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E.g.

'My boss is always getting on at me even if I haven't done anything wrong.'

'Her parents keep getting at her for skipping classes.'

I'm wondering whether these phrasal verbs have exactly the same meaning or they imply something slightly different.

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  • Macmillan has both these informal usages. Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 22:34

1 Answer 1

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Perhaps to get on at someone is an AmE form. It doesn't sound good to me as a BrE speaker. We normally use one of...

1: He's always getting at her
2: He's always going on at her

Semantically they're often effectively interchangeable (though #2 is somewhat more informal). But sometimes going on (which more specifically implies complaining) isn't quite the same thing as getting at (attacking). For example, you can go on [at someone] about the cost of living - which doesn't imply you blame the person you're talking to for the thing you're complaining about.

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  • We normally say getting on to , don't we? 'His wife wouldn't stop getting on to him about losing weight.'
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 23:55
  • @WS2: If I used get on at all (which isn't likely), I'd probably go for to rather than at. In your example both meanings (complain, attack) can co-exist. In mine, only complain is credible (unless you're a Labour MP attacking Osborne). It's all subtle stuff and often context-sensitive, though I must admit by default I'd interpret "He's always getting to her" very differently (she's often discomfited by him, but feasibly it's not even deliberate; attack is an entirely context-driven nuance). Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 1:06
  • There may be some Norfolk here, but does the expression not represent a state of both complaint and attack; perhaps because there is no obvious verb that incorporates both ideas? The doctor got on to the receptionist for losing the patient's records. That suggests to me both that the Dr complained, and that in doing so he was 'telling her/him off' (attack). I think if I was going on at someone I would be 'having a go at them personally'. It's no good going on at me about Hilda's drink problem. But 'going on about', (e.g) the state of the nation, would not indicate 'at me'.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 10:28
  • In Norfolk they say 'good gracious on to me woman (how can we possibly afford that)'. But that's another story!
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 10:31
  • @WS2: When I see The doctor got on to the receptionist, I'm expecting about next because I tend to assume it means contacted, spoke to, consulted - in pursuit of information, not to deliver a reprimand. But I think there's considerable variability, much of which isn't strictly "regional dialect". But what do I know? I don't think I've heard "Good[ness] gracious!" out in the wild since my grandmother died over ten years ago. It's all "WTF!" round my way now. Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 16:32

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