One of the most challenging aspects of learning English is the ubiquity of phrasal verbs in day-to-day language.
These verbs change meaning due to the addition of a preposition or adverb. You might be familiar with the verb “to get,” but knowing its usual meaning does little to help you understand the meaning of “he got up.”
Unfortunately, there are not many patterns to tie together the thousands of unique phrasal verb combinations. As an English learner, there is little to be done besides memorizing them individually. To make matters worse, many of them are highly polysemous – even the same combinations often have multiple possible meanings.
The good news is that the vast majority are uncommon. The top 100 account for more than half of the phrasal verbs found in the British National Corpus, and the top 25 alone already account for 30%.
Understanding the meanings of the most common English phrasal verbs will equip you with an intuitive grasp of how they’re formed and help you avoid confusion when you encounter new ones in the wild.
In this article, we’ll explore the phrasal verbs that can be formed with “to go” in descending order, starting with the most common.
To go on
To go on is the most commonly occurring phrasal verb in the English language. It has five distinct senses, according to WordNet, or eleven, according to Collins Dictionary.
- To go on is “to continue” to do or to happen – for example, “We can’t go on” means “We can’t continue what we’re doing.”
- To go on is “to happen” – for example, “What’s going on here?” is used to express confusion or alarm, or to demand an explanation for what the speaker is witnessing.
- To go on is also “to continue to speak.” It can be used in the imperative to prompt a speaker to resume when they have paused or been interrupted (“Please, do go on”). It can also be used to express that a speaker is being repetitive, persistent or even annoying. “He keeps going on (about) it” means that he keeps speaking about the same topic.
- “To go on to” is “to do” or “to go to” after doing something or being somewhere else. For example “She’ll go on to great things” means that she will be especially successful in the future, after the topic under discussion is finished.
- “Go on” can be used as an informal imperative to encourage someone to do something or express (often playfully feigned) reluctant agreement, e.g., “Oh, go on then.”
- “To go on” can be used as an idiomatic adverbial phrase that can substitute for a noun like “information,” “evidence” or “data.” For example, “We don’t have enough to go on” typically means “We don’t have enough information to make a decision.”
- When referring to an electrical device, “to go on” means to power on or begin functioning.
To go back
If you say “We go way back,” you mean you’ve known someone for a long time. More generally, “to go back” can mean to originate at a particular point in history – for example, “our heritage goes back centuries” suggests that such heritage began centuries ago.
“To go back” can also be used more plainly (essentially not as a phrasal verb) to mean to return, either to a previous location or a point in time. However, it is also often used metaphorically to mean “to consider” or “to repeat” the events of the past. For example, “going back to the 19th century” can either mean thinking about the 19th century, or bringing about a state of affairs that is similar to those of the 19th century.
“To go back on one’s word” is to break a promise. “The clocks going back” is an informal way of referring to the end of daylight savings time, or what happens when you cross a time zone boundary traveling in a westward direction.
To go out
“To go out” has a sliding scale of idiomatic meaning, from the most literal, “to exit,” to the most specific, “to party,” via numerous possibilities in between, like “do a social activity” or “go to a restaurant in the evening.”
If you are generally “going out with” someone, this often – but not always – implies a romantic relationship. Depending on the context, “We’re going out” can mean “This person is my boyfriend” or “We are about to go outside.”
For a fire or light to be or go out is for it to be extinguished. It is no longer “on.” Things can also be or go “out of” fashion, stock, use, or a competition. They are no longer “in.”
The tide going out is when the sea reaches a lower or farther point than before.
For a piece of media to go out is for it to be published or broadcast. A song, a heart, or sympathies can also go “out to” someone or a group of people, meaning it is dedicated or extended to them.
To go down
As a non-idiomatic verb, to go down is simply to decrease or descend. For example, prices can go down. There are idiomatic variations of this when applied to particular subjects, like planes, ships, or the sun. When these things “go down,” the implication is that they’ve gone all the way down.
But it can also mean “to be defeated” or “to cease functioning.”
This phrase can be used to express how well an idea, performance, or piece of information is received by an audience. “The earnings forecast will go down well with the investors” means that the investors will be pleased when the forecast is presented or delivered to them.
To go “down in” or “down as” is to be remembered in or as. To go “down with” is to become infected by an illness.
In colloquial usage, it can be similar to “go on” insofar as it can refer to events that are occurring. “What’s going down?” is a more casual variant of “What’s going on?” especially in US English. In British slang it can also mean “to go to prison.”
To go up
As you might expect, “going up” often means the opposite of “going down.” In its most literal usages, it means to increase or ascend. It can also mean “to be constructed” or “installed.”
In informal language, “go up in flames,” i.e., to suddenly or intensely burn or be destroyed by fire, can be shortened to simply “go up.”
A shout or cheer can be said “to go up” – this is a passive way of describing the actions of a crowd of people without identifying any particular source of the commotion.
To go off
For electrical or mechanical equipment to go off is for it to power down or cease operating. For a bomb, alarm, or gun to go off is for it to explode, ring, or fire. If food goes off, it has become stale or rotten and is perhaps no longer safe to eat. For an event or performance to go off is for it to take place successfully or as expected.
A person can go off intransitively (without a direct object), in which case they leave or go away from the speaker, similarly to “going away,” or transitively, in which case they no longer like or approve of something, e.g., “I’ve gone off pizza” means that the speaker has stopped enjoying pizza.
In modern colloquial usage, “to go off” can mean to share one’s opinion in an unrestrained or unfiltered manner. An older variant is formed by “to go off on” or “to go off about” and often implies that the person “going off” is complaining or speaking with excessive energy.
More recently, and particularly in US English, “go off” in the imperative can be used to encourage someone to continue sharing their opinion without hesitation. However, even this is often done sarcastically.
