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The Phrasal Verb 'Come Across' Explained: Learn The Different Meanings & How To Use Them

Updated: Oct 3

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

Phrasal verb come across. A woman coming across a bridge

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 is all about the phrasal verb 'to come across', which I am sure many of you will have come across before 😉. So without further ado, let's go....


KEY INFORMATION

Usage

Common

Number of Meanings

3

Literal Meaning

Yes

Idiomatic Meaning

Yes

Separable

No

Past forms

Came across / come across

British or American

Both

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

 

MEANING 1: Literal

Phrasal verb come across. Arrows coming across the page

CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Medium

Separable

No

Potential synonyms

To come over, to cross

Before we look at the different ways that 'come across' can be used idiomatically, let's look at the basics and consider its individual components to understand its literal meaning.


Firstly, we have the verb 'to come', meaning to move from a place in the direction of where the speaker is. As you will know, 'to come' is an extremely common English verb that most you be very familiar with, so let's move on.


The second part of the construction is the prepositional particle 'across', meaning from one side of something to the other.


So, the literal meaning of 'to come across' is therefore to move from one side of something to the other side (where the speaker is). This could be a road, a field, a city, a room, a bridge a building, or anything else that a person or an object can move across from one side to the other.



Examples in usage....

A horse coming across a field
She came across the room to tell me something.
I've come across the city especially to see you.
The horse is coming across the field towards me.

Although the literal meaning of 'come across' is used relatively often by native speakers, we often use the synonym 'come over' instead.


So now we have looked at the basic components of 'come across', what it means in a literal sense and how we use it, it's time to look at how we use it idiomatically....

 

MEANING 2 : To find something unexpectedly



​CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper Intermediate

Usage

Common

Transitive or Intransitive?

Intransitive (no direct object)

Separable

No

Potential synonyms

​To find, to run into, to discover, to stumble across

Perhaps the most common usage of 'to come across' in English is with the meaning to find something by chance or by accident, i.e. without wanting, trying or meaning to find it.


In other words, we use it when we want to express that we had no intention of finding what we found. There is neither a positive nor a negative feeling attached to this; it is simply used to talk about an experience.


It is also common to come across someone, rather than something and in this case it usually means that we meet them by chance (not find them, although this could also be possible!).


It can be used in this way in both business and general English and also in both formal and informal situations.


In a negative sense, we use it to express that we have not seen or heard of something before, for example when you find a new word in a language for the first time or find a blog online when you were searching for something else (like this one 😉).


Examples in context....

I've lost my wallet somewhere in the office today. If you come across it, please can you let me know. INTENDED MEANING: If you see or find my wallet in the office by chance, please tell me. I am not asking you to search for it.
I was going through my emails today and I came across an important one from my boss that I had missed from last week. INTENDED MEANING: I found an email from my boss which I either did not see or saw and forgot about last week
After my father died, my mother and I were clearing out his things and we came across some old photos of him from when he was a young man. INTENDED MEANING: We found these photos in the attic but we were not specifically looking for them. It was perhaps a surprise to find them.
I have not come across this word before; I will make sure that I memorise it! INTENDED MEANING - This is the first time that I have seen this word.
In my entire career, I have never come across anyone whose behaviour is as bad as yours! INTENDED MEANING: This is the worst behaviour I have ever experienced from a co-worker.
 

MEANING 2 : To seem



CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

Transitive or Intransitive?

Intransitive (no direct object)

Separable

No

Potential synonyms

To seem, to appear, to come over

The next idiomatic meaning of 'to come across' that we are going to look at in this post has a very similar meaning to the verb 'to seem' and is used to express how someone or something is perceived by another person.


When used this way, the conjunction 'as' should be used before the noun or adjective. You can also use a verb in this construction, however it must be in the gerund form.


Examples in usage....

He comes across as a good guy but in reality he is not at all! INTENDED MEANING: He seems like a really nice man but in fact he is not.
The solicitor came across as professional. INTENDED MEANING: The lawyer seemed professional to me.
John comes across as being highly motivated. INTENDED MEANING: John gives the impression that he is very motivated.

It is common for native speakers to use 'come across' when expressing their first impressions of another person, especially if the first impression is a little controversial.

A man giving a presentation to demonstrate the phrasal verb "come across"

Alternatively, it is also used to talk about how someone was perceived in a particular situation, such as giving a presentation.




Examples in usage....

I haven't spoken to my new manager much yet but to be honest he comes across as a bit arrogant! INTENDED MEANING: The speaker's first impression of the new manager is that he is arrogant. This opinion may change in the future.
Well done, you have got the job. I have had some really good feedback from the interviewers who said that you came across really well in the interview! INTENDED MEANING: You impressed the interviewers and you seemed like the type of candidate that they are looking for.
I had a date with a guy last night and he came across as a bit strange, so I don't think I want to see him again. INTENDED MEANING: The person on the date seemed quite strange to the speaker.

EXTRA INFORMATION TO SOUND LIKE A NATIVE


If you really want to use 'come across' in an advanced way, then you should know that we also use it to express how emotions or ideas that are expressed in speech, music or films are felt or perceived by people.


Used in this way, there is no direct object and so for this we neither require the conjunction 'as' nor a noun or adjective to follow afterwards.


Examples in usage....

When the King was talking about the death of his mother, his sadness came across in his voice. INTENDED MEANING: The emotion in the King's voice when he was talking about his mother was obvious or clear to the speakers, even though he may not have explicitly said that he was sad.
He is a passionate teacher and that comes across when he is in the classroom. INTENDED MEANING: His enthusiasm for teaching is clear when you see him do it.
 

Half British Half American flag

SPEAK LIKE A NATIVE: TYPICAL EXAMPLES OF HOW 'TO COME ACROSS' IS USED BY NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKERS


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:

I've never come across [noun] before.
I came across your [noun] online
He / she comes across as [adjective] / a [noun].
If you go to [place], you're sure to come across.......
This is the best [noun] I have ever come across.
This is the worst [noun] I have ever come across.
 

EXERCISE


Re-write the following sentences using 'to come across'....

  1. I was scrolling through my social media feed when I saw a post from my friend announcing the birth if their baby.

  2. I can't believe he was so rude to you. He seemed like a lovely guy when I met him!

  3. She's heading over here to this office later for a meeting.

  4. What does the word "punctilious" mean in English? This is the first time that I have ever seen it! *

  5. Helen was walking to work one morning when she noticed an injured bird by the side of the road.

  6. It is clear that he cares a lot about his country as you can hear clearly it when he speaks.

* Punctilious means to show great attention to detail or to procedure

 

POTENTIAL IELTS QUESTIONS

  • Describe the most polite person you have come across in your life

  • What type of noise do you come across in your daily life?

  • Discuss some of the most interesting people you have come across in your life

Question marks in different colours.

 

EXERCISE ANSWERS (other variations may be possible)

  1. I was scrolling through my social media feed when I came across a post from my friend announcing the birth if their baby.

  2. I can't believe he was so rude to you. He came across as a lovely guy when I met him!

  3. She's coming across to this office later for a meeting.

  4. What does the word "punctilious" mean in English? This is the first time that I have ever come across it!

  5. Helen was walking to work one morning when she came across an injured bird by the side of the road.

  6. It is clear that he cares a lot about his country as it comes across clearly when he speaks.

 

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 'come across' below. I really love reading them. See you next time!






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