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“There was a time when I supposed my job was to pass on the teaching of the Church.” (The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life)

The example has the phrasal verb, pass on, and its object (the teaching of the Church). Is there any semantic difference to have the particle ‘on’ after the transitive verb, or is it just a habitual, idiomatic phrase?

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2 Answers 2

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Well, it depends on the context. In some cases there's no difference between pass and pass on, while in others there is. For example:

"Scotland Yard's phone-hacking squad has passed on the files of two police officers in relation to misconduct in a public office"-- HuffingtonPost UK

Or

"He passed the files to his colleague, Heather Clark, who is writing a Plath biography and who will present a paper on them at the symposium."-- Guardian

In the above examples both pass and pass on mean the same thing.

There are many different uses of pass on that can mean different things in different contexts. But in your specific example, pass on means

to transmit (knowledge or skills); "give a secret to the Russians"; "leave your name and address here"; "impart a new skill to the students"

and is semantically different from pass.

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Yes, there's a semantic difference because the phrasal verb to pass on means something different from the non-phrasal verb to pass plus the preposition on, as in I will pass on that, thank you. In your sentence, it means to teach; in another sentence, e.g., He's going to pass on soon, it might mean to die. Idioms have specific meanings, and their semantic content doesn't necessarily reflect the words that comprise the idiom.

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1  
Of course, if OP's sentence were to be uttered by, say, Richard Dawkins, we'd probably have to assume he meant "My duty is to pass on (i.e. - not participate in) the teachings of the Church" (although he'd probably like to coin a new transitive usage for to pass on that would mean cause to die :) –  FumbleFingers Jan 3 '13 at 13:59

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