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The Phrasal Verb 'Let On' Explained

Updated: Jun 9

An explanation of the different meanings of the English phrasal verb 'let on', with lots of examples in context.

People being let onto an airplane

Hello and welcome to my website for English learners all about phrasal verbs!

'Let on' is a rarer English phrasal verb that, whilst you may not hear every day, is certainly one that you should have in your active vocabulary to impress your English-speaking friends and colleagues. This is a much shorter post than normal as there are only three meanings and my hands needs a break from typing so much 😉. So, without further ado, let's make a start...don't forget to leave a comment at the end!

LET ON: KEY INFORMATION For an explanation of the terms in the table, click here



Number of meanings


Past tense forms

Let up / Let up



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


To begin, let's take the two words 'let' and 'on' and consider their individual meanings as independent words.

Firstly, we have the verb 'to let', which is a common verb in English with several meanings. The most common of these meanings is perhaps 'to allow or permit someone to do something'.

When I was young, my parents let me stay up until 8pm at the weekend.
My wife won't let me watch television until I have finished the DIY.

Another similar usage with the verb 'to let' is to not prevent something from happening.

I can't believe you just let it happen and didn't intervene.

Next up, we have the prepositional particle 'on', which is used as an adverb and preposition to mean to be in contact with, or supported by, a surface. In addition to this, 'on' has a very large number of different meanings and functions and is commonly used as an adverb, preposition and noun in the English language.

Now that we have covered the basics, let's find out what meanings are created when we combine these two innocent little words....


MEANING 1: To allow someone onto something

People lining up in the departure lounge of an airport with the plane in view out the window behind them

CEFR Language Level

A2 - Elementary



Potential synonyms

To allow on, to permit on

British or American?




Let's begin the meanings of 'let on' with the easiest one, which is simply the combination of the literal meanings of the verb 'to let' and the prepositional particle 'on', i.e. to allow someone onto something.

This application is quite limited in its usage because it can only really be used properly with nouns for things that we can physically or metaphorically be 'on'. What's more, this is further restricted as the inclusion of the word 'let' means that there must also be an element of permission from another person to be 'on' the noun in question.

As such, you are most likely to come across this usage of 'let on' with public transport such as trains, airplanes and buses since these are all things that people can be 'on' and which you need a ticket in order to be permitted to travel (remember English is illogical and we use 'on' for these rather than the more logical 'in'). Other examples of nouns where you may come across this are things like fairground rides, furniture or roofs.

On a grammatical note, for this literal usage, we almost always use it separably with the allowed or disallowed person or thing going between 'let' and 'on'.

My husband was very drunk and the airport staff were not sure whether or not to let him on the flight.
Lisa's daughter tried to get on the roller coaster but the staff wouldn't let her on as she was too small.
I can't believe you let your cat on the kitchen table!

In addition to physical objects and surfaces, we can also use 'let up' with non-physical or abstract nouns with which we use 'on', such as courses (training or education), programmes, websites and teams.

I managed to convince the team to let me on the football team.
Kate's school grades were not good enough and the university refused to let her on the course.
My access to the internet at work is quite limited and they won't let me on certain websites.

MEANING 2: To reveal something secret

A lady in a pink shirt holding up a pad with the words "no comment" written on it

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced



British or American?


Potential synonyms

To reveal, to admit



Ok, so let's now take a look at the first of the more abstract meanings of the phrasal verb 'let on' and this first one is 'to reveal something secret'.

For the etymology fans among you, this usage has been around since at least the early eighteenth century and was first used to mean 'to allow some information to be known'. This usage has continued through to modern English, although it tends to be used much more frequently in the negative sense these days, i.e. 'to not let on', meaning that the secret information was not revealed.

A: Did John know about his surprise party? B: If he did, he didn't let on.
Helen never let on about her boyfriend's criminal past and to be honest, we would never have guessed as he was so nice.
My manager says that he doesn't know why HR are calling all of the employees into their office but I'm sure he knows more than he lets on.

So, we have identified that 'not let on' is often used for when someone keeps information secret and does not tell people about it, however it can also be used to talk about when someone hides their true feelings.

I didn't realise that Lisa was so upset at the café yesterday. She didn't let on and I thought that she was absolutely fine.
Roger was very angry with his colleagues but he didn't let on and remained professional all day.

Lastly, this application of 'let on' is also used in positive statements, albeit much more rarely. When it is used this way, we tend to require the additional preposition 'to', to specify the person who received the previously secret information.

Andrew let on to me last night that he has feelings for me. I didn't know what to say to him as I don't feel the same way about him!
After months of secrecy, Margaret finally let on to her colleagues that she was leaving to start her own business.

Write your own sentence with this application of 'let on' in the comments section here.


MEANING 3: To pretend

A. man holding up some playing cards

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced



British or American?


Potential synonyms

To pretend, to lie, to fabricate



This final usage of 'let on' is a rarer usage that means 'to pretend'. It is not one that I hear very often, however it is definitely a good one to be aware of and have in your English vocabulary just in case!

In the previous section, we looked at how 'let on' can mean to not reveal or hide secret information and so, in a way we already had the implicit idea of pretending, in the sense of pretending to not know something. With this application however, the pretending is a lot more evident as it it tends to be used to pretend that we know something or can do something, for example if you go to a job interview and tell them that you have many of the requisite skills for the job when in reality you do not. It's really for those people who like to tell lies about themselves in order to make themselves look or sound better in front of others....we all know at least one person like it!

Of course, it is not always about making exaggerated claims and can sometimes just be used to make excuses e.g. you're tired or you have to work.

On a grammatical note, with this application of 'let on', we tend to add a 'that' clause afterwards to specify the false or untrue information.

He let on that he was tired but in reality I think that he just wanted to go home to play computer games.
She let on that she was a famous singer but nobody in the bar had ever heard of her.
I let on that I could bake cakes really well but then my mother in law asked me to bake one for her birthday and I had to admit that I was lying.

The words "thank you" written on a piece of paper with a heart underneath

We have now reached the end of this post and I just want to say thank you for clicking on my post and reading it. I hope that you've enjoyed it and have been able to learn something new about the phrasal verb 'let on'.

Now it is YOUR turn. Can you think of a sentence yourself using 'let on'. Write it in the comments section below if you can, or alternatively any comments, suggestions or feedback that you may have....don't be shy!!!

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Also, if you found the post useful, please like and share it on social media. See you next time! James 😊


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