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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.
Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. © 2015 Farlex, Inc, all rights reserved.
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.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Copyright © 2003, 1997 by The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs. Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.