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The Phrasal Verb 'Keep On' Explained

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

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

A mannequin head with a wig on.

Hello and welcome to my website all about English phrasal verbs. Each week, I take a different phrasal verb and look at how it is used by native speakers, with a focus on the different meanings that it has and the expressions and idioms that it is used in.


The phrasal verb 'keep on' is a great phrasal verb to know and use in order to make your English sound more native as it is used a lot in informal, spoken English. Unlike some other phrasal verbs, there is one general theme that runs through all of the meanings of 'keep on', which is the idea of continuation. We explore all of these meanings in this post, including uses that are particular to British English, as well as a number of different idioms that it features in. So, without further ado, let's get started....


KEEP ON: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

5

Separable?

Yes - sometimes

Past tense forms

Kept on / Kept on

British or American?

Both

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

 

THE BASICS

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

Before we look at the individual meanings of the phrasal verb 'keep on', let's take a minute to examine the meanings of the individual words 'keep' and 'on'.


The main verb that we are interested in for this post is the verb 'to keep', which has two key meanings in English; the first is the idea of possession and the second is the idea of continuation. As previously mentioned, the idea of continuation is the theme behind all of the meanings of 'keep on' and this is that one that we will revisit again in this post.


In addition to 'keep', we have the prepositional particle 'on', which has a huge number of applications in English, however the application that we are interested in for this post is when it is used an adverb to indicate the continuation of something.


So, now that we have covered the basics, let's take a look at the meanings of the phrasal verb 'keep on'....

 

MEANING 1: To continue to do something


CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To continue, to keep, to carry on, to persist

After reading the first part of this post, it should come as no surprise to you that the first meaning of 'keep on' is 'to continue to do something', or 'to repeatedly do something again and again'.


For this usage, we are simply combining the 'continuation' meaning of the verb 'to keep' with the 'continuation' meaning of 'on', giving us a double continuation. This usage of 'keep on' can often therefore be used as a synonym for 'keep', however whilst 'keep' can be used to talk about a continuation or a repetition of both active and stative verbs*, 'keep on' tends to be used more for active verbs only e.g. eating, talking, asking etc.


Normally, 'keep on' is used to by native speakers to talk about an action that they or someone else continues to do, without any positive or negative connotations. Sometimes though, it can be used to describe a repeated action that we find annoying or irritating. Alternatively, it can also be used to encourage people to continue what they are doing.


Grammatically, 'keep on' is always followed by the 'ing / gerund form of another verb, unlike 'to continue' which can be followed by either an infinitive or a gerund.


Examples of usage....

My business is doing really well, so I am just going to keep on running it in the same way for the moment.
He keeps on asking me to go out on a date with him and he won't take 'no' for an answer.
My neighbours keep on playing their music really loudly late at night and it keeps on waking me up!
The bullies will keep on bullying you until you fight back.
Don't give up, keep on working at it and success will be yours!

*Stative verbs are verbs which state a condition or a state and not an activity. Typical examples would be to believe, to belong, to love etc.

 

MEANING 2: To talk about something persistently


CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

​Usage

Common

British or American

British

Potential synonyms

To go on, to harp on, to witter on

For our second meaning of 'keep on', we are staying with the theme of 'continuation and repetition' as this meaning is 'to talk persistently or excessively about something'.


This application of 'keep on' is, again, used to express annoyance, irritation or boredom about the way that somebody talks a lot, or persistently, about a particular subject. Normally, for this application we require the additional preposition 'about' to specify the subject in question that the person always talks about.


If you have read my post about the phrasal verb 'go on' (link here), you may remember that one of its meanings was very similar to this and it can therefore often be used as a synonym of 'keep on'. The only difference is perhaps that we can use 'go on' for someone who talks a lot in general and also about a specific topic, whereas 'keep on' tends to only be used when there is a specific subject. If you really want to get native speaker points, you could also combine the two and say that 'someone keeps going on about...'.


Examples of usage....

My parents went to see a show last week and now they constantly keep on about it, saying it was the best show that they have ever seen.
The interviewer was trying to get the actor to talk about his new film but instead he just kept on about the latest political developments.
In the run-up to the election, the winning party kept on about how it was going to make lots of changes to improve the economy but we have not seen any yet.
 

MEANING 3: To continue to wear something


​CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Average

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To continue to wear

Our third meaning of 'keep on' is 'to continue to wear something', such as clothes, a hat, glasses or even a wig (more to follow on this in the upcoming Bonus section).


For this usage, we are taking the adverbial meaning of 'on' where it is used to mean 'to wear something' and combining with the continuation meaning of 'keep'.


This particular application is used in situations where you have the choice to remove an item of clothing or something that you are wearing and you decide not to remove it. In other words, you 'keep it on'.


