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The Phrasal Verb 'Pick Up' Explained

Updated: May 6

An explanation of the different meanings of the English phrasal verb 'pick up', with lots of examples in context.

The silhouette of a woman picking up a child with the sun low in the sky over the sea in the background

Hello and welcome to my website for English learners all about English phrasal verbs!


This post is all about the phrasal verb 'pick up'. When I was researching this post, I was quite shocked when I realised how many uses and meanings this innocent little phrasal verb has. For instance, it if you pick someone up from an airport, it has a completely different meaning to picking someone up in a bar, which also has a different meaning to picking someone off the ground. Moreover, if you can pick up an infection, it is a bad thing but it is a good thing if your health picks up! Don't worry if this is confusing, as in this post, I will explain all of the different meanings of 'pick up' for you, with lots of examples in context. So, without further ado, let's make a start. Don't forget to leave a comment at the end!


PICK UP: KEY INFORMATION For an explanation of the terms in the table, click here

Usage

Common

Number of meanings

12

Separable?

Yes

Past tense forms

Picked up / Picked up

 
The letters ABC spelled out on a blackboard with books and chalk sticks in the foreground

THE BASICS

Before we look at the meanings of 'pick up' as a phrasal verb, let's firstly consider the meanings of the component words 'pick' and 'up'.


The verb 'to pick' is a fairly common English verb with two main meanings. The first is a synonym of the verb 'to choose', while the other, more relevant, meaning is to remove or detach something, normally with your hands and this is commonly used when referring to picking fruit, flowers and plants.


Helen picked some flowers and put them in a vase.
Picking fruit is a popular job for travellers.

The prepositional particle 'up' is extremely common in phrasal verb constructions and often adds an idea of an increase or a movement towards to a higher position. Furthermore, it can also add the ideas of completion and readiness to phrasal verbs!


So, now that we have looked at the basics, let's check out the many different meanings of the phrasal verb 'pick up'....

 

MEANING 1: To lift something from a surface

The silhouette of a man holding a bike above his head with the sun setting behind him

CEFR Language Level

A2 - Elementary

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To lift, to raise, to hoist, to take up

Separable?

Yes

The first meaning of 'pick up' is the closest meaning to a literal meaning that we have and is 'to remove something from a surface by lifting it, normally by hand'.


As you would imagine, the most common surface that people pick things up from is the ground or the floor, and this is often implied with this meaning of 'pick up', although it can potentially be used with any surface. Don't forget that the extra prepositions 'off' or 'from' are required to specify the surface and both of these can be used interchangeably.


The sofa was so heavy that it took four people to pick it up and move it.
I picked up my jumper and hung it in the wardrobe.
Pick these toys up from the floor now!
John picked up a book off the shelf and started reading it.

In addition to objects, 'pick up' is often frequently used with people and animals.

My husband picked me up and carried me to bed.
John's dog wasn't able to jump over the fence, so he picked him up and carried him over it.

The central idea here, which will recur again later, is possession. The reason for this is when you pick something up, it is in temporarily in your hands and therefore in your possession. For example, if I pick up a newspaper from a table, it is in my hands and I have possession of it, although I do not own it.

BONUS INFORMATION

One sub-meaning of this particular application of 'pick up' is 'to answer the telephone to someone'. This comes directly from the idea of picking the receiver of the telephone up to be able to commence the conversation. This usage even applies to smartphones, despite there being no physical receiver to pick up.

I called you several times but you didn't pick up.
Come on pick up the phone, somebody please!
 

MEANING 2: To collect someone or something

A taxi driver sitting in a London cab with a union jack livery

CEFR Language Level

B1 - Intermediate

Usage

Common

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To collect, to fetch, to get, to retrieve

Separable?

Yes

If, like me, you do not have your own car, then it is highly probable that from time to time you need someone to pick you up when you need to travel somewhere and there is no public transport. That's because the second meaning of 'pick up' is to collect or fetch someone or something from a place. This is typically by car but can be used for other forms of transport.


The idea here is that a person with a car drives to a place to collect someone and then takes them somewhere, whether that be home, work or somewhere else entirely (the destination is irrelevant here). The action of picking up is usually organised or booked in advanced and aside from a person picking someone else up, it is also possible to be picked up by a taxi, bus or other form of booked transportation.


