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They were like puzzle pieces that slipped from my hands the moment I picked them [up].

Is the up necessary? Why or why not?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Actually to pick something and to pick something up have two distinct meanings:

  • To pick something coneys the idea of selecting something out of a group of things.
  • To pick something up refers to the action of taking something up from somewhere (the floor, the table etc.)

In your sentences you are specifically referring to 'pieces that slipped from my hands' so pick up is the correct verb to use.

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Unless of course he's talking about very slippery flowers or mushrooms; those might conceivably slip from one's hands as soon as one picks them. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet May 12 at 19:15
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'up' describes completeness. When you use 'up' it shows you are selecting something and lifting it up whereas when you use 'pick' alone it shows you are just selecting which seems sort of incomplete.

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'to pick', and 'to pick up' are two different verbs. 'to pick up' is what's called a phrasal verb, formed by modifying the simple verb 'to pick'.

But they have different meanings! 'pick up' is to take something and raise it, or to collect someone in your car. 'I picked up the litter'. 'I picked her up from the station.'

'pick' is to choose. 'I picked my favourite'.

So without the 'up', your sentence means 'They slipped from my hands the moment I selected them'.

Presumably once upon a time, the meanings were much closer, and 'pick up' really was 'pick' with an extra adverb. But not in modern English.

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"Pick" can also mean "harvest", as in picking flowers or berries. In that usage, "up" would be incorrect. –  keshlam May 12 at 13:39
    
This answer addresses the issue in a different fashion than the others. However, the statement that there was a change in pick's meaning over time is an assertion worthy of proof. Do you have an etymological reference? –  Conspicuous Compiler May 12 at 16:35
    
@keshlam that is true, but one generally does not harvest puzzle pieces. :-) –  Hellion May 12 at 18:22
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I can't make this a "comment" due to lack of rep.

@John Lawrence Aspden

In a phrasal verb like "pick up", the particle "up" is not "an extra preposition". It happens that the word "up" can be used as a preposition, but it can also be an adverb:

"Look up! Look down! Look left! Look right!" The word "up" in this case is an adverb modifying the verb "look". (Note that this does not mean at all the same thing as the transitive phrasal verb "look up" as in "Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls".)

However "Look up the street at the woman in the red dress." is using "up" as a preposition.

This happens to be a bit of a peeve of mine due to people using it as some sort of "proof" that the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong (citing Winston Churchill as some sort of authority). When you use "up" as a particle in a phrasal verb, it isn't being used as a preposition at all, so it does not in any way invalidate the idea that a preposition ought to be pre-positioned before its object.

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Quite right, thanks. Changed preposition to adverb. –  John Lawrence Aspden May 12 at 21:26
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