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The Phrasal Verb 'Take On' Explained

Updated: Jan 23

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

A girl sitting at desk being interviewed

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 'take on' is a commonplace and diverse phrasal verb, in both the field of business English and general English. As such, you may already be familiar with at least one of its meanings. In this post we will cover the different uses that it has in English, as well as the classic 80s song that it features in (although used slightly incorrectly). So, without further ado, let's get started....


TAKE ON: KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

7

Separable?

Yes

Past forms

Took on - Taken on

British or American

Both

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

 

THE BASICS

The letters A-G spelt out in different coloured plasticine on a red background

As per usual, before we look at the different meanings of 'take on', let's quickly look at the individual words which make it up.


Firstly, we have the verb 'to take', which I am sure will be very familiar to all of you. The verb 'to take' is extremely common and has a plethora of different uses and meanings in English such as to move something, to remove something from a place and also to accept something, which is the meaning that is relevant for the phrasal verb 'take on'.


Secondly, we have the prepositional particle 'on', which has a large number of applications in English too, but perhaps the most relevant definition of it here is 'to be in contact with and supported by something'.


So, now we have briefly looked at those, let's get started and see what the wonderful phrasal verb 'take on' actually means....

 

MEANING 1: Literal

A leather bag on the floor at someone's feet and a passport in their hand

CEFR Language Level

A1 - Beginner

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To carry on

The first meaning of 'take on' that we will look at is the literal meaning of the combination of the two words 'take' and 'on', which is 'to transport or carry something with you when you are moving onto something'.


This can be used with any noun for something that we can be 'on', however most of the time we use it in relation to mass transportation such as airplanes and trains, in a similar way to how we use the phrasal verb 'carry on'. It is also very common to use the similar preposition 'onto' here, without a change in meaning.


Examples of usage....

The following items are strictly prohibited and must not be taken on a British Airways aircraft under any circumstance....
I am going to take my book on the train with me so that I can read during the journey.
 

MEANING 2: To employ someone


CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Common (Business English

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To employ, to hire

We are starting the non-literal meanings of 'take on' with a business English usage, which is 'to employ or hire someone to work for you or your business'.


This can normally be used interchangeably with the verb 'to hire' when talking about the process of advertising for, interviewing and employing new employees. Furthermore, it is used in businesses of all sizes, from huge multinational companies to sole traders who decide that they need some help in their business.


As with most of the meanings that we will cover in this post, 'take on' is used transitively here, i.e. with a direct object, and it is absolutely fine to put the direct object (the new employee) either between 'take' and 'on' or after them both, which affects neither the meaning nor the intention.


So, we have mentioned that businesses 'take on' new employees, however you should be aware that this can be used in a passive sense too; native speakers who have recently started new jobs often say that "they have been taken on by a company" instead of saying that they have been employed.


Examples of usage....

We are looking to take on a new science teacher as one of our current teachers is on long-term sick leave.
The company first took John on as an administrative clerk back in 2003 and now he is one of the company directors.
Sorry, we are not taking on any new members of staff at the moment but please continue to monitor the Careers section of our website, in which any new job vacancies will be posted.
My daughter has been taken on as trainee photographer with the local newspaper.
 

MEANING 3: To accept to undertake a task or role

An unsigned contract with pens lying on it

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To undertake, to accept

For meaning number three of 'take on', we are going to stay with business English as the meaning of it is 'to accept or undertake to do a role'. As you may have worked out, this third meaning is really just a shift in perspective from the employer to the employee, however there are some differences and they are not exact opposites....


In the first meaning, the use of 'take on' is limited to when a company hires a new employee from outside the company, i.e. they did not work for the company before. However, in this second meaning, where the perspective is shifted to the employee, it is used to express the action of accepting a new, often better, job within the same company, or alternatively accepting additional responsibilities and tasks in an existing job.


It is also possible to use this to talk about accepting a job in a new company, or to talk about 'taking on' second jobs outside of your main work e.g. part time work in a restaurant at weekends. The central idea here is that you are accepting to do work, or more work than you currently do.


Examples of usage....