This application of 'keep on' is separable and is normally used separably with the item of clothing going between 'keep' and 'on'.


Examples of usage....

It was so cold in the house that I kept my coat and gloves on when I went inside.
John kept his glasses on to go swimming and regretted it when they fell off and sank to the bottom of the pool.
Are we allowed to keep our shoes on or do we need to take them off before we enter?

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

IDIOM ALERT!

This particular application of 'keep on' has given rise to a common idiom in English, which has several variations.


'Keep your wig on' and its alternative forms 'keep your hair on' and 'keep your shirt on' is an expression in English that is used to tell someone to calm down and not be so angry about something. I would certainly exercise caution when using this as if it used in the wrong situation, it could make the person even angrier and the situation even worse.


Examples of usage....

Oh keep your wig on, Karen, it's really not that important!
Will you please tell John to keep his shirt on and to stop overreacting!
 

MEANING 4: To continue to employ someone


CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To retain

The fourth meaning of 'keep on' is one that is used often in business English and that is 'to continue to employ someone'.


This is normally heard when an employee reaches the end of a probationary or trial period after starting within a company and the company then makes a decision as to whether or not they wish to keep the employee on their books or not.


Grammatically, this application of 'keep on' is separable and takes a direct object, with the employer being the subject and the employee being the direct object. It tends to be used much more in a separable way by native speakers, with the name of the person or the personal pronoun going between 'keep' and 'on'.


Another way that this application of 'keep on' is used is with rental contracts and agreements for houses and apartments. Here, a person can choose to 'keep on' a contract and continue to rent the house or property in which they live. In contrast to the employee example, the person renting is usually the subject and the contract or house is the direct object.


Examples of usage....

I thought that my company was going to dismiss me after my trial period had ended, but to my sheer amazement they kept me on!
A management decision was taken yesterday that due to the increasing costs that the company is facing, we will not be keeping any of the new employees on when their temporary contracts expire.
We have decided to keep the apartment on for another 3 months.
 

MEANING 5: To nag someone


CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

British

Potential synoynms

To go on at, to nag, to pester

The fifth and final meaning of 'keep on' requires the additional preposition 'at' and means to nag or pester someone. In other words, to continuously and persistently moan at someone about something or ask them to do something that they do not want to do. Again, this is a synonym of the phrasal verb 'go on at'. This usage is primarily a British usage but would certainly be understood elsewhere.


As mentioned above, the additional preposition 'at' is required here for the person who is the victim of this negative activity. In addition, the extra prepositions 'about' and 'to' can be used here to specify the reason for the nagging or the nagger's desired result.


Examples of usage....

My mother keeps going on at me about how untidy my room is but I don't think it is!
Roger's wife is always going on at him to finish painting the bedroom.
The teacher is always going on at her students about how they are dressed.
 

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

IDIOM ALERT!

We have already looked at one common idiom featuring the phrasal verb 'keep on', however there are a few others that I want to tell you about before I finish this post.


To keep on the straight and narrow = This idiomatic expression means to behave in an honest and lawful way, without getting into trouble. Some people stay on the straight and narrow their whole lives, however there are others who need to be kept on the straight and narrow and I am sure you all know at least one person like this.


To keep on top of something = If you keep on top of something, you remain knowledgeable or in control of something. This particular idiom is often used in the workplace to talk about being on schedule with your workload and emails.


To keep someone on their toes = This idiom is used to mean that something or someone always causes you to be alert and ready for action. This could be to talk about different things, from a strict manager in the workplace to a naughty dog who you constantly need to watch.


To keep on track = This final expression means to remain on schedule with something that you are doing and is again something that you will often hear in the workplace in the English speaking world.

 

Question marks in different coloured, overlapping speech bubbles on a black background

EXERCISE Re-write the following sentences using 'to keep on'....

  1. My dog continues to bark every someone comes to the front door.

  2. Helen won't stop talking about the movie she saw last night!

  3. I am so cold, so I am not going to take my coat off.

  4. The company decided to renew Roger's contract for another 6 months.

  5. John's parents used to nag him about giving up smoking when he was younger.

  6. Despite a few setbacks, Lisa is on schedule with her current work project.

The answers will be available on next week's post.

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'GET DOWN' (other variations may be possible)

  1. For this next yoga position, you need to GET DOWN onto the floor and lie on your front with your hands stretched out in front of you.

  2. I GET DOWN from time to time during the winter.

  3. Despite her sore throat, Helen managed to GET the soup DOWN that Roger had made for her.

  4. Ok we let's GET DOWN to business.

  5. I managed to GET DOWN all of the journalists' comments during the press conference.

  6. Lisa and Jenny are GETTING DOWN on the dance floor.

 

That is the end of today's 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 'keep 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. See you next time! James

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