Our plane arrives at midnight and so my Dad has agreed to pick me up from the airport.
Roger’s car is in the garage and he refuses to take the bus, so his wife is picking him up from work.
The taxi has been booked and will pick us up from outside the shopping centre at 3pm.
I am working today, so your Dad will pick you up from school

In addition to picking up people, it is also very common to hear 'to pick up something', which is used as a synonym of 'to collect'. For example, a forwarding company will pick up a parcel from you, you might pick up your clean washing from the laundromat when it is done, or you may pick up your medication from the pharmacy when it is ready.


I wasn’t at home when the courier tried to deliver the parcel, so now I have to go to the depot to pick it up.
Your order is ready, so please arrange to come and pick it up at a suitable time.
My medication is ready to be picked up at the pharmacy.

BONUS INFORMATION

It is also common to use 'pick up' in this way to talk about buying something from a shop or supermarket. Moreover, a sub-meaning of 'pick up' is in fact to buy something and this is used particularly when the purchased item was very good value or a bargain.


I am just going to go to the shop to pick up some essentials.
John picked up a new television at a really reasonable price in the January sales.
 

MEANING 3: To learn something

Graduating students throwing their mortarboards into the air

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To learn, to acquire

Separable?

Yes

Have you ever learned a few words of a language just by being in the environment where it is spoken, without even really trying? If you have, then you could say that you have picked up a few words of the language. The reason for this is that the third meaning of 'pick up' is 'to learn something without trying very hard or without being formally taught'.


In other words, you acquire this knowledge without much effort.


This is commonly used with language but can also be used with other skills, for example someone could pick up basic electronics by watching other people do it or you might pick up the basics of needlework by practising it on your own and learning from your mistakes.


Once again, this meaning goes back to the idea that something comes into your possession and in this instance it is knowledge or a skill.


I lived in a France for a couple of months and managed to pick up quite a lot of French whilst I was there.
My Dad was a carpenter and I picked up a lot of carpentry skills by watching him as a child.
Through exposure to many different fields, industries and people in my career, I have picked up a lot of different skills.

BONUS INFORMATION

Aside from knowledge and skills, something else that people can pick up involuntarily is contagious illnesses and infections such as colds, coughs and the flu. Native speakers often use this to say that they caught a virus somewhere or somewhen and it is a nice synonym for the verb 'to catch' to have in your vocabulary.


Amelia picked up a nasty virus at school and she has passed on it on to the rest of her family.
I've got a nasty cold. I must have picked it up on the plane coming back from the USA.
 

MEANING 4: To improve

A tablet with a line graph showing an increase with a pen and paper beside it

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To improve, to recover, to strengthen

Separable?

No

Our fourth meaning of 'pick up' is 'to improve' or 'to recover'. Unlike the first three meanings that we have just looked at, this one is used in an intransitive way (with no direct object).


I would say that although this usage can be used in any area of life where we talk about improvement, it is most primarily heard in the world of business and economics.


In business, it refers to improvements or upturns, when a company has more customers and business and is making more money, while in economics it signifies that the economy is growing and is generally viewed very positively as lots of rich people get even richer!


Following a slow first quarter, business has now started to pick up and is predicted to continue improving for the rest of the year.
Japan's economy is picking up slowly, however fears remain that the country could fall into a recession.
Sales are picking up this year and so we hope to make a good profit.

BONUS INFORMATION

The general idea of picking up when thinking of the economy is to grow stronger and another sub-meaning of 'pick up' is indeed to grow stronger. A prime example of this is commonly used is with the weather, in particular the wind. If we say that the wind is picking up, then it means that the wind is getting stronger and perhaps a period of bad weather is coming. Alternatively, we can also use this with health, when a person is recovering from an illness or injury and is getting stronger.

The wind started picking up and before long, a full blown storm was upon us.
After a long illness, Lisa's health began to slowly pick up.
 

MEANING 5: To detect or notice something

A man using a metal detector on a beach

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To detect, to notice

Separable?

Sometimes

Nouns commonly used with

Signal, activity

When I was younger, I used to have an alarm clock with a built-in radio in my bedroom. At the time, I lived close to an airport and every so often when I listening to the radio, I was able to hear the airplane pilots' communication with the airport as they were landing. The reason for this was because my radio somehow detected and received, or picked up, the signal.


So, as you will now be aware, the next meaning of 'pick up' is 'to detect something' and is very often used used with machines. As in the case of my radio, with certain types of machine, not only does it detect a signal but also receives it.


Other types of machines that you will hear this being used with are alarms, scans, microphones and radar as well as things like anti-virus programs on your computer which scan to try and pick up viral threats and malware.


The scans did not pick up any signs of cancer in the patient.
You may find it difficult to pick up this radio station in the mountains.
Our CCTV system picked up some very strange activity outside our house last night.

