Phrasal verbs are tricky. Sometimes it can seem that the particles (the words that come after the main verb) were chosen at random.
Fortunately, this isn’t the case. A phrasal verb’s particle (or particles) often gives us clues about its meaning.
Once you learn the tendencies, phrasal verbs get a lot easier.
Here are four tendencies for phrasal verbs with on. Also check out these phrasal verbs with up.
Tendency #1: dependence
We use several phrasal verbs with on to communicate dependence.
If you rely on someone or something, you trust that person or thing to do something for you.
“You shouldn’t rely on Wikipedia for all your information.”
If you count on someone, you depend on someone to do something that you want them to do for you.
If you count on something, you hope or expect that something will happen that will benefit you in some way.
“We won’t get the account unless Mohamed delivers a great presentation. We’re all really counting on him.”
If you bank on something, you depend on a future occurrence, even though it may not happen.
“Jim bought a car he can’t really afford. He’s banking on getting a raise this spring.”
If you lean on someone or something, you depend on that person or thing.
“You lean on your older brother too much. You need to start doing more for yourself.”
Tendency #2: continuation or endurance
We use a variety of phrasal verbs with on to communicate continuation or endurance.
If you keep on doing something (or carry on doing something), it means you continue to do that activity.
“If we keep on trying, eventually we’ll succeed.”
“Sorry for the interruption. Please carry on working.”
If something goes on, it means that it continues to happen.
“I can’t go on living this way. Something needs to change.”
If a meeting at work drags on, it means that it continues for an unnecessarily long time.
“My English teacher’s explanation dragged on for nearly 15 minutes.”
If a public speaker drones on, it means he or she talks about something in a boring way and for a very long time.
“I’ve never heard such a boring TED talk. It should have been a five-minute talk, but the speaker droned on for 20 minutes.”
If you dwell on something, you continue to think about it. We normally use this for negative things.
“Great leaders don’t dwell on their mistakes.”
If you move on from something, you successfully deal with a bad experience and continue with your life.
“The loss of a family member can be painful, but people need to eventually move on with their lives.”
If you press on with something, you continue to do something in a determined way even though it is difficult, boring, or you don’t want to do it.
“I only slept two hours last night, but I need to press on and get my work finished by the end of the day.”
If you push on, you continue with a journey.
“We wanted to stop before we got to the top of the mountain, but we pushed on and arrived at the summit.”
Tendency #3: boarding, mounting
We use a variety of phrasal verbs with on to communicate boarding or mounting something. These phrasal verbs function fairly literally.
If you get on a bus, train, or plane, you board it. (We use get on, not get in for public transport.)
“As soon as I get on the plane, I’m going to put my headphones on and take a nap.”
If you jump on on bus, train, or plane, you board it in order to go somewhere quickly.
“If I won the lottery, the first thing I’d do is jump on a plane and go to Italy.”
If you hop on something, you get on the back of something.
“She hopped on her motorcycle and rode off into the sunset.”
If you climb on something, you ascend something and mount it.
“They traveled around the country by climbing on trains and riding from town to town.”
Tendency #4: doing something to a particular person
We use quite a few phrasal to communicate that someone is doing something to one particular person.
If you pick on someone, you unfairly criticize, judge, or bother someone.
“I felt like my teacher was always picking on me—he always yelled at me, and no one else.”
If you tell on someone, you tell an authority figure about someone’s bad behavior.
“Were you the type of kid who always told on your classmates?”
If you cheer someone on, you vocally encourage or support someone, often at a competition.
“Our basketball team appreciated having the students there to cheer them on.”
If you call on someone, you ask someone to answer a question, usually in a classroom.
“I was a shy child. I never liked it when the teacher called on me to answer a question in front of the class.”
If you come down on someone, you harshly criticize that person.
“Fred’s mother came down on him hard for failing chemistry.”
If you egg someone on, you verbally encourage someone to do something. We usually use this phrasal verb to talk about urging people to do the wrong thing.
“Please don’t egg Mark on. If you just ignore him, the bad behavior will stop.”
If you gang up on someone, you join forces with others in order to go against someone.
“Apparently my opinion wasn’t very popular. The rest of the class ganged up on me and tried to convince me I was wrong.”
If you hate on someone, you insult, make fun of, or display hatred toward another person (usually because of jealousy). We normally use this phrasal verb in informal settings.
“You shouldn’t hate on people just because they are successful.”
If you hit on someone, you aggressively flirt with that person.
“Leslie won’t go to that bar anymore. She says the last time she went there she got hit on all night long.”
If you lead someone on, you encourage someone’s romantic interest in you even though you aren’t interested in the person.
“This girl led me on in middle school, and I took it really hard. I didn’t want to be in the friends zone.”
If you let someone in on something, you tell someone a secret.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret if you promise not to tell anyone.”
If you look down on someone, you consider yourself superior to that person and treat that person with contempt.
“You should never look down on someone just because they are poor.”
If you prey on someone or something, you take advantage of that person or thing.
“Cult leaders often prey on the depressed and vulnerable.”
If you rip on someone, you give that person a hard time.
“Everyone ripped on Jason for playing such a horrible game.”
If you rub off on someone, that person starts to think and act like you due to your influence. Things can also rub off on people.
“You are the company you keep. The people you hang around will eventually rub off on you, for better or for worse.”
If you run out on someone, you stop supporting one of your dependents (usually a child or spouse).
“I don’t understand how a father could run out on his kids like that.”
If you walk out on someone, you end your relationship with your romantic partner.
“Kevin’s excessive drinking was the last straw. His wife walked out on him.”
If you take something out on someone or something, you harm that person or thing because you are upset or angry about something else.
“If you feel like you’re taking out work-related stress on your loved ones, try working out at the gym before going home.”
Unfortunately, not all phrasal verbs with on fit into neat little categories (that would be way too easy).
Here are some other phrasal verbs with on that you may come across:
act on, add on, base on, bring on, catch on, close in on, crack down on, dawn on, fall back on, get on with, grow on, hang on/hold on, hone in on, improve on, log on, pass on, pile on, read up on, reflect on, settle on, stumble on, touch on, turn on/switch on, and work on.