Even for native speakers, if they meet a new phrasal verb they have never used, is it difficult to understand what it means without any context?

For example, if you meet this phrasal verb 'inform on' without a context, you cannot understand what it means at all?

So, native speakers must learn phrasal verbs one by one to communicate with people in youth like non-native speakers?

  • 3
    Yes, this is true, but it's no different than acquiring any other idiomatic constructions, of which any language has thousands. For second language learners, idioms are hell. But I bet you never even think about all the idioms you use daily in your native language!
    – mamster
    Nov 19, 2017 at 14:53

4 Answers 4


Phrasal verbs without context are generally meaningless. I happen to know what "inform on" means, but let's say I came across something like "step up". I do know some possible meanings for this phrasal verb, but without context I couldn't be sure which was appropriate, or whether there might be some new, colloquial meaning, for example as a challenge to a fight:

Oh so you have something to say? Why don't you step up and say it to my face!

Of course, it's rare to see a phrasal verb used without any context. Usually you can make an educated guess.

  • Explaining with the example is helpful for me to understand how native speakers think, so I give you +1.
    – GKK
    Nov 19, 2017 at 16:52
  • The phrasal verb meaning of 'step up' is strongly related to the ordinary meaning of step + up. Some phrasal verbs are less obviously related or not related at all.
    – Sydney
    Nov 19, 2017 at 18:57
  • 1
    @Sydney without context or prior knowledge I really don't see how anyone could know that "step up" means "to challenge to a fight", or "to take responsibility". The nature of idiom is that it's usually related but not necessarily obvious.
    – Andrew
    Nov 19, 2017 at 23:37

"Inform on" only means one thing to me, which is slang:

A criminal might "inform on" another criminal.

Criminal A tells the police about the crimes of Criminal B, and in return, the police release Criminal A from jail. Criminal A is informing on Criminal B. Criminal A is an informant. (...a police informant.)

But YES, context is very very important. I always tell my young son, "I need more information!" when he give me half-sentences.


@Andrew is right; I had assumed "inform on" was slang in that sense, but it is indeed in the dictionary:


verb - inˈfôrm/

  • give incriminating information about someone to the police or other authority.

  • "people called a confidential hotline to inform on friends, neighbors, and family members"

synonyms: denounce, give away, betray, incriminate, inculpate, report, finger;

...and is used more widely than I figured according to these Ngrams (which keep surprising and fascinating me!) And, "blow the whistle" is considerably more than "inform on" in the USA, but other way around in UK.

ngram usa

enter image description here

I guess I assumed it was slang because it's a phrase mainly used by criminals... :)

  • 1
    I don't think "inform on" is slang -- it's not listed as a colloquialism in any dictionary, and it seems like a standard expression to me.
    – Andrew
    Nov 19, 2017 at 16:18
  • 1
    It's interesting!
    – GKK
    Nov 19, 2017 at 16:54
  • 1
    @Andrew -- I stand corrected! I updated my answer.
    – ashleedawg
    Nov 19, 2017 at 18:50

In your example I, a native speaker, encounter the expression for the first time, say in Bill informed on John. Though I have never before come across inform on, I do know that an informant is someone who tells the authorities about some crime or about who committed it. And I also know such similarly constructed phrasal verbs as tell on (= tattle) and rat on. Taken together, those are enough for me to form a strong hunch of what inform on means.

This is just an example of how an intimate familiarity with one’s native language and how it’s used can often provide enough pieces of the puzzle to allow one to work out the entire picture. But I don’t claim that native speakers can always figure out a phrasal verb this way. As an example, it took me several encounters (in different contexts) with the Britishism have [someone] on before I figured out its meaning.


A native speaker would probably learn the phrasal verb told on as a child.

Johnny told on Mikey at school.

From there it's just a short hop from "told on" to "informed on". The native speaker would read the verb "inform" somewhere, or hear it on a TV show, and without really even thinking about it, would understand that the two phrasal verbs were synonymous, but used in different but analogous circumstances.

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