My colleague is leaving the company in two weeks and I have agreed to take on some of her responsibilities until we can find a replacement for her.
Due to changes in the management structure, we are pleased to announce that Lisa Smith will be taking on the role of Head of Export and we wish her every success this.
Helen was struggling financially and had to take on a part time job as a waitress in a restaurant at weekends in order to make ends meet*.

* To make ends meet is a an idiom that means to make just enough money to survive.

 

MEANING 4: To oppose someone or compete against them


CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

British or American?

Both

Usage

Common

Potential synonyms

To oppose, to compete against

The fourth meaning of 'take on' means to oppose someone or something, or alternatively, it can mean to compete against them.

A rally with a man holding up a sign

In the sense of opposing something, we use 'take on' when there is something that we do not agree with or want to stop and therefore we take action in order to makethis happen. It is worth noting here that usually we use this when the person or thing that we are opposing is much bigger or powerful than us in some way. An example of this would be if a person or group of people decides to oppose something that a large multi-national company with billions of dollars is planning to do. In this instance we would say that "they are taking on the company" as the company is much more powerful than the person / group.


As I mentioned, we can use 'take on' to talk about entering into competition with someone too. This is used a lot to talk about sporting matches and fixtures but can apply to any competitions where people compete directly against each other. The idea that the opponent is bigger or more powerful also applies here, but it is not always the case and 'take on' can equally be used to describe an ordinary match or competition without a big power imbalance.


A common expression used with this meaning is 'to take on the might of*' when a so-called lesser or smaller opponent agrees to compete against or oppose a larger one.


Examples of usage....

The women took on their company in an attempt to get equal pay and after a long legal battle, they won!
Accrington Stanley FC are taking on the might of Manchester United in the lunchtime football game tomorrow.
The British champion will take on the best long distance runners in the world next week in the London marathon.

* To avoid any confusion, 'might' here is a noun meaning 'power' and is not being used as a modal verb of probability.

 

MEANING 5: To acquire a quality


CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American

Both

Potential synonyms

To acquire

The fifth meaning of 'take on' is to 'acquire a quality or, in the case of words, a new meaning'. The idea of 'take on' here is that an object acquires or absorbs something, which then changes or adds an additional quality to it.

A bowl of tomato soup

In order to understand this meaning, I think it is helpful to think of an item as a collection of qualities. For example, let's imagine our item is a regular tomato soup and its qualities are that it is hot, red, tasty and filling. If we add some chilli flakes to it, it also becomes spicy and so we can then say that after adding the chilli flakes, the soup takes on a spicy quality too. In other words, the soup has absorbed the chilli, which has now changed it.


To give you another example, you will have seen a chameleon in the gif for this section and the reason for this is that it is a case in point of something which acquires or 'takes on' the qualities of its environment and in the end resembles it.


'Take on' in this sense can also be used to talk about people, food, situations, stories or anything else where one thing can be integrated or absorbed into another, causing the original thing to change accordingly.


Examples of usage....

The word 'gay' primarily used to mean happy and cheerful but during the twentieth century it took on a completely different meaning.
The party was really crazy to begin with but it took on a much more relaxed feel after some of the younger people went off to another party.
A large amount of dust from the Sahara desert caused the sky to take on a yellowish colour over much of northern Europe last week.
 

MEANING 6: To admit passengers (onto public transport)


A ferry taking on passengers on an overcast day

​CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Rare

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To admit, to board

The sixth meaning of 'take on' is a rarer meaning that is limited to public transport and it means specifically to stop and allow new passengers to board a vessel. This can be used with airplanes buses and trains, however I think it is most commonly used with boats and ships.

In addition to 'taking on' passengers, it is also possible to 'take on' goods and cargo.

Furthermore, If a ship or boat is damaged and has a hole in it, leading it to slowly fill with water, we say that the boat is 'taking on water'. Moreover, 'to take on water' is also an idiomatic expression used to describe a situation which is becoming more difficult or hazardous or when problems start arising which could cause you to fail in what you are doing.


Examples of usage...

The cruise ship will stop in Montego Bay tomorrow to take on passengers and supplies.
The crew sounded the alarm as soon as they realised that the boat was taking on water and they needed help.

