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1. To perform surgery on someone or an animal. The doctors are operating on me tomorrow morning, so I'm not allowed to eat or drink anything before then. They had to operate on my dog because something had become lodged in his intestines.
2. To work on or tinker with something. Tom's in the living room operating on the television, but I'm not holding my breath that he can fix it. Before you go operating on the washing machine, why don't you troubleshoot what's wrong with it.
3. To have some established stance, position, or viewpoint from which someone or something functions. If you operate on the assumption that people are trying to take advantage of you, then you'll never make any meaningful connections with anyone. We've always operated on the belief that superior customer service will allow us to compete with the bigger corporations we've been competing with.
operate on someone
to perform a surgical operation on someone. They decided not to operate on her. She wasn't operated on after all.
operate on something
1. to work on something; to work with the insides of something. (As a surgeon might operate.) He tried to operate on his watch and ruined it. Todd operated on the door lock and fixed it.
2. to function or conduct business on a certain principle or assumption. The company has always operated on the theory that the customer is always right. Sam operates on the assumption that everyone is out to get him.