional response, especially sympathy, sadness, or guilt. The phrase is followed by a noun or pronoun, or, commonly, "(one's) heart/heart strings/conscience." The film will tear at the heart strings of even the most cynical moviegoer. It tears at me when I think about it, but I cannot take it back. It tore at my conscience to fire him, but I knew it had to be done.
tear at someone or something
to rip at someone or something; to try to tear someone or something up. The badger tore at me, but I dodged it and ran away fast. Timmy tore at the package, struggling to get the paper off.
1. Pull at or attack violently, as in Jane eagerly tore at the wrapping paper, or The dog tore at the meat. [Mid-1800s]
2. Distress, as in Their plight tore at his heart.
1. To pull at or attack something violently: The dog tore at the meat.
2. To distress someone or something greatly: Their sad story tore at my heart. When I told a lie, it tore at my conscience.