top of page

The Phrasal Verb 'Carry On' Explained

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

A detailed explanation of how to use the phrasal verb 'carry on' correctly like a native speaker.

A person lifting a carry-on suitcase up some steps

Hello and welcome everyone to this instalment of Phrasal Verbs Explained; a blog which aims to help you understand English phrasal verbs in a clear and coherent way, so that you can use them to improve your language level and sound more like a native speaker.

Today's post focuses on the phrasal verb 'to carry on', which has a surprising number of meanings, so read on to find out more....


Number of meanings


Literal meaning


Idiomatic meaning




Past forms

Carried on / Carried on

British or American


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


MEANING 1: Literal

A lady being carried on a litter

​CEFR Language Level

A2 - Elementary



Transitive or Intransitive?

Transitive (has a direct object)



Potential synonyms

​To bring on

So let's make a start by considering the individual components of 'to carry on' and what the literal meaning is of this phrasal verb.

Firstly, we have the verb 'to carry', meaning to hold or support something and move or bring it from one place to another, and secondly we have the preposition 'on'.

When we combine these two components, it literally means to move or transport something with you whilst getting or moving on to something.

From my perspective as a native speaker, I would say that the use of this literal version in English is mainly limited to when we take or carry items with us on to public transport. If you have ever travelled on an airplane, you may be familiar with the term 'carry-on luggage', to describe the bags or luggage that you are permitted to take with you to your seat or into the cabin.

NOTE - This only applies to public transport that we travel on. As learners of English, you will know that English prepositions are rarely logical 😵‍💫, and public transport is a good example of this. In many other languages, the preposition 'in' is (logically) used to talk about most forms of public transport, however English is different and we tend to use on for many of these (although we are physically inside!).

To help you with this, I have included the table below, which shows which preposition we use for common types of transport:






​Train carriage


​Airplane cabin

Boat / Ship



As a general rule, if you can stand up and walk around on a mode of transport, we use on. If we are not able to stand up and walk around, we say in.

It is also very common to use the variation 'to carry onto', which adds additional emphasis to the movement from the start and end points.

Examples in usage....

Four bottles of perfume for carry-on luggage

From June 2024 all aeroplane passengers will be able to carry two-litre bottles of liquids on planes in their hand luggage.

John's leg was broken, so his friends had to carry him onto the airplane. (the use of onto emphasises that his friends carried him from the ground up the steps and onto the plane).


MEANING 2 : To Continue (Idiomatic)

CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate



Transitive or Intransitive

Transitive (has a direct object)



Potential Synonyms

To continue, to keep, to keep on

This first idiomatic meaning of 'carry on' that we are looking at means to continue doing something.

If you ever have heard 'to carry on' used in English before, it is probable that you have heard this idiomatic version as it is used extremely commonly in spoken English.

Used this way, it is normally followed by a verb action and this needs to be in the 'ing' progressive form.

Examples in context....

The President carried on answering the diplomat's questions until the end of the meeting.
The team have to carry on playing even if it rains or snows.

From my perspective as a native speaker, carry on is slightly less formal than continue and carry on should be avoided in formal writing and in formal documents.

In spoken English however, 'carry on' is perfectly acceptable to use in a business or work environment and is very common in both British and American English.

John, can you please carry on working on the project this week because we need to present it to the board of directors next week.


If you want to tell someone to continue what they are doing in the form of a command, "carry on!" is the more natural way to do this. Native speakers will often say this rather than "continue!", which sounds a bit colder and more formal.

Alternatively, 'keep going!' is another natural sounding synonym to 'carry on' that you could use to sound like a native.


'Carry on' is a separable phrasal verb, however English speakers tend not to separate it very often. If the object of the verb is a pronoun, then the pronoun always goes between carry and on. In this case a verb in the continuous 'ing' form is not required.

Example in context....

I have temporarily stopped doing yoga but I intend to carry it on after my holiday

The most common pronoun with 'carry on' tends to be it, but others may be possible depending on the context.

Apart from this, there is no difference in meaning if you use it separably or not; this is just at the speaker's discretion.

Examples in context....

I want to carry on learning English until I can speak like a native speaker. INTENDED MEANING: I want to continue learning English until I speak like someone whose mother tongue is English.
Do you want me to carry on writing this report? INTENDED MEANING: Do you want me to continue writing the report?
We will carry this conversation on later this evening. INTENDED MEANING: We will continue this conversation this evening.
She first started taking acting lessons when she moved to Los Angeles but she hated it and had no intention of carrying it on. INTENDED MEANING: She did not like acting lessons when she moved to Los Angeles and did not want to continue taking them.

MEANING 3 : To Misbehave (Idiomatic)


C1 - Advanced



Transitive or Intransitive?

Intransitive (no direct object)



Potential Synonyms

​To act up, to play up, to misbehave

For those learners who want to go the extra mile* to learn as much English as humanly possible, there are another three, rarer meanings of carry on that I want to make you aware of.

The first of these means to behave (or to misbehave) in a way that other people disapprove of or find irritating.

