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This week we’re going to look at the phrasal verb ‘pick up.’ First, let’s talk about phrasal verbs so that we know what we are dealing with. A phrasal verb is an expression made up of a verb and a particle, which in this case is an adverb, a preposition or both. The tricky part of phrasal verbs is that the meaning of the expression cannot be ascertained from the individual meaning of each word in the expression. For example, the phrasal verb ‘come to.’ This phrasal verb means to regain consciousness. For example, “The patient came to thirty minutes after the operation.”


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The phrasal verb ‘pick up’ has many different meanings, too many to talk about here without writing a 10-page essay! So we’ll only talk about a few, just to get us started. The first meaning of ‘pick up’ is to learn something from practice or experience, not from studying. Let’s see some examples:

  • After working in a sushi restaurant for a few months, John picked up some Japanese.
  • I’m no world-class chef, but I have picked up a few things from my uncle who works as a cook.


. The next meaning of ‘pick up’ is to resume discussing something in more detail that we were talking about at a previous time. Imagine you mention something important at the end of a meeting, but there is no time to talk about it. You could say, “Let’s pick up on this when we meet again on Monday.” Note that with this meaning of ‘pick up,’ we generally use the word ‘on’ before the topic itself. For example:

  • I’d like to pick up on something Tim mentioned last week.


. Another meaning of ‘pick up’ is to correct or criticize incorrect things that someone says. This meaning has the implication that the incorrect things are often trivial, small and unimportant. We also use the word ‘on’ with this meaning of the phrasal verb. For example, the teacher picks up the students on their mistakes during the lesson. This example doesn’t refer to trivial, unimportant things, but rather to mistakes when the students speak. But if we say, for example, “He’s always picking you up on this or that. It’s quite annoying to be honest.” Here it’s clear that we are referring to trivial things.


. Another meaning of the phrasal verb ‘pick up’ is to collect someone from a place, generally with their car. If one of my friends has a car, I can ask him to pick me up from the airport. In a town with no public transportation, parents pick their children up from school, from football practice, from their friend’s house, etc. This meaning is very common. Let’s see some examples:

  • Peter picked María up at her house.
  • Can you pick me up from work?


. The next meaning of ‘pick up’ is quite literal, as it involves a physical action: ‘to collect something from the floor’. If you drop your pen on the floor, you pick it up. Some more examples:

  • My tie fell on the floor. I picked it up and put it on.
  • The vase was knocked over and shattered on the floor. I picked up the pieces and threw them away.


. The last meaning of the phrasal verb ‘pick up’ that we’ll discuss today is very simple: to be able to get a particular radio station on the radio. For example, if you are driving around northern Catalonia, you will probably be able to pick up a French radio station or two. We are too far away to pick up the BBC on the radio!


As mentioned before, there are other meanings of the phrasal verb ‘pick up’ besides the ones we’ve seen here, but these are enough to get us started! Practice what you’ve learned with the exercises.


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A. Edstrom
Callan Team

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