I think that would be a good practice for English learners to put the correct meaning of words of a multi-word verb or an expression. and find the whole meaning. So, can we be sure about that, or we have to exclude some expressions or multi-word verbs?

This question came to my mind when I couldn't find the meaning of "on" in "Come on!".

  • Decomposition or breaking things (in this case, phrasal verbs) down to their elements may or may not be helpful. The best way, in my opinion, is to consider (or deal with) them case by case, and if it helps then it's fine, but if it doesn't then we don't have to care much about each word in each phrasal verb. For example, understanding look down as look and down might help, but what about give in or play up to or salt away? By the way, it's not until recently that I've noticed that a bartender is someone who tends a bar, but I always know exactly what (or who) a bartender is. :-) May 7, 2014 at 11:06
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    No! There's no way finding that ;)
    – Maulik V
    May 7, 2014 at 14:06

2 Answers 2


The meaning of phrasal verbs are non-compositional.

For example : Come on, Hand in, Cut down, Dress down, etc.

You can't tell their meaning by looking at each individual word. But I think sometimes you can roughly predict the meaning by looking at the verb. For example, "cut down" means "decrease the uses of" which has something to do with "cut".

  • cut (someone) down can also mean "to insult." There was no need for you to cut me down like that in the meeting.
    – J.R.
    May 7, 2014 at 12:58
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    @J.R. It can also mean "kill": "The warrior cut down all who approached him", "He was cut down in his prime". May 7, 2014 at 13:20

I don't know of a foolproof way, but I think it's a matter of awareness, recognition, and discovery.

First, you need to be aware: not only do phrasal verbs exist, but they are also rather common. If you read (or listen to) English long enough, you're going to come across them.

Second, you need to recognize their format (generally: verb + preposition, although sometimes verb + adverb).

Armed with this information, when trying to interpret a sentence or imperative (such as, "Come on!"), you need to say to yourself: "Wait! Maybe this is another one of those pesky phrasal verbs..."

Sure enough, when you look it up in a dictionary, there it is:

come on (phrasal verb) used for telling someone to hurry ⇒ Come on! We're going to be late.

(Many good online dictionaries will give phrasal verbs their own entry.)

So, as you try to learn the meaning of certain sentences, remember: not all words should be examined individually.

My daughter was going out with Ted. Evidently, they broke up about a week ago, but I didn't find out until yesterday, when I dropped her off at school.

Can you find the phrasal verbs in those two sentences? There are four of them.

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