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The Phrasal Verb 'Get On' Explained

An explanation of the different meanings of the English phrasal verb 'get on', with examples and exercises.


A man on a bucking horse with the sun setting behind him

Hello and welcome to my website all about English phrasal verbs! Read on to learn more about the phrasal verb 'get on'...


The phrasal verb 'get on' is one that you are sure to be familiar with, especially if you have ever used public transport in an English speaking country. In this article, we will look at six different ways that it is used by native speakers and also some of the most used idioms that it features in. So, without further ado, let's get started....


GET ON : KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

6

Separable?

No

Past tense forms

Got on / Got on - gotten on

For more explanation of the terms in the table above, click here.

 

THE BASICS

The letters ABC written on a chalkboard with chalk sticks and books in the foreground

As you will know, the meanings of phrasal verbs often differ wildly from the meanings of the individual words that make them up, so before we take a look at the meanings of the phrasal verb 'get on', let's first consider the individual words 'get' and 'on'.


The verb 'to get' is a great verb in English as it is extremely versatile and can be used in many different ways with vastly different meanings. This, in turn, makes it a nightmare for English learners. We won't go into detail about all of the different meanings of 'to get' in this article but I just want to highlight here the meanings that are relevant for the phrasal verb 'get on'. The first is 'to move to a particular place or into a specified position' and the other relevant meaning is 'to become', both of which are in frequent use in everyday English.


Next, we have the prepositional particle 'on', which is a regular feature in phrasal verb constructions. As a preposition and adverb, its main meaning is 'to be in contact and supported by a surface', although it does have many other meanings and uses. In phrasal verb constructions, it often adds the ideas of continuation and progress.


Now that we have covered the basics, let's move on to the meanings of 'get on'....

 

MEANING 1: To physically move on to something



CEFR Language Level

A2 - Elementary

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To mount, to board, to climb on

Separable

No

Nouns commonly used with

Bus, train, bike, horse, boat, floor, roof, bed, ride

Let's start the meanings of 'get on' with one that you are sure to have heard and used before: 'to physically move on to something'.


This is the most literal of the meanings that we will consider in this article and takes the meaning of the verb 'to get' as in 'to move to a particular place' and combines it with the spatial element of being 'on' a specified surface. In other words, a movement on to something.


This usage of 'get on' can be used for any nouns to describe something that a person or thing can be 'on' and therefore there are many potential words that you may hear this being used with. Commonly, you will definitely hear this with forms of public transport, as well as bicycles and horses (not cars though as we travel 'in' them, weirdly). Other examples could be getting on a roof to replace some tiles or getting on a fairground ride like a big wheel or a roller coaster.


An odd one to note is 'to get on the floor, which has two meanings and can either mean to lie down on the floor or to move to a dance floor at a party or in a night club in order to dance....English is strange sometimes!


The exact opposite of this usage of 'get on' is 'get off' and you can find a link to my page all about that here.


Examples of usage....

When I got on the bus this morning, the driver did not ask me to pay.
John got on his bike and went to work.
The painter had to get on the table so that he could reach the roof and paint it.
Helen was getting on her horse when a big clap of thunder made it jump, causing her to fall off.
In case of an earthquake, everybody should get on the floor in a safe place.

The word BONUS spelled out using different coloured balloons being held up by different people's hands

BONUS

Whilst we are on this subject, I also wanted to make you aware of another slightly different usage of 'get on' that is relevant here. In English, it is quite common to use 'get on' whilst referring to a body part that supports your body weight, in particular when you change your position so that another part of your body supports you on the ground.


Typically, if someone tells you to 'get on your feet', they want you to stand up, if you 'get on your back', it means that you lie down with your face looking upwards and if you 'get on your hands and knees', you adopt a crawling position.

To start this this yoga class, I want you all to get on your stomachs with your arms stretched out to the sides.
I got on my knees and prayed for it to all end peacefully.
My dog always gets on his back when he wants his stomach to be rubbed.
 