To go in
To go in can be used as an alternative for “to enter” or “to go inside,” especially in British English. Another traditionally British usage is when the sun “goes in,” meaning it has become obscured behind clouds.
“Go in” is also an informal way to refer to learning, memorizing, or paying attention, typically in the negative. “Nothing’s going in” might suggest that the speaker is too tired or confused to understand what they are hearing or reading.
“To go in for” is an even more idiomatic expression meaning “to approve of,” “to have as a hobby or interest,” or “to have a preference for.” In British English, it can also be a way of saying “to sign up for” or “to apply for” a competition, award, or funding.
To go (a)round
To go around or go round (more common in British English, especially in more colloquial speech) can refer to visiting someone’s home, e.g, “I went round John’s house.”
It can also mean “to behave” or “appear in public” in a particular way. For example, a parent might say “You can’t go around like that” to their child to express disapproval of their choice of clothes. More generally, it can mean “to do [something] often,” particularly in British English. For example, “to go around with” a person or group means to spend time with them.
Rumors, illnesses, or ideas can be said to “be going around,” meaning they are being circulated widely.
“Enough to go around” is an idiomatic phrase expressing that there is enough of something to be shared among a group and satisfy everyone’s needs. A high unemployment rate is often described in terms of there being “not enough jobs to go around.”
Of course, there are also literal usages – like “to orbit, gyrate, or revolve” (“The Earth goes around the Sun”) – but these can also be transformed into “to encircle, surround, or enclose” (“Rings of small particles go around Saturn”).
To go over
One sense of “to go over” something is to discuss, review, or examine it.
Similarly to “go down,” it can also mean “to be received” by an audience in a certain way.
In British English, “go over to…” is a transitive verb meaning to change to. It’s typically used to refer to an ongoing behavior or state of affairs that is changing. For example, “I’ve gone over to organic food” suggests that the speaker has begun habitually buying and eating it.
Once again, it can also be used as an ordinary verb, where “over” would be a spatial preposition. If you’ve “gone over” a bridge, or indeed the river itself, you’ve crossed it.
To go through
To go through often means to experience. It frequently has negative connotations, e.g., “I’ve been through a lot” suggests that the speaker has had many painful or challenging experiences.
It can also be used similarly to “go over” in the sense of “discuss, review, or examine,” although “through” has a slightly more quantitative or granular implication. It’s more natural to go “through” one’s clothes or wardrobe, because there is an action of sorting through potentially many discrete items; whereas you’re more likely to go “over” the events of a day, because they will form a continuous whole.
Using “go through” can also suggest a more active process than “go over,” as “went through the checklist” usually means that the subject performed each of the actions on the list rather than just looking at it. “Going through the motions” is a fixed idiom, meaning “performing actions without being interested in the outcome.”
Going through a consumable means using it, with reference to a certain rate of consumption, e.g., “We’re going through batteries fast.” This meaning can even be applied expressively to things that are not consumable, to suggest a dysfunctionally high rate of change or turnover, e.g., “The company has been through four CEOs in the last two years.”
A law in government, an order on a shopping site, or a request can also “go through,” meaning it has been received or approved.
To “go through with” an action is to do it or finish it despite doubts or resistance.
To go along
“To go along,” with reference to an event, suggests – but does not assert – that the subject will attend or participate as a secondary party, perhaps as a silent observer in a discussion, or with some doubts about the necessity or wisdom of their attendance, at least prior to the event. It is totally natural to say, “I went along to the concert and had a great time,” evoking the possibility that the speaker was not expecting to have a great time, especially in British English.
This subtle flavor derives from the common usage of “go along with” to mean “to tolerate” or “to not object to.” However, “to go along with” a person does not always carry such a connotation. It can very often mean simply “to accompany.”
To go about
To go about something typically means to perform, achieve, or complete it in a certain way.
If the “how” is not specified, it tends to sound like the subject is actively planning or thinking about how to approach the task or problem. “They went about fixing the dishwasher” implies they began a process consisting of potentially many steps. “Just go about your day” might be used to tell the listener to resume their ordinary activities without worrying about the topic under discussion.
In British English, “about” is also a near synonym of “around,” particularly for older speakers. As a result, “go about” can be substituted for almost any meaning of “go around.”
In nautical language, “to go about” is to maneuver a vessel such that the wind is blowing toward the opposite side of the vessel than it was before the maneuver.
To go under
Idiomatically, to go under is to fail or sink.
Much like almost all phrasal verbs that use a spatial or directional preposition, the same combination of words can also appear without forming a phrasal verb, but rather meaning literally “to pass beneath.”
To go by
To go by is to pass. Time can go by, or people or objects can go by.
In British English it is also used similarly to “go on” as an adverbial phrase meaning “information.” The flavor is slightly different and is defined by Collins Dictionary as “to be guided by.”
When someone changes their name or has a pseudonym, they are said to “go by” their chosen or preferred name.
Less common phrasal verbs using “to go…”
- To go for
- To go into
- To go with
- To go at
- To go without
- To go against
- To go before
- To go ahead
- To go toward
- To go after
- To go away
What to learn next?
After “to go,” the next most common category of phrasal verbs are those beginning with “to come.” These verbs are often viewed as opposites, but some phrasal verbs have synonymous or near-synonymous meanings when “go” is substituted for “come.”
After that, the next most important lexical verb categories for learning phrasal verbs would be:
You don’t need to learn hundreds of phrasal verbs with all their various meanings in order to be fluent in English; rather, memorizing some of the most common ones is one strategy for sharpening your total comprehensible input. That means that whenever you hear or read English, you will automatically derive meaning even from unfamiliar fragments, fueling the process of natural learning.