come on!

I got this by email from a reader named Robbie:

A while ago I watched several episodes of the US children's show "Bubble Guppies" and found myself getting more and more annoyed with them. As in many preschool shows, the characters speak directly to the audience and encourage them to get involved with the story. Every time the scene changed (going from the park to school, from the classroom to the playground, etc.) one of the characters would turn to the viewer and say "come on!"

The more I thought about this, the more rude it sounded, and the more it seemed that you might be the person to ask!

Presumably all this repetition of "come on" doesn't sound impolite to American ears, since children's shows tend to teach politeness. To me it sounds peremptory and bossy, but does this apply to British listeners generally, or is it just me? I'm guessing an equivalent British show would be more likely to say "let's go" to the viewer, but perhaps also "come along" from one character to another.

And now I'm thinking of Dora the Explorer, who gets them both in (plus Spanish) with her song: "Come on, vamanos, everybody, let's go".


Interesting question. Phrasal verbs like this are tricky, because they are usually very polysemous (i.e. have many meanings). Phrasal verbs used in imperative form (as a command/request) are going to be even trickier because we don't just have the verb meaning, we have lots of pragmatics/politeness issues swirling around. So I expected this to be a very tricky thing to answer. 

Still from the video for this song. Click if you dare!


But then I looked in some dictionaries, and it is easy to see how different British and American lexicographers' estimations of the phrase are. The Collins dictionary website shows the contrast well. (The American English bit of the Collins website is from the Webster's New World Dictionary, written in the US.)

come on!

in British English

a. 
 hurry up!
b. 
 cheer up! pull yourself together!
c. 
make an effort!
d. 
don't exaggeratestick to the facts!

come on!in American English

Informal
used to signify
a.  
invitation, often to a different place
b.  
encouragement, urgency, etc.
come on! you can do it
c.  
come on! you can't be serious

American sense (c) is the same as British sense (d)—the 'objection' sense. That's always going to seem a bit impatient or rude. British senses (a) 'hurry', (b) 'cheer up' and (c) 'make an effort' might all be folded into American sense (b) 'used to signify encouragement, urgency, etc.'. Whether those uses are taken as rude or helpful is very likely to depend on the intonation they're said with. 

But American sense (a) doesn't really occur in the British treatment of the expression. Does BrE use  come along! instead?

Well, yes, but Collins English Dictionary doesn't know about that. Their definitions for come along are the same as their (a) and (c) definitions of come on! 

The Collins COBUILD dictionary entry (intended for English learners) does capture the 'invitation' sense, though they don't present it in the imperative form:

1. PHRASAL VERB
You tell someone to come along to encourage them in a friendly way to do something, especially to attend something.
There's a big press launch today and you're most welcome to come along. [VERB PARTICLE]

I do perceive difference between AmE 'invitation' use of come on!  and BrE 'invitation' use of come along!, though. I can imagine American adults saying come on! in a friendly inviting way to each other. Come on! Join us! 

But I have a harder time imagining British adults using it that way—to me it sounds very adult-to-child-directed. I imagine children lining/queuing up behind the teacher who tells them to Come along!

The fact that Come along! is less versatile than Come on! is clear from how much less you find it on the web in the GloWbE corpus:


I would love to show you how c'mon fits into all this and I'd love to look at Come on! Let's go!, but the corpus software can't seem to cope with the apostrophes. The Google books ngram viewer shows c'mon is more common in AmE, but that can't give us a sense of which senses of come on it's used for.




The comments section is open.  Come on and let us know what you think! It might help if, as well as letting us know which country you're from, you give us a sense of your age, since younger UK readers might have a different perception of it, especially if they were Dora the Explorer fans...

39 comments

  1. (Southern British male, age 57¼)
    I concur with your correspondent. I don't think I could use "come on" as a simple invitation to do something. To me it implies impatience and urgency.
    Incidentally (1), your blog has given me a heightened awareness of the non-rhoticity of my dialect, so I'm surprised to hear that "Dora The Explorer" is American. Does her name rhyme in AmE?
    Incidentally (2), in that Bubble Guppies episode (which I enjoyed more than someone of my age probably should), the dragon said that he got the thorn in his nose while trying to find out if a rose had a "pretty smell". In my dialect, something can look pretty, or, at a stretch, sound pretty, but not smell pretty. Is that idiomatic in AmE, or only in DrE (dragon English)?

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    1. (Northeast US, age 36)
      I can confirm the friendly invitation usage of "come on!" in American English.