Aside from machines, this application of 'pick up' can also be used with humans, in which case this would be a synonym of the verb 'to notice', especially if something is subtle or not very obvious. You should note that when used with humans in this way, we normally add the preposition 'on'. In other words, if you pick up on something, you notice it.


Apparently Helen had been crying when she came into the office this morning but I did not pick up on it at all.
I've picked up on some tension between you two. Is everything ok?
John is very observant, he picks up on anything like that.
 

MEANING 6: To stand up after a fall

A toddler trying to stand up

CEFR Language Level

B2 - Upper intermediate

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To brush yourself off

Separable?

No

Ok grammar fans, this next meaning is a reflexive one and means 'to stand up again after a fall'.


If you're not sure about reflexive verbs, they are those verbs where the subject and object of the clause are the same and in English we show this with the -self pronouns (myself, yourself etc.).


I talk to myself all the time.
The dog grooms itself .

Whilst 'to pick yourself up' can be used in situations where you literally fall over onto the ground, it is more often used in a figurative way to mean 'to take action to recover from a difficult, stressful or traumatic life situation'.


I fell over outside my office in front of all my colleagues, but I picked myself up and continued like nothing had ever happened.
Following a bitter and stressful divorce, Susan picked herself up again and started rebuilding her life as a single woman.
I know that you feel very sad now, but you just need to pick yourself up and get on with things. You'll soon forget about this!

BONUS INFORMATION

Another sub-meaning of 'pick up' here is to improve someone's general mood and is used without the 'self reflexive pronoun. If something picks you up, it puts you in a better mood or cheers you up. Typical things that pick people up are listening to music, a chat with a friend, or even a strong cup of coffee!

This song always picks me up, every time I hear it!
Here, drink this brandy, this will pick you up!
 

MEANING 7: To be arrested

A woman being arrested by police up against a car

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To arrest, to apprehend, to bust

Separable?

Yes

Hopefully, this next meaning will never apply to any of you, as it means 'to be arrested by the police'.


If someone is picked up by the police, it generally means that they have committed a crime of some description and are then caught by the police, placed under arrest and taken to the police station.


This can be used in both an active and a passive sense, with the police picking up a criminal and a criminal being picked up by the police.


Examples of usage....

The burglar was picked up by the police a few streets away from where the crime had been committed.
My brother was picked up by the police, who falsely accused him of a crime he didn't do!
Criminal gangs often use children and teenagers to carry out their work as they are less likely to get picked up by the police.
 

MEANING 8: To meet someone romantically


A man kissing a woman's hand whilst she looks down at a table coyly

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Rare

British or American?

Both - more American

Potential synonyms

To hook up with, to flirt

Separable?

Yes

Although I have called this next meaning of 'pick up', "to meet someone romantically", it is actually a bit more than that.


In this sense, if you pick someone up, you meet them by chance, start talking or flirting with them and end up kissing them or even having sex with them.


You normally hear this usage when it occurs in bars, pubs and nightclubs or anywhere else where is my be a bit surprising or unexpected.


This usage is quite informal and perhaps a bit more American to my ears. It is usually used in the active sense as in a passive sense it doesn't quite sound right to me.


John always seems to be able to pick up girls without even trying.
What's the weirdest place that you have ever picked up a guy?

 

MEANING 9: To win something

A man accepting an award with people clapping beside him

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To win

Separable?

Yes

The ninth meaning of 'pick up' that we will look at is 'to win' and is used specifically when referring to awards and prizes.


This meaning is just a nice synonym of the verb 'to win' and you will often hear it on English language news programmes when talking about big awards ceremonies such as the Oscars and the Grammys.


Incidentally, we don't tend to use 'pick up' when referring to winning games or races.


This movie is expected to pick up a few awards at the Oscars next month.
I didn't expect to pick up the award for best manager tonight, so I just want to thank you all for your support and for voting for me.
The company picked up the innovation prize for the third year running.

Another time that you may hear this used however, is when referring to parliamentary elections. 'Pick up' is frequently used here to talk about the number of votes a candidate receives or picks up.

The Green party are expected to pick up a lot of votes in the election this year.
The candidate who picks up the most votes will be elected as the new mayor.
 

MEANING 10: To refer back to something

A man speaking into a microphone as part of a debate

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To refer back to

Separable

Yes

For those of you who enjoy debates, discussions and dialogue, this next meaning should be very useful for you as it means 'to refer back to something' and is used frequently in conversations of this type when someone wants to further discuss an earlier point that someone made.