MEANING 2: To have a friendly relationship with someone



CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

British

Potential synonyms

To get along

Separable?

No

The second meaning of the phrasal verb 'get on' is a predominantly British usage but is nonetheless used very frequently in everyday English in the UK and it means 'to have a friendly relationship with someone. Moreover, it is used to talk about any harmonious and good relationship between two or more people.


For this usage, we need to enlist the additional preposition 'with'.


If you 'get on with someone', it means that your relationship with them is good, there is friendly communication and there are no arguments or tension. For those of you interested in American English, the synonym phrasal verb 'get along' is used for this instead. I must say though that, apart from these two phrasal verbs, I cannot think of another synonym to express this concept in natural, everyday language, so if you don't use these already, I would strongly recommend doing so.


On the flip side, when the relationship between two or more people is not good, we simply say that they 'do not get on (with each other)'.


IDIOM ALERT!


In order to intensify this usage of 'get on', adverbs such as 'well' and 'brilliantly' are often used, as well as 'famously'. For two people who have a particularly good relationship with one another, you can use the idiom that they 'get on like a house on fire'.


Examples of usage....

I get on with my husband's parents and I enjoy spending time with them.
Roger gets on very well with all of his colleagues and he loves going to work every day to see them.
I tend to get on with most people.
I wasn't sure if Lucy and Laura would get on but they ended up getting on famously and now they're best friends.
Whatever you do, don't sit Lisa and Helen next to each other at the wedding as they don't get on.
It was so lovely to meet your brother yesterday. We got on like a house on fire!
 

MEANING 3: To deal with a situation



CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To find, to do

Separable?

No

Imagine that you have recently moved to a new house and one of your friends telephones you to see how you are settling in. If your friend is an English speaker, one of the questions that he or she will probably ask you is "how are you getting on in your new home". The reason for this is that 'get on' can be used to mean 'to deal with or to handle a life situation'.


Generally, we use this application of 'get on' when we are talking about new changes or new situations in a person's life that are either permanent or will last for a long period of time. For this reason, we tend to use this application with progressive ('ing) tenses. I would also say that this form of 'get on' is often expressed as a question to the person who is experiencing the new situation. It is also perhaps used more when there is an element of success.


Another way that this usage of 'get on' is sometimes used is when you want to know how difficult someone is finding something. For example, if a student is reading a complicated scientific book, his or her teacher may ask them, 'how are you getting on with the book?'.


Examples of usage....

How are you getting on in your new job?
My son, Jake, is getting on really well at university and is having a great time.
Now class, is everyone getting on ok with the preparation for their class presentations next week or do any of you need help?
 

MEANING 4: To progress with something



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To progress, to continue, to go on

Separable?

No

This next meaning of the phrasal verb 'get on' is a logical continuation from the last one, which is perfect as this next meaning is 'to progress with something' or 'to continue doing something'. This is often used following a small break or pause.


Although the general meaning of this usage is to continue or progress, it does differ slightly from these verbs as 'get on' implies an idea of urgency or determination. For example, if you say that you need "to get on with your work", it implies that you need to start focussing all of your attention on the work so that you can make progress with it and it feels like there is more of an urgency. Likewise, it is very common for teachers and authority figures to tell students or members of staff to 'get on with what they are doing', implying that they need to stop talking and start concentrating on their work. Indeed, this application of 'get on' is used frequently in the imperative form in English to make people work harder or faster.


Aside from continuing with something, this usage of 'get on' is also frequently used to mean 'to start doing something', again often carrying the same idea of urgency or hurriedness.


Examples of usage....

Can you two please stop talking and get on with what you are supposed to be doing.
I don't mean to be rude but I really need to get on with this work or else I will not finish it in before the deadline.
Get on with your work please. There will be plenty of time to talk afterwards!
Look how dirty this kitchen is. We'd better get on with the cleaning if we want it to be ready for when Mum and Dad come home.
 

MEANING 5: To succeed in a career



CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Rare

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To succeed, to excel

Separable?

