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I'd like to know what "be picking up the phone" means in the following. Does it mean a person is holding the phone, or is about to pick up the phone?

John is picking up the phone.

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It means 'about to', but the point of the expression includes what John is doing now not just what he will do. John is engaged in 'picking up the phone activity'... ie he has gotten up from his chair, is walking to the phone, etc.

This separates it from, "John will pick up the phone" which is purely in the future, and "John picked up the phone" which is in the past. The John that is 'picking up the phone' is moving, he has intention, he said something, etc.

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    He is carrying out the action at the time the statement is being made. – Kate Bunting Jul 13 at 8:48
  • Yes... but for foreign speakers I think it is important to mention that the action could be 'walking to the phone in order to pick it up'. – Vaughn Ohlman Jul 13 at 13:09
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    Note that contextually, this can also express a planned activity that is not yet ongoing. E.g. "What are you doing today? I'm mowing the lawn and fixing the roof". That sentence is correct even if you're not currently doing either of these things, but have planned to do them during the period we're discussing. – Flater Jul 13 at 13:14
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In addition to what Vaughn Ohlman says, to "pick up the phone" often means to answer an incoming call.

The "pick up the phone" idiom got its meaning in the days of heavy wired telephones with handsets; to "pick up" was to lift the handset, thus accepting the call.

So "John is picking up the phone" could mean "The phone is ringing, and John is on his way to answer it"

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  • It can also mean "to place an outgoing call" as in, "If you ever need help, just pick up the phone" – Kevin Jul 13 at 18:04
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It's almost a direct match for answering the phone, which can be used to mean any part of the process between (and including) going to the phone and greeting the person who's calling. It can also mean the more general idea of potentially doing so in the future.

"Who is working today?"
"Mary is at the cash register and John is picking up the phone."

If the phone rings then it's John's job to answer it, but the phone is not necessarily ringing right now.

"What are the responsibilities of this position?"
"Greeting customers, responding to e-mail, and picking up the phone."

Lexico.com has this definition for answering:

[with object] Act in reaction to (a sound such as a telephone ringing or a knock or ring on a door)

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  • Can it mean talking to someone on the phone? E.g. John is busy right now. He's picking up the phone. – Apollyon Jul 13 at 14:41
  • @Apollyon Only for the very first part of the phone conversation ("Hello, who is this?"). Once you've gotten past that, you're no longer picking up/answering the phone--you're just "on the phone". – user3067860 Jul 13 at 14:51
  • I'm interested in the difference between "picking up the phone" and "answering the phone." Could we say "John's busy now. He has been answering the phone for 30 minutes"? – Apollyon Jul 13 at 14:52
  • In my area (US mid-Atlantic) there's not much difference between "picking up" and "answering", except that "picking up" is much more casual. "Answering the phone for 30 minutes" is multiple calls, not just one call where you talked for 30 minutes. And if you're busy answering the phone for 30 minutes, that would imply a bunch of calls. ("So many calls are coming in to the charity hotline that we've needed three people answering the phone all day.") – user3067860 Jul 13 at 15:13
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Does it mean a person is holding the phone, or is about to pick up the phone?

Pedantically, it's between those two. A more explicit rephrasing would be:

John is currently in the process of picking up the phone.

I.e. he is holding the phone and lifting it as we speak.

Alternatively, it can also mean that John is the one who always picks up the phone during the time period we're discussing. For example:

I've been calling Joe and John's shop all day because I need to talk to John, but John is picking up the phone today.

This phrase can also be used to describe John being en route to pick up the phone, e.g.:

The phone is ringing! You don't have to drop what you're doing, John is picking up the phone.

This sentence is reasonably correct regardless of whether John already has the phone in hand or if he is still walking towards the phone.

Pedantically, it means he already has the phone in hand, but common parlance often isn't that pedantically precise.


An alternative example that better highlights the distinction:

I'm picking up the children from soccer practice

Could mean:

  • The children are getting in my car as we speak.
  • I am on my way to pick up the children.
  • I am on my way back from picking up the children.
  • Today is my turn to pick up the children, it's not my wife's turn.

The surrounding context defines which interpretation fits best.

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