The word 'TIPS' spelt out using wooden blocks

IDIOM ALERT!

I know that I have just given you a boat-based idiom with 'take on', but there is a second one that I want to tell you about.


To take something on board is an idiomatic expression that we use and means 'to fully consider a new piece of information in order to understand and accept it'. The origins of this idiom arose from the need to thoroughly check cargo at seaports before it was accepted and loaded onto a ship, however these days we use it in many different situations.


Example of usage....

The radio DJ has taken on board the complaints that he received for his bad language and has promised to avoid using it in future.
Whenever my wife is mad or upset with me, I always try to think about why and take it on board, so that I can avoid arguments in the future.
 

MEANING 7: To show emotion



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To get upset, to get emotional

The seventh meaning of 'take on' is a rare meaning that means to show emotion, which is normally negative such as crying and sadness.


On a grammatical level, this application of 'take on' is unique compared to the others as it is the only meaning which is intransitive and does not take a direct object. As such, if a person is emotional, we would just say that they were 'taking on' with no need for an object.


As I said above, this is certainly a rare meaning that I think is perhaps more literary and perhaps slightly archaic and it is not one that I use or hear people use in everyday English. Nevertheless, it is always good to know these things 😃.


Examples of usage....

What are you taking on for? There is no reason to be sad or upset.
 

MEANING 8: To do something without approval or permission



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Now we come to our final meaning of the phrasal verb 'take on' and well done for making it this far! This last meaning is more of a common expression than an entire meaning, so I decided to dedicate a section to it as it is a useful one to be aware of.


The expression here is 'to take it (up)on oneself to do something' and it means to decide to do something without approval or permission from other people. In other words, if you take it on yourself to do something, you decide that you are going to do something, or perhaps give yourself a responsibility of some sort, without checking with other people first.


There are two variations of this expression which are 'to take it on yourself' and 'to take it upon yourself', which both mean exactly the same. Its just a matter of personal choice whether you choose 'on' or 'upon', however personally I prefer the 'upon' version, which is the one I use more frequently and is the more commonly used of the two variations in general.


Examples of usage....

I had all of the wedding preparations under control but then my mother took it upon herself to start arranging the seating plan for the wedding breakfast.
Our HR manager has taken it on himself to arrange a charity event to raise money for a good cause.
 

BONUS

The word 'bonus' spelt out with different coloured balloons held up by different people's hands

I couldn't finish this blog post without a little nod to a classic 1980s track featuring an amazing video that captivated me when I was very small : Take on Me by A-ha.


Despite how well-known and successful this song is, it is quite interesting to note that the title and main lyric of the song 'take on me' is not actually grammatically correct and does sound wrong to a native speaker's ears. The reason for this is that the direct object pronoun (me) needs to go in the middle of the phrasal verb, i.e. 'take me on'. They also do sing the correct lyrics in the song, so they are forgiven; obviously the choice of words is just poetic licence for effect. Anyway, here is the video if you want to check it out.



 

Question marks in different coloured speech bubbles on a black background

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

  1. Due to an upturn in business, we are looking to hire some new staff.

  2. I needed some extra money so I've started a new part time job at the weekends.

  3. Birmingham City are playing the league champions Manchester City this evening.

  4. The song has become really popular and has developed a life of its own.

  5. The ferry stopped at Dover to allow passengers to board.

  6. She has decided to start doing the accounting reports every day without checking with any of her colleagues.

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

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS FROM 'GO OFF' (other variations may be possible)

  1. The village festival WENT OFF very well.

  2. All of a sudden the television WENT OFF halfway through my favourite show.

  3. My alarm WENT OFF at 5.30am this morning.

  4. Smell this milk, it's disgusting, it has definitely GONE OFF.

  5. I used to love rap music but I've GONE OFF it now.

  6. My parents WENT OFF at me when they found out about my house party.

 

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 'take 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

2件のコメント


richa_me
2023年9月27日

Congrats for such amazing explanations. Please, keep sending more information about this difficult topic.

いいね!
James
2023年10月04日
返信先

Thank you so much, I am glad that it was beneficial for you. I will definitely keep sending you more information! :-)

いいね!

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