      In most American accents, "Dora the Explorer" is a near rhyme. Not perfect, but still pleasing to the ear, and I suspect that the almost-rhyming aspect leads people to go a little softer on the final r than they necessarily would otherwise.

      To me, I think the only difference between c'mon! and come on! is the spelling. In general, they're pronounced the same and can be used interchangeably. In written language, I think I'd be most likely to use c'mon in the skeptical sense, but I could certainly envision using it for any of the three American senses of the word.

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    2. Ooops! I've watched it again properly, and I owe an apology to Agnes the Dragon for mis-gendering her!
      It's an interesting reflection on modern mores that the Bubble Guppy characters are impeccably and admirably diverse, but the writers had no problem with endorsing the concept of absolute monarchy!

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    3. No, explorer and Dora don't rhyme in American English. Unlike Grace, I wouldn't even call them a near rhyme. However, the Spanish for explorer (feminine) is exploradora. Ends is Dora. And, it does sound like a non-rhotic Explorer Dora. So perhaps in influence of non-rhotic English, along with definitely influenced by the Spanish.

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    4. Apologies for pressing the point, but I'm genuinely interested:
      In America, can a smell be 'pretty'?

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    5. Bah. Forgot to a myself.
      I hereby confirm that the previouus comment was by me.

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    6. Bah. Much drunken mistyping. I hereby solemnly confirm that I really am me.

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    7. Regarding the Dora/Explorer comment from Ellen, as in most things, the true answer is “it depends.” Sure “or-ah” doesn’t precisely rhyme with “or-er.” However, when pronouncing “explorer” in the middle or end of a sentence, it’s frequently pronounced with less emphasis on the “er.” In addition, there are significant regional dialect differences. In Eastern MA, in and around Boston, “r” is often replaced by “ah.” There’s a common phrase used as a bit of a tease…”I pahked the cah in Hahvahd Yahd.” As an aside, watch the brilliant spoof from a few years ago - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBvkmWDjsYc.

      In many of the boroughs of New York City, “r” sounds are often overemphasized or added, as in “idear” and “areaer.” Northern New Englanders (VT, NH excluding Boston metro, and ME) often add an extra vowel (hmm…more like a half vowel…it slurs together a bit) and drop the ending “r.” Example - “Yah cayen’t get theya from heeyah.” New Englanders also use a flatter sound in lieu of a long “a.” Southern, Midwestern, and Southwestern accents and dialects are similarly varied by state and region.

      So does Dora rhyme? Sort of. Do we quibble over the lyrical rhyming in the Stones’ classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want?” FWIW, in much of CT, it’s “Doreh the Exploreh.”

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    8. AmE, as far as I'm aware smells can be pretty, yes. Raised in the midwest, 40ish. Definitely common enough wherever I've been, heard it with some frequency. Would probably say it myself without a second thought if I were, say, commenting on my mother's flowers or her new perfume. Might be a little more common when referring to floral scents, now that I think about it. 🤔 But nobody I know would find the phrasing strange, I don't think. Might have to do a poll now, haha.

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  2. I’m thinking that the iconic “come the f*ck on, Bridget!” quote from Bridget Jones’ Diary is a good exemplar of the British English version. Would Americans use ‘come on’ quite like that? See: https://youtube.com/watch?v=e70kCGNGLF0

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  3. In my opinion, the US "c'mon" can have multiple meanings depending on the tone of voice. There's the tone for "get a move on/you're making us late/stop what you're doing." There's the tone for astonishment: "You don't really believe that, do you? Are you kidding me?" There's the tone for excitement and haste often with multiple repetitions. It also can have a rising tone that can indicate excitement. I'm sure there are more that those who have children (or spouses!) can recall!

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  4. I’m American and I certainly have the invitation sense of “come on”, but I’d say that it always bears a connotation of impatience. If you say it cutely, you can morph it from annoyed impatience (“you’re being too slow”) to excited impatience (“I just can’t wait for this amazing experience”). I’d guess that the TV show falls into the excited category.

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  5. I’m American, 52 years old, background mostly Mid-Atlantic and New England. This discussion makes me realize that I’ve been ever so slightly misapprehension British books and tv shows all my life, because while American English certainly can impute impatience or bossiness to "come on," it definitely does not always carry that tone. In fact, I would say that most of the time it is intended as friendly encouragement or an invitation that implies some excitement or happy anticipation. We do use it to indicate incredulity with some frequency, as noted.

    It would rarely mean "cheer up" or "pull yourself together," other than at the very edges of the encouragement spectrum, which is how I have been interpreting it in all the various British content I consume. On reflection, that may be because there’s a connotation of togetherness in the American usage, in the sense of "come on *with me*," i.e. I’m inviting you, or I’m confident you can do it and I’m here to help.

