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I never know when to use "cut down on", "cut down" or just "cut". Some sentences I've come across:

  • They are trying to cut street crime in the area. [Would "cut down on street crime" be ok?]

  • You should cut down on your drinking. [Why not "cut (down) your drinking"?]

  • Installing double-glazing will cut down the noise from traffic. [cut the noise? cut down on the noise?]

Do you think using always "cut" would be a safe choice? Or even better, could you come up with some kind of rule?

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With some verbs the distinction is easy to see, e.g.

Part 1

Don't pick me. versus Don't pick on me."

  1. The use of 'on' turns 'me' from a direct object into an indirect object.

  2. 'on' in this context means 'with respect to'

So -

Don't pick me. means Don't choose me.

Don't pick on me. means Don't pick/choose (a fight) with respect to me.

Part 2

You should cut your drinking means literally You should remove your drinking (from your life)

You should cut down your drinking means You should reduce the size/quantity of your drinking.

You should cut down on your drinking means You should make a reduction with respect to your drinking

Part 3

I hope you can see that using 'on' allows us to remove the direct object from a sentence containing a verb that requires one (i.e. a transitive verb), and substitute an indirect object. We unconsciously accept that the direct object is there without needing to know precisely what it is. In my examples, I added 'fight' and 'reduction' but someone else might have picked slightly different words with a similar meaning.

I hope that helps.

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Cut is one of those verbs that has a lot of different phrasal varieties, which can make it confusing (cut off, cut through, cut over, cut away, etc.) But I think this also makes the possible usage of cut by itself much more limited. In the case of both cut down and cut down on, they have very specific meanings, and I would rarely if ever use cut by itself to express the same idea:

  • Cut down is most often used in reference to trees, as in he cut down the tree, meaning he sawed or hacked all the way through the trunk so as to make it fall. Rarely it's used as a synonym for being killed by gunfire, as in he was cut down by an assassin.

  • Cut down on, on the other hand, has the sole meaning of "to reduce, use less of." In your example of cut down the noise, I would be tempted to say that cut down on the noise is more idiomatic. I've usually heard it used in the context of dieting, as in he cut down on his fat intake. You could also say he cut down his fat intake, but again I think adding the on would eliminate any confusion.

So, in summary:

  1. Don't use cut by itself if there is a more appropriate phrasal verb.
  2. If saying cut down on makes sense, then use that instead of cut down.
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