12 November 2020
You may have heard or read news stories about the recent elections in the United States. The voting ended last Tuesday, November 3. That night and in the days that followed, Americans and people all over the world watched the news for election results.
These news stories will be the subject of our Everyday Grammar report today. We will explore part of English grammar that is important to understanding stories about elections: phrasal verbs.
Phrasal verbs and elections
Phrasal verbs are groups of words. They combine a verb and another short word, as in the term look up. Look up means to search for information in a book or on a computer.
Here is something important to remember: phrasal verbs have a meaning that is different from what the individual words suggest.
After the U.S. elections, you probably heard or read many phrasal verbs in news stories. Today we will consider three of them: go on, pick up, and catch up.
#1 Go on
The first phrasal verb is "go on." In the hours after Election Day, many Americans asked themselves, "What is going on with the election results?"
According to language expert Norbert Schmitt, "go on" is the most common phrasal verb in the English language.
"Go on" has several meanings, but by far the most common is "happening or taking place."
Schmitt estimates "go on" has this meaning over 60 percent of the time that it is used.
So, how was "go on" used in stories about the election?
Consider these words in a story from CNN, the U.S.-based broadcaster. CNN's website published the report at the end of last week.
"Six states remain too close to call. Here's why the vote count is still going on in key states."
In other words, the writer wanted to explain why the vote count is still happening in six states.
#2 Pick up
The second phrasal verb is the term "pick up."
For our program today, "pick up" is somewhat unusual. This is because its most common usage has little to do with its meaning with respect to elections.
Schmitt estimates that around 70 percent of the time you hear or read "pick up," it means to get or take somebody or something from a place. So, you might "pick up" or lift a stone from the ground.
But with respect to elections, "pick up" has a different meaning. You might read about a political party trying to "pick up" votes in a congressional district or legislative area. "Pick up," in this case, means to earn or gain something. It does not mean to get or take something from a place.
Consider this example from The Guardian newspaper. It describes how the two main political parties are fighting for control of Congress:
"The Republicans looked to pick up a handful of seats in the House of Representatives, with Democrats holding the majority."
#3 Catch up
Our third phrasal verb is "catch up." Often, "catch up" describes what happens in a race: when someone who is behind reaches the person in the lead.
So, you might hear someone at a motor car race say, "Driver A is catching up to Driver B!"
This same idea is true in elections. Candidates look to "catch up." But they "catch up" in terms of votes, not in terms of distance.
One CNN report used the phrasal verb "catch up" to describe results in the presidential race between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump.
"Joe Biden is not only winning — meaning building his lead — but that lopsided advantage makes it harder and harder, more difficult by the vote count for Donald Trump to catch up," said CNN's John King.
Today, we explored phrasal verbs that are often used in reports on elections. Understanding these expressions will help you understand such stories.
Try using the phrasal verbs we talked about the next time you write or speak English. And be sure to listen carefully for them when watching the news.
Little by little, phrasal verbs will become clearer and easier for you.
I'm John Russell.
John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
grammar – n. the system and structure of a language
with respect to – expression about or concerning (something or someone); in relation to (something or someone)
lopsided – adj. uneven or unequal
advantage – n. something (such as a good position or condition) that helps to make someone or something better or more likely to succeed than others
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