I'll give you an example of how this works. In a debate, one person speaks and gives three points as part of his or her argument. The next person then speaks in response and wants to refer to the first point that the first speaker made. He or she might then say, 'I'd like to pick up the point that you made earlier about XXX', to mean that they want to refer back to the person's point. The reason that they are doing this is that they want to comment on the point, refute it or develop it in some way.


Note, that often the additional preposition 'on' is used, however this is not always required.


I'd like to pick up what you said about the spending cuts earlier.
I just wanted to pick up on the point that you made about the new legislation.
 

MEANING 11: To resume something after an interruption

A cup of coffee next to some books

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To continue, to carry on

Separable?

Yes

Many of us love a coffee break when we are at work but inevitably we have to start our work again once we have had our caffeine hit and this brings me to the eleventh meaning of 'pick up', which is start something again following an interruption'.


In terms of usage, this can be used for interruptions from anything as short as a lunch break to a break of a few years. The idea is that you stop what you are doing for a time and then start it again at some point in the future.


You may often hear this application being used with the adverbs 'back' or 'again' or a combination of both of these.


I don't know about you but I am ready for lunch. Shall we go and eat and pick this up again afterwards.
Roger learnt German when he was at school but stopped when he left. He picked it back up last year after a trip to Berlin.

IDIOM ALERT

We also have a common idiom for this usage which is 'to pick up where one left off'.


If you pick something up where you left off, it simply means that you resume something that you were doing from the point where you previously stopped.


Ok, if everyone is ready to start again, let's pick up where we left off.

 

MEANING 12: To criticise someone

A typewrite with the word 'review' written on the paper

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To criticise

Separable?

No

We are now at the 12th and penultimate meaning of 'pick up', so extremely well done if you have made it this far!! There is only one more to go after this!


This final meaning of 'pick up' is 'to criticise someone' and for this we require the additional preposition 'on'.


If someone picks you up on something, it means that they criticise something that you have said, or sometimes done. For example, a language teacher may pick their student up on their pronunciation of a word or a manager in a company may pick their employee up on the unsuitability of their clothes.


'To pick someone up on something' is a set word order and cannot be changed.


I never pronounce my t's properly and my mum always picks me up on it.
The strict teacher always picked up her students on their bad language.

 

MEANING 13: To do someone else's work

Two ladies looking at a laptop.

CEFR Language Level

C1 - Advanced

Usage

Medium

British or American?

Both

Potential synonyms

To take on

Separable?

Yes

For many people 13 is an unlucky number and I personally think that it is far too many meanings for a single phrasal verb. Nevertheless, here we are at the thirteenth and final meaning, which is 'to do someone else's work'.


This usage is particularly useful for those people who work in office jobs. It is used for when somebody is sick, on vacation or is not able to attend work for a particular reason and so another person has to do their work for them for the period in which they are off.


Although this is similar to 'take on' and can sometimes be used as a synonym for it, 'pick up' tends to be just doing aspects of someone's role whilst they are absent, or all of their work on a temporary basis, whilst 'take on' tends to be used more for when you accept a permanent new job or responsibility within your existing role.


Aside from a person's tasks or work within a role, it is also common to use 'pick up' when referring to someone's emails, meaning that you will read and action them whilst the intended recipient is unavailable.


Who is going to pick up Wendy's work whilst she is off sick?
John is doing jury service for the next fortnight, so Lisa and I are picking up his work until he gets back.
Helen was on holiday last week and so I picked up her emails while she was away.
 
The word BONUS spelled out using different coloured helium balloons held up by different hands

IDIOM ALERT


Before I finish the post, there is one more idiom that I want to make you aware of that features the phrasal verb 'pick up' and is in common usage in everyday English.


To pick up the bill is an idiomatic expression that means to pay for something, normally used in a bar or restaurant. For example, if you pick up the bill in a restaurant, you pay the entire bill for all of the people on your table.


A common variation of this idiom also exists: 'to pick up the tab'.

Everyone left the restaurant, leaving me to pick up the bill for all 10 people!
My teenage daughter doesn't understand the value of money yet and still expects my and my husband to pick up the tab for everything.
 

The End spelled out using yellow tiles on a blue background

We have now reached the end of this post and i hope that you've enjoyed it and have been able to learn something new.


Now it is YOUR turn. Leave a comment on the blog post with your own sentence using 'pick up', comments or suggestions....don't be shy!!!


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Also, if you found the post useful, please like and share it on social media. See you next time! James 😊




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