Word of the day: pop

One of the best things about adopting a more lexical view of language is that you start to appreciate more clearly how words interact with other words, and you are then able to start passing on to students the message that “these words often go together”. It also means you lose many of the worries that your training may have planted in you. One area of the lexicon that we’ve both radically changed our approach to is phrasal verbs. For far too long, coursebooks made phrasal verbs into part of the grammar of the language, rather than simply treating them as you should any other verb and its collocates – a group of words often used together in a certain order!Why on earth did we allow ourselves to be tricked into beleiving that He told me I need to cut down on red meat is any harder to learn than He’s always undermining my confidence?

Designed to strike fear into students readying themselves for FCE and to scare teachers into panicking about, for example, whether pop into is a phrasal verb in its own right or simply an intransitive verb with an additional preposition (the answer is: it depends which dictionary you consult!), this approach strips all the possible fun out of teaching vocabulary and, ironically, often makes it less likely that students will start using these items as they commonly are.

The verb pop and the prepositions it’s often used with (or, if you prefer, the phrasal verbs pop into, pop out, pop round and so on) may well appear in classroom material at Intermediate level and above. In essence, pop means to go somewhere quickly and for a short period of time, and is used in all manner of common chunks:

I’m just popping out to the shops. I’ll be back in a minute.

I’m afraid Mr. Tanaka’s not here at the moment. He’s just popped out for lunch. Can I take a message?

Pop round sometime if you’re in the area.

I’m just popping round to Andy‘s. I won’t be long.

I just need to pop in here for a second.

I just need to pop into the post office and send these two parcels, OK?

Notice the co-text that’s often used with these chunks – I’ll be back in minute, I won’t be long, for a second, and so on.

In terms of how these items are explained and exploited in class, it does rather depend on the context in which they’re encountered. If, for instance, you’re teaching a Business English course – or unit – and are looking at dealing with incoming calls and taking messages, the chunk pop out for lunch may well come up – either in a listening or vocabulary exercise – or else it could something you choose to teach after asking students for reasons why someone may not be in the office. In either case, you can briefly explain its meaning and ask for / give variations on the chunk:

She’s not here at the moment, I’m afraid. She’s just popped out for a few minutes. Shall I get him to call you back?

I’m afraid you’ve just missed him. He’s just popped out for lunch. Do you want to leave a message?

Alternatively, if you’re doing some vocabulary on different kinds of shops, introducing the chunk I need to pop into . . . to . . . may be a useful way of practising both the shops and what services they offer. Once the names of shops have been looked at, you could introduce the chunk through one example such as I just need to pop into the chemist’s to pick up a prescription. You could then ask for any other reasons why people might need to pop into the chemist’s, which generally allows for some possible humour to emerge from the group, and then put students in pairs and ask them to come up with four different reasons for popping into each shop using this sentence frame. They may well then come up with things like this:

I just need to pop into the bank to pay some money in.

I just need to pop into the bank to change some money.

I just need to pop into the bank to see if I can take out a loan.

I just need to pop into the bank to pay some cheques in.

Have YOU ever taught any chunks based around the verb pop?

If so, can you remember what you told your students about it and what examples you gave?

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7 Responses

  1. Julie Moore says:

    Nice post and a really useful and underrated little word. I’ve been contemplating writing a blog post about the use of ‘pop’ in service encounters (“Just pop your card in the machine.” “Can you just pop your signature here?”) for a while. You might just have prodded me into getting round to it … will link back here when I do 🙂

    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi Julie.
      Glad you liked this one. It’s a very under-taught word, we feel. I mean, it’s a two-star verb in the Macmillan dictionary, which should really mean it starts appearing at Intermediate level, yet it’s still all too rare.
      Hope you do that post, anyway. Sounds good and well observed. In essence, the examples you have above are all further extensions of the ‘move quickly’ idea explored above, I guess.
      Please do link back if you write it.

  2. MuraNava says:


    there seems a marked difference in meaning between the British uses of pop out – where it is used in the sense you describe (go somewhere quickly and for a short period of time) and the US use where a common meaning is of that of appear quickly and in a noticeable way

    also in a quick sample of 100 concordances pop out in the sense you describe appears about 31 times out of 100 (in the BNC corpus)

    i guess one can highlight the general sense of quickness in all the senses of pop and the co-text of whatever example sentence crops up in class?

    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi Mura –
      You may well be right about this, though – as with most supposed distinctions between US and UK English, it’s more shades of grey rather than stark black and white.

      I had a look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which was created by Mark Davies of Brigham Young University and which contains 450 millions words. POP INTO comes up 208 times, and there are plenty of examples that match the meaning you say is more UK-based (“go somewhere quickly and for a short period of time”).

      For instance:
      Planning to visit NYC? Pop into the Museum of Modern Art for a Family Gallery Talk

      On your way out, pop into the bakery for a loaf of artisanal bread to take home

      We could pop into The Nest for a burger and a beer . . . even a salad if you want!

      • MuraNava says:

        another resource one could use to come up with sentences is stringnet (http://www.lexchecker.org/index.php), for example for pop in (closest to pop into using your example) we see that the most common construction is [noun] pop in:

        1. Someone pointed out that it would stop passers-by popping in to buy something.

        2. And then this brother lived next-door and his wife popped in and out.

        3. When Safeways was particularly busy‘ one Friday lunchtime, Phyllis popped in for a packet of chops for her husband and herself.

        by exanding the stringent we could get more help in getting example sentences i.e. with the following patterns:

        [noun] pop in [conj]
        [noun] pop in [verb]
        [noun] [conj] pop in
        [noun] [verb] pop in



        • Lexicallab says:

          Thanks Mura.

          Much as I believe some available resources can help us hone better examples, I’ve never been convinced Stringnet is one that can!

          I’ve just looked up the so-called patterns for POP IN and all it tells me is that the most common word that can appear as the noun with POP IN is ‘people’. No kidding! Meanwhile, Blackbeard is the last common!! Not exactly helpful revelations.

          I’m also slightly confused about the examples you give yourself. When you say that “the most common construction for POP IN is ‘Someone pointed out that it would stop passers-by popping in to buy something'”, what does that mean? It surely cannot be the case that POP IN is most frequently used in conjunction with SOMEONE POINTED OUT THAT . . . or even with STOP PEOPLE POPPING IN.

          Presumably, it just means PEOPLE pop in (to places) TO DO things is the most common pattern . . . which doesn’t exactly broaden the sum total of knowledge we already had.

          Personally, I’d advise most teachers to steer clear of that one. A decent learner’s dictionary gives enough for most teachers to be able to cull one or two good examples.

          • MuraNava says:

            hi (by the way is it hugh or andrew?)

            i guess i was contrasting with the first 2 examples you gave for pop into which were imperative uses not seen in BNC.

            the third example of yours is seen:
            We could pop into The Nest for a burger and a beer . . . even a salad if you want!

            i.e. [noun] [verb] pop in

            you are right though stringnet is not for everyone!


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