Pick Out;What does this phrasal verb mean?

Have you had an encounter with the verb pick out ? Although he is not one of the most fearsome monsters in the phrasal zoo , he can be quite a frightening and unpredictable specimen – when you think you have understood all his meanings, there is a new meaning that almost no dictionary included!

To resolve doubts about this linguistic beast once and for all, we have compiled all known meanings (for us) of pick out . If you know any other, please let us know in the comments!

Come on. As always, remember to open your Anki and write down some of the example sentences for review.

1 – Pick out can simply mean “choose” or “select”. The idea expressed by the conjunction of the verb pick (“to catch”) and the preposition out (“out”) is that you are choosing something or someone from among other similar objects or people.

At the end of each month, my dad would take us to the toy store so we could pick out one toy to buy.
At the end of each month, my father would take us to the toy store so we could choose a toy to buy.

The store picked me out as their manager of the year.
The store selected me as manager of the year.

We’re going to paint the house later, so we’ve got to go to the store to pick a color out .
We will paint the house later, so we have to go to the store to select a color .

picked out several large potatoes for the stew.
selected several large potatoes for the stew.

She picked out a navy blue dress.
She chose a navy blue dress.

She was picked out from dozens of applicants for the job.
She was selected from dozens of job applicants.

2 – Pick out can also mean “distinguish”, “identify” or “recognize”. Pick out someone from the others is to “identify someone among others”.

She said she’d be wearing a bright pink hat so I could pick her out from the crowd.
She said she would be wearing a hot pink hat, so that I could identify her from the crowd.

Even though there were several similar ones in there, I was able to pick out my phone from the lost and found because of the big scratch on the screen.
Although there were several similar ones there, I managed to identify my cell phone among those lost and found because of the large scratch on the screen.

She was able to pick out her father at the other side of the room.
She managed to identify her father on the other side of the room.

picked out his voice from among the general conversation.
identified his voice from the general conversation.

See if you can pick me out in this photo.
See if you can identify me in this photo.

3 – Similar to the previous sense, pick out can also mean “to see with difficulty” or “to distinguish”.

I could just pick out some letters carved into the stone.
I could only make out a few letters carved into the stone.

At first I could barely pick out the colors in my bedcurtains.
At first I could barely make out the colors on the curtains on my bed.

By straining my eyes in the gray dawn, I could barely pick out two human figures.
Forcing my eyes into the gray twilight, I could barely make out two human figures.

From where I stood, I could barely pick out the familiar features of his face or the cane he leaned on for balance.
From where I was standing, I could barely make out the familiar features of his face, or the cane on which he leaned.

4 – The next direction is almost opposite to the previous one! Here, pick out is used in the passive voice and means “to stand out”.

His name was picked out in gold lettering.
His name was highlighted in gold letters.

The name is picked out in gold letters over the shop-front.
The name is highlighted in gold letters on the store’s awning.

We could see a sign painted cream, with the lettering picked out in black.
We could see a sign painted in cream, with the letters highlighted in black.

5 – Pick out may also mean “show” or “exhibit”, but with a specific meaning: when you “show” something that was not seen there before. That’s what you say when you turned on a light and identified an object that you didn’t know was there until a second ago.

The car lights picked out a cat running across the road.
The headlights showed a cat running across the road.

The lights picked out two animal eyes.
The lights exposed two eyes of an animal.

The streets were quiet again and the lights picked out the flakes of snow as they silently drifted down.
The streets were quiet again, and the lamps exposed the snowflakes as they floated towards the ground.

6 – While we are talking about “identifying”, behold, pick out can be used in another sense: that of “identifying” a theme, or trend, or any characteristic of a document, situation, etc. See the examples:

Read the play again and pick out the major themes.
Read the piece again and identify the main themes.

Sometimes you can pick out a trend that tells you that the process generating the data is changing.
Sometimes you can spot a trend that tells you that the process that generates the data is changing.

It’s difficult to pick out a trend, but there appears to be a downward shift in intense tornadoes over time.
It is difficult to spot a trend, but there appears to be a decrease in intense tornadoes over time.
(Note the expression a downward shift, “a downward shift” – a decrease.)

7 – We are reaching the end of the list: pick out can mean “play (a song)”, but with a very specific meaning: it is when you play head first (without using a staff) and slowly, like someone trying to remember the song . It’s easy to see how pick out came to mean this: after all, imagine someone trying to remember a song on the piano. It is as if the person is “selecting” each key, each note. Hence pick out (see the first direction of the post ).

One possible translation is to “take away”, but others may be better suited. We take liberties here, as you can see:

He picked out the song on the guitar, trying to remember the notes.
He pulled out the music on the guitar, trying to remember the notes.

I hummed the tune for her, and she picked it out on the piano.
I hummed the melody to her, and she played it on the piano.
(Curiosity: hum is an untranslatable verb, since it means “to sing with your mouth closed”.)

He sat at the piano and picked out a simple tune.
He sat down at the piano and played a simple melody.

He picked out the tune on the piano with one finger.
He played the song on the piano with one finger.

She sat there all day, picking out tunes on the piano.
She sat there all day, taking on the piano.

8 – Are we done? Not yet. One last, very obvious sense: pick out can mean “take out”, as when you “take out” any object among others.

I’ve got to pick these bits of wood out before I mix up the paint.
I have to remove these pieces of wood before mixing the paint.

No matter what the meal was, I would sit and pick out every tiny piece of onion I came across.
Regardless of what dinner was, I would sit and pick up every bit of onion I could find.

These stickers are difficult to pick out from the floor.
These stickers are difficult to get off the floor.

The next night if she cleaned up her toys and still had time left over, she could pick toys out of the bag to put away.
The next night, if she cleaned her toys and still had time to spare, she could take toys out of the bag to keep in place.
(Note the use of two other phrasals in this last sentence: clean up and put away .


by Abdullah Sam
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