Number one for English language teachers

Your English: Phrasal verbs: pick

Type: Reference material

Tim Bowen picks out a few quirky examples of this sometimes suggestive phrasal verb.

At first sight the verb pick may not seem very promising in terms of the number of phrasal verbs formed with it, but on closer inspection it can provide us with a wide-ranging selection. At an identity parade, for example, it is the witness’ task to pick out (i.e. recognize or select) the person they saw commit the crime. Older children often pick on (victimize) younger children and people who have lost their appetite pick at their food (eat only small amounts because they are not interested in it). Snipers pick off their victims one by one, taking careful aim from a distance.

But the most productive phrasal verb based on pick must surely be pick up, which has a large number of different meanings. Apart from its literal meaning of ‘lift something from a surface’, pick up can mean 'to go and meet someone you have arranged to take somewhere by car', as in 'I'll pick you up at nine', and 'to arrest someone', as in 'The escaped convict was picked up in the early hours of Thursday morning’. In the sense of ‘obtain’ or ’acquire’, pick up can mean 'to learn a new skill without intending to', as in ‘She picked up a few German phrases while staying in Berlin', or 'to catch an illness', as in ‘Most tourists are worried they’ll pick up a nasty stomach bug', and it can also mean 'to buy', as in ‘You can pick up some amazing bargains at the market’. Pick up can also mean 'to improve' or 'to get stronger', as in ‘They won’t let him out of hospital until his health has picked up’ and ‘The wind is beginning to pick up’ respectively.

Finally, picking someone up in your car may be acceptable behaviour, but trying to pick someone up in a bar may not, as the latter means to start talking to someone because you want to have sex with them, as in 'She went home with some man she picked up in a bar'.

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