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I just want to confirm the usages of the phrasal verb "improve on" and the word "improve". My understanding is that one improves his skills, abilities and one improves on results, a numbers. Am I right? or both are interchangeable?

  1. I will need to improve on my English.

  2. I will need to improve my English.

3 Answers 3

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You're correct, but your examples hit upon a special case where "my English" is both a result, something visible and measurable, and an ability or facet of yourself. Here, either could be used, though I would personally use 2.

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I shan't go into detail about the grammar since I'm not very knowledgeable about that,but as I understand it the two have a slightly different connotation.

To improve means "to make the original instance better" where to improve on means "creating a new instance which is similar to the original, but better".

For example, if I have a car and I improve it, I would do so by replacing some of the parts for instance.

If I'm improving on the car however, I would be building a new car, similar in many ways to the original car, but this time I'm using different parts to make it better than the original.

In other words, to improve modifies the original while to improve on leaves the original intact.

This difference is confirmed by the Oxford dictionary entry found here:

Definition of improve in English: verb

1 Make or become better: [WITH OBJECT]: efforts to improve relations between the countries (as adjective improved) an improved design

1.2 [NO OBJECT] (improve on/upon) Achieve or produce something better than: they are trying to improve on the tired old style

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As you stated that 'improve' is a verb and 'improve on' is a phrasal verb. While both are nearly close, here is the minute difference I can think of.

TheFreeDictionaries states:

improve: to make or become better in quality

but...

improve (intr; usually followed by on or upon) to achieve a better standard or quality in comparison (with)

The example follows:

to improve on last year's crop.

As I see a few more examples on the dictionaries, I notice that 'improve on' comes with comparing it with previous state. Said that, if you can precisely measure something or if something is tangible, you improve on it.

In other words, you improve on the last year's sales figures.

If you are not peculiar to compare your English and simply want to improve it, dropping 'on' is okay.

But in the case, say, you know English but now you want to improve on English grammar. This means you are now comparing English (in general) with improved English with better grammar.

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  • You were going to get my upvote, until the last paragraph. "your English grammar" is not a previous state, therefore you can't improve on it.
    – AndyT
    Dec 22, 2015 at 9:38

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