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I have a question about the usage of the phrase "improve on". Dictionary definitions suggest that the usage of "improve on" should follow this pattern:

<doer> improve on <result>

So, the phrase "improve on" should involve a doer doing something and producing results, like:

  1. The companies improved on last year's sales.
  2. He improved on last year's performance.

But on the web, I found this:

He will also receive a salary of $70,000, and claims that he won't be taking a pay rise either until the company's profits improve on last year's mark of $2.2 million.

, which has the following pattern:

<result> improve on <result>

, which does not seem to fit dictionary definitions. Could this usage be wrong? Or, could dictionaries be missing a better definition that fits the "<result> improve on <result>" pattern?

  • The company's profits [doer, albeit somewhat abstract] improve on last years's mark [result]. Where's the problem? – Stephie Nov 27 '15 at 21:09
  • @Stephie "Profits" is more a "result" than a "doer". – meatie Nov 27 '15 at 21:23
  • Don't read "logic", read "grammar": who improves on what. And focus only on that snippet. – Stephie Nov 27 '15 at 21:25
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    "Dictionary definitions suggest that the usage of "improve on" should follow this pattern: <doer> improve on <result>" <doer> is an odd looking term in dictionaries, so this idea is your own, perhaps? Could you add a real definition from a dictionary to your question? – Damkerng T. Nov 28 '15 at 4:51
  • @DamkerngT. Then for this, "How a combined PET/CT scan improves on separate scans " is "improve on" used correctly? – meatie Dec 1 '15 at 5:06
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After searching my usual dictionaries I fail to see any definition that uses the terms doer or result.
I presume that what you really mean is subject and (noun) phrase.

Sources vary whether improve on / upon is considered a phrasal verb or not, but the pattern remains constant:

[subject] improve on / upon [noun phrase]

  • Then for this: "How a combined PET/CT scan improves on separate scans", is "improve on" used correctly? – meatie Nov 28 '15 at 7:24
  • Yes it is. The combined scan is better than (understood as "improves the results of") separate scans. – Stephie Nov 28 '15 at 9:29
  • Would this rewrite "How a combined PET/CT scan improves on the results of separate scans" be better? – meatie Dec 1 '15 at 5:35
  • @meatie Gut feeling: yes. But I'm no biologist or technician. – Stephie Dec 1 '15 at 6:05
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"Improve on" is a phrasal verb.

The verb improve can be used transitively or intransitively; it means to make something better than before or to become better than before.

The preposition "on" is also used in the sense of "compared with". Look at the entry #22 under "on" in Macmillan Dictionary (This would be a significant improvement on £15 million profit figure achieved last year).

So The following sentences are correct grammatically:

  1. The company has improved on last year's profit.

  2. The company's profit has improved on last year's profit.

The OP's so-called structure result + improve on + result definitely fits well in the sentence #2 mentioned above.

  • Then for this, "How a combined PET/CT scan improves on separate scans " is "improve on" used correctly? – meatie Dec 1 '15 at 5:04
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When you see a seemingly phrasal verb constructed with a verb and a preposition such as improve on, you have to figure out why there is on as it is more likely that the preposition has nothing to do with the verb used. In other words, you have to separate the two words and figure each out.

On in your examples mean:

Having (the thing mentioned) as a basis.

In other words, you can change it to on the basis of, or even compared with.

The companies improved on last year's sales.

It means "this year's sales of the company increased (improved) compared with/on the basis of last year's sales".

He improved on last year's performance.

It means "his performance this year increased (improved) compared with/on the basis of last year's performance".

... until the company's profits improve on last year's mark of $2.2 million.

This means "until the company's profits increase (improve) compared with/on the basis of last year's mark of $2.2 million.

Compared with fits in better than on the basis of, but I put it there for comparison.

As you can see, the subject of the verb improve has nothing to do with the construction.

Edit: Just because improve on something means better than something doesn't necessarily mean that you can apply it to all context. Here, to improve on something means to produce better results in comparison with something. However, if you say, "He improves on her", you can never know what kind of results you are talking about. That's why the sentence doesn't work and you could only guess the meaning.

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