No

When people are ambitious, motivated and have a tendency to get on with their work and not be lazy, they are very likely to get on in their chosen career.


The reason for that is because another meaning of 'get on' is 'to succeed' or 'to excel' when talking about a person's career or within a field of employment. This is a bit of a rarer usage, however it is nevertheless very good to know and be able to use.


In addition to getting on in a career, you may also hear people say that they 'get on well in life', which is very much the same meaning but rather talks about being successful in life in general e.g. having a good job, a nice house etc...of course this is very generalised and not everybody's idea of success is the same.


Examples of usage....

It is very difficult to get on in this industry if you do not know the right people.
If you want to get on in your career, you should accept every opportunity that comes your way.
Getting on in life is all about working hard, looking after your health and treating people with respect.
 

MEANING 6: To be old



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To age, to get older

Separable?

No

For those of us who are lucky enough, a fact of life is that we will get old, our hair will go grey, our faces will develop wrinkles, and you know the rest! Now the final usage of the phrasal verb 'get on' in today's article is all about this aging process and means 'to be old' or 'to be getting old'. To clarify here, when I refer to 'old' I mean someone who is past retirement age and who is near the end of their life, with all of the associated characteristics.


If you refer to someone as 'getting on', you are essentially saying that the person is old or is getting older and is therefore losing the characteristics and good health that we associate with younger people. Often, it is said in an almost euphemistic way to say that a person now needs more care and attention or will not be alive for much longer. This is a very informal and colloquial usage but one that I hear often enough to consider worthy of a place in this article.


Often, the expression 'getting on a bit' is used here, with the addition of the words 'a bit' sometimes being applied to soften the idea and make it sound less harsh.


On a grammatical note, this is another usage of 'get on' that is always used in the progressive ('ing) form.


Examples of usage....

My Dad is getting on these days and he needs one of us to go to his house every day and make sure he is ok.
Wow, how old is he now? He must be getting on a bit!
John's Dad was getting on so they decided that he should go into an old person's home.
 

The word BONUS spelled out using different coloured balloons being held up by different people's hands

IDIOMS ALERT!!!

The phrasal verb 'get on' is found in a large number of different idiomatic expressions and so before I finish this post, I want to make you aware of some really common ones that you are likely to come across in English...


It's getting on - This little four-word idiom is used to mean that it is getting late, normally with the idea that you will need to leave soon.

It's getting on, we'd better leave now before it gets dark outside.

To get on someone's nerves - This is a super common idiom that German speakers will certainly already be familiar with and it means to annoy or to irritate someone. This can either be a person or a thing and is usually caused by something that happens over a period of time or is repeated. An alternative to this is 'to get on someone's wick'.

This song really gets on my nerves. Every radio station that I listen to plays it all the time.

To get on your high horse - This idiom means to express an opinion about something in an arrogant way, with the idea that you know better than other people - you are definitely right and everybody else is wrong. It comes from medieval times when rich and powerful people rode on large horses to emphasise how much bigger and more important they were than the common, poorer people.

The politician got on his high horse and made his opinion on the matter very clear.

To get on your soapbox - This is a little similar to the previous 'high horse' idiom as if you get on your soapbox, you also express your opinion about a given subject. However when you get on your soapbox, you tend to give your opinion forcefully and often in great detail, i.e. you spend a long time expressing your opinion on a subject.

Sorry to get on my soapbox but I feel very strongly about this.

To get on top of someone - Lastly, if something gets on top of someone, it becomes too much for them to deal with. This is often used when talking about emotions, feelings and stress.

It all just got on top of me at the funeral and I started crying uncontrollably.
 

This brings us to the end of the post. Thank you so much for taking the time to read it and I sincerely hope that it has helped you a little bit further on your English learning journey.


If you found the post useful, please like and share it on social media, so together we can help as many English learners as possible to understand and master these tricky phrasal verbs.


Also, please leave any comments, questions, suggestions or examples of 'get on' below. I really love reading them. If you want to receive new blog posts directly email every week, please sign up on the form below.





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