    However, the frustrated or impatient usage is employed widely by teenagers, with a distinct inflection, as in "Ugh, come ON, Mom, we’ve been at this dumb restaurant for HOURS!"

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    1. A good translation in the Romance languages would be the imperative form of a verb. Allez! is probably harsher than Andiamo! in Italian. In American English, its meaning depends on context and tone. In the last example given of “Come ON!” I can imagine eye-rolling and perhaps even toe-tapping impatience. Whereas, a casual, friendly “Come on!” is interpreted as a friendly “Let’s go!” or “Let’s all head out!” But this is my view as a middle-aged southern New Englander, recovered Rhode Islander, ex-New Yorker, former upstate NYer, and US travel hound who spent years in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Miami, and San Juan. I find regional differences in culture, phrases, cuisine, and accents to be rather interesting. Just look at the sheer number of terms in the northeast for grinder, lol!

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  6. For me (BrE) "come along" is very marginal, and only an invitation to a group event. Even then "come and join us" sounds more idiomatic.

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  7. Thanks for the comments so far!

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  8. You've ever so slightly been misapprehen....ding?

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  9. I'm English. I've lived half my life in the USA and half in the UK. It would not have occurred to me that 'come on' was rude but I do agrees that it implies a certain impatience. I offer the classic song "Hurry Up, Harry!" (Sham 69, 1978) in evidence.

    Come on come on
    Hurry up Harry come on
    Come on come on
    Hurry up Harry come on
    We're going down the pub
    We're going down the pub

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    1. Years ago (ie around 1978), when I was teaching (but I'm better now) I acquired my classroom nickname 'Arry (or 'Arriet) from that song. I used to say "come on!" quite a bit when chivvying a reluctant class along.

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  10. Having just watched the song, I (Br F62 - watched Dora with my kids)(in Fr speaking Switzerland, just to add another layer!!), and felt that the chorus "come on be curious" was rather imperative and might have been better expressed as "come and be curious"....

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  11. Incidentally, there is a pastiche music all song called Come On Algernon from the 1945 film Champagne Charlie, written by the eccentric British composer, Lord Berners.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnq5OwEdlqo&ab_channel=DameFelicityLott-Topic

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  12. British Australian (but lived in non-english-speaking countries past 10yrs). Just thinking of Wimbledon and "come on Tim!"

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    1. "Come on, Steve!" was another.

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  13. 100%. BrE: "Come on, lads..." AmE: "Come on, get real!"

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  14. AmE, specifically raised Midwestern/Rust Belt but also having lived in New England for many years:
    "Come on" can definitely vary from "hurry up" to pure enthusiasm (with "an exhortation to a child who might be reluctant/distracted" somewhere in between those).

    In print, I'd agree with other commenters that "c'mon" is always one of the chiding/critical meanings, and the positive ones should be spelled "come on" even if both get pronounced the same. Possibly because the emphasis does shift a little towards stressing the "on" harder in critical speech -- positive instances still slur the "come" part into a squashed mess of a syllable I don't remember enough phonetics/IPA to explain but don't hit it as hard.

    Mostly I wanted to add to the heap the specifically-regional "Come with?"/"Come with!" -- dropping the "me"/"us" from a question/exhortation, which drives people not from the area batty but sounds completely natural to me. (From what I've read it's likely due to the heavy German immigration in the area, because evidently German has a single verb that means this and native German speakers just transplanted the entire construction into English, and it spread regionally from there.) It definitely has only positive meanings in my idiolect; it's never a "hurry up", just a friendly "come along".

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    1. David Marjanović11 July, 2022 20:35

      The German verb is mitkommen, imperative komm mit, literally "come with".

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  15. Ronald Cammarata11 July, 2022 18:51

    Speaking of songs, there's an interesting one written by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (words), from the movie Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935), called "Lullaby of Broadway." In the lyrics, both "on" and "along" follow "come" in the same phrase.

    The lyrics begin: "Come on along and listen to, The Lullaby of Broadway."

    To my American ear, "come on along and listen to," "come on and listen to," or "come along and listen to," would all have the same meaning, namely a friendly invitation to listen in.

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  16. Ronald Cammarata11 July, 2022 19:08

    And in 1911, Irving Berlin wrote a song called, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (his first big hit, I think).

    It begins: Come on and hear
    Come on and hear
    Alexander's Ragtime Band.