Example in context....

She drank too much wine and started carrying on in front of my family. I was so embarrassed! INTENDED MEANING: The lady was drunk and was acting in an inappropriate or socially unacceptable manner in front of the speaker's family, who were likely to disapprove.

* To go the extra mile is an idiom meaning to make an extra effort in order to do or achieve a goal


MEANING 4 : To behave like nothing has happened (Idiomatic)

CEFR Level

C1 - Advanced



Transitive or Intransitive?

Intransitive (no direct object)



Potential synonyms

To behave

So we have just looked at how 'to carry on' can mean to misbehave or act in a way that people may disapprove of, however in some contexts it can also be used as a synonym for the verb 'to behave'. More specifically, we use it to describe when a major change occurs in someone's life but they ignore it and continue behaving in the same way as they did before, often not acknowledging the change.

Typical examples of when native speakers would use this would be after receiving bad news about an illness or perhaps the death of a close relative or friend. We could also use it for good news, such as winning the lottery.

When used this way carry on is normally followed by 'like', 'as if' or 'as though'.

Examples in context....

Every time my husband and I have an argument, he carries on the next day as if nothing has ever happened, even if we haven't resolved the problem. INTENDED MEANING: The day after the argument the speaker's husband always acts like everything is normal and no argument ever happened, regardless of the outcome.
Helen has recently been given some very bad news, however she carries on as if nothing ever changed. INTENDED MEANING: Helen's behaviour has not changed since receiving the bad news, so she is possibly refusing to acknowledge it or accepting it very well.

MEANING 5: To have an illicit sexual relationship (Idiomatic)

A book entitled Romeo & Juliet next to an iced coffee

CEFR Level

C1 - Advanced



Transitive or Instransitive?

Intransitive (no direct object)



Potential synonyms

To have an affair

The fifth and final meaning of carry on that I want to make you aware of is to have a sexual relationship with someone, normally when it is forbidden or secretive.

This is especially true if one or both of the people involved are already in a relationship with someone else.

When using carry on this way it is normal to use progressive or continuous (ing) tenses.

Example in usage....

Roger has been carrying on with Helen for several years now and they don't realise that everyone in the village knows about it, including Roger's wife and Helen's husband! INTENDED MEANING: Roger and Helen have been having an illicit relationship for several years, which everyone where they live knows about.

Mixed British & American flag


If you can memorise some of the sentences below and use them in a conversation, it will help your English to come across as more natural and like that of a native speaker:

  • Carry on [-ing verb]!

  • If you carry on behaving like that, you will be in trouble (parent to child).

  • Carry on regardless!

  • We didn't like the look of the restaurant so we carried on down the road to the next one.

  • If I'd carried on learning [language] and not stopped, I would be fluent by now.

  • At one point it was so hard and I thought I couldn't carry on but somehow I found the strength.

  • We want to carry on the the traditions of our parents and grandparents.

  • To get there, carry on down this road for [distance] and then turn left / right....



Re-write the sentences below using 'carry on'....

  1. It is illegal to take large amounts of liquid on to an airplane.

  2. Although the Covid pandemic has finished, many people have continued to work from home.

  3. Despite finding English grammar difficult, Lisa kept studying until she was able to fully understand it.

  4. Keep calm and continue what you were doing!

  5. I found out yesterday that my friend, who is married, has been having an affair with her doctor for several months.

  6. Despite being hugely unpopular with the public, the politician acts as though everybody loves him.

(Answers at the end of the post)



  1. If you have a conversation with a shy person, what is the best way to carry it on when the other person stops speaking?

  2. Do you regret not carrying on learning something when you were younger e.g. a language or a musical instrument?

  3. Is there something that you started learning or doing when you were younger and had no intention of carrying on with it but which you are still learning or doing today?



The Carry On movies were a series of 31 British comedy movies that were made between 1958 and 1992. Each movie had a different theme e.g. Carry on Doctor and Carry on Camping, with a separate storyline to the others, but many of the same actors starred in the films. Much of the comedy in the films was tongue-in-cheek* and involved sexual innuendo, word play and mocking traditional British institutions and customs. Some of the humour in the films is now a little outdated but despite this, they continue to be loved and laughed at by many people to this day.

* Tongue-in-cheek means to come across as serious whilst making a joke


EXERCISE ANSWERS (Other variations may be possible)

  1. It is illegal to carry large amounts of liquid on to an airplane.

  2. Although the Covid pandemic has finished, many people have carried on working from home.

  3. Despite finding English grammar difficult, Lisa carried on studying until she was able to fully understand it.

  4. Keep calm and carry on what you were doing!

  5. I found out yesterday that my friend, who is married, has been carrying on with her doctor for several months.

  6. Despite being hugely unpopular with the public, the politician carries on as though everybody loves him


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 go ahead and share it, 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 'carry on' below. I really love reading them. See you next time!

Related Posts

See All


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating


Thanks for submitting! A new phrasal verb post will be emailed to you every Friday!

bottom of page