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  17. American, 66, New York City. Listening to the Bubble Guppies song made me think of how different the phrasal verb "come on" seems to feel when it appears as a lyric. It made me think of the Beatles' "Please Please Me" (https://genius.com/The-beatles-please-please-me-lyrics), in which the command to "come on" and "please please me, whoa yeah, like I please you" amounts to about half the song. (The words "Come on" are sung no fewer than 24 times.) In both cases I sense that the phrase is nothing more than a bland exhortation. True, the Beatles' version expresses the sense "make an effort", but the song is so up-tempo the words all but lose their negative meaning.

    Anyway, for me the meaning of "come on" depends almost entirely on tone. There's a clear difference between encouraging someone by saying "Come on, you can do it!" and expressing incredulity and disgust by snorting "Oh, come on!" ... or impatience and frustration by shouting "Come on -- we haven't got all day!"

    It's kind of like the difference between British English "oi" and American English (via Yiddish) "oy". When I hear Jim Dale narrating the Harry Potter novels and he has Harry Potter's uncle Vernon angrily sputter the word "oi" it's distinctly different from the beleaguered tone of resignation anyone must adopt when saying "oy".

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  18. Scottish, living in Italy, ancient. I too thought of the Beatles' "Please Please Me", in which "Come on" seems to have very little specific meaning. I would say it, roughly, "Come ON" in frustration (even to things, like an app that doesn't work, but maybe I'm just peculiar); "Come on" all bright and chirpy to a dog or a small child; and I agree with Dick Hartzell about the encouraging version, used not infrequently by sports fans watching their favourites.
    The trouble with using quotes from songs is that the lyrics may demand a short phrase that fits the rhythm, but is not necessarily loaded with significance, as I said about the Beatles.

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  19. There's "Come on, you Reds" for example as a football (soccer) chant, (like the American (b) ) and then there's also the lyrics of I’m the Leader of the Gang by disgraced rocker Gary Glitter which is like American (a)

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  20. Midwestern American, 46. This is very good to know. I had no idea how "come on" might sound elsewhere. I'll note that "come along," standing alone, seems similarly abrasive or patronizing to me. I immediately picture a sour-faced governess or a very bossy older sibling in a storybook. Maybe that's because I just don't hear Americans use that phrase, unless it is followed by more words, which seems to soften it. E.g., "Come along on a journey of discovery as we explore blah blah blah."

    Unless I missed it, we haven't touched on the noun "come-on," a sexual advance, as in when someone "comes on to" someone. Merriam-Webster also defines it first as "something (such as an advertising promotion) intended to entice or allure," which I've heard, but not nearly as often.

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  21. UK, 39, grew up in SE England: to me, “come on” definitely sounds a bit rude/impatient by default, but i can definitely envisage it being used in the ‘invitation’ sense in certain specific intonations/situations.

    You could perhaps say it softly, maybe with an eyebrow raised, with the implication “Come on, you know you want to” or “Come on, it’s okay” to try to persuade someone to overcome feigned reluctance. Or you could potentially say it to encourage someone to a particular course of action (possibly with an exagerated extension of the ‘on’), but again only where there’s an underlying contextual assumption that the person fundamentally wants to go somewhere/do something (or at least won’t regret it later), but is being held back by some sort of inhibition.

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  22. British, middle class, old!
    I agree with the examples of 'come on' in the 'impatient invitation' sense - I can be seen on an old cine film of a family holiday in the 1950s, saying 'Come ON' as my younger sister toddled along behind me....

    Now, the BrE (d) and AmE (c) usage: I think that 'come on' here is a colloquial or less formal version of 'Come, come' or just 'come (now)' -
    Come, come, old boy, that can't be true
    Come now, you can do better than that
    Come on, what are the alternatives?
    and less forceful than 'come off it'
    Come off it! Surely you don't believe that?

    Incidentally, I would answer a knock on the door with 'come in' - never an imperious 'come'.

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  23. Mid 60's AME speaker from the Rocky Mountain west. I agree with Heather A. that to my ear "come along" sounds less friendly/kind/patient that "come on." It has a sense of bossiness and bad temper.

    In response to ghrm, for me a smell could be pretty. I think it would likely be a light smell, not a strong one.

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  24. I have heard Puccini's opera Manon Lescaut, which has some lovely music but a most bizarre plot and a bit of a trial to watch, as "C'mon Le's Go". An invitation to leave at the first interval.

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  25. To my BrE ears, "come along" sounds old-fashioned. Perhaps it's a bit boomer or pre-boomer. A bit school-ma'am: "Come along, now, girls" as in St. Trinians.

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)