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Bring me the head of a usage commentator

Joe Wheeler, a reader in Raleigh, N.C., writes to express “a long-held grievance I have with professional speakers, news anchors, reporters, actors, writers, and my neighbor down the street.  My grievance is in the use of ‘bring’ when ‘take’ should be used.  This simple English rule has been tossed out the window, and I would like to see it being pulled back into the mainstream consciousness.  I found the below version of the “bring and take” rule at this Web site:

“When you are viewing the movement of something from the point of arrival, use ‘bring’: ‘When you come to the potluck, please bring a green salad.’ Viewing things from the point of departure, you should use ‘take’: ‘When you go to the potluck, take a bottle of wine.’  Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English Usage

“It is an easy concept, and I do not understand why it has been removed from the basics in learning to speak English.  I thought maybe it was only coming from the Northeast with children coming south to attend college, but after I heard Tom Brokaw us the word ‘bring’ improperly during a newscast and many Hollywood movie stars using ‘bring’ instead of ‘take’, I started to realize that it is now an epidemic that needs to be pushed back. 

“I know I may sound crazy with talk of epidemic, revolution, and maybe even the fact that I brought this to your attention, but I am sincere in my feeling that something has gone awry, and I need some advice on where to push back, to get schools, government, and mass media to listen.”

Mr. Wheeler is quite correct that bring connotes motion toward the speaker or writer, and take motion away. But there is an additional dimension to usage of this pair of words that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage treats with magnificent condescension.

“Although one might imagine,” Merriam-Webster’s begins, “that most native speakers of English have mastered the directional complexities of bring and take by the time they are old enough to read, a surprisingly large number of usage commentators have felt it incumbent upon themselves to explain this subtlety to adults. … [The directional distinction] is a point well made, and it holds for all cases to which it applies. It does not, alas, apply to all cases of actual use of these verbs. …”

That “alas” is a bit much, but “holds for all cases to which it applies” is rather splendid.

But let’s get to the point. Merriam-Webster’s quotes the 1984 edition of the  Longman Dictionary of the English Language, which says, “Either verb can be used when the point of view is irrelevant.” The entry continues with an example of a couple who are about to leave home for a concert; the wife says, “Don’t forget to bring the umbrella.” Merriam-Webster’s says that the wife “is already thinking of being at the concert and possibly needing the umbrella. The notion of direction exists entirely in her head; it does not refer to her immediate external surroundings.”

A simpler way of putting it is that the umbrella is going to be with them the whole time, neither moving toward them or away from them. And if the wife had used take, the same circumstances would apply.

This is not to say that Mr. Wheeler’s concern is necessarily misplaced. Given the shakiness of education in the Republic, and the widespread misapprehension of the descriptivist approach to language that anything and everything are OK, it’s entirely possible that journalists and stars of motion pictures are misusing bring and take when the directional context is clear and appropriate. But all the same, we can probably ferret out more productive occasions for expressing our irritations and frustrations.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:17 AM | | Comments (4)


This nuance is only a small skip and a hop away from immigrant/emigrant, a distinction that used to leave me hopelessly confused as a child. Since every immigrant was, ipso facto, also an emigrant, how was one to decide what to call him? I knew that “white” Russian émigrés were beleaguered victims of the proto-Evil Empire and not quite as praiseworthy as New York’s cherished immigrants, so it seemed logical that the latter should receive that extra “m.” But the linguist niceties did escape me; that’s for sure.

Well how 'bout cases where nothing is being transported? as in, "take a meeting" and "take a look," for example, not to mention the overused scatological phrase--which I won't specifically mention here. :o) Clearly "bring" is never used in any of those instances. (Or should I have said "these"?)

This is also a regionalism. East Coast dialects favor "bring" for situations in which the direction is neutral or in which "bring" represents "take with me," as in "I'm going to bring the children to daycare." This is not -- repeat, not -- a mistake, a failure of education, a sign of the imminent collapse of English, further evidence of the moral degeneracy encouraged by descriptivists, or a reason for anyone to get on their high horse about how others speak English. It is a dialectical difference in the semantics of a specific pairs of words, a difference that, alas, a suprisingly large number of language commentators are unfamiliar with.

Well if a person (i.e., the parent--or whoever is being made an example of ) wants to speak "correct" English then he or she should say, "I'm going to take"--not "bring"--"the children to daycare." The parent is not going to be attending daycare, only "taking" the children there for the purpose of dropping them off, hence not "bringing" the children along with him or her to a place where they will all remain. I suppose it could be argued that if the statement were made at the daycare center, then "bring" would be correct in that instance; however it would not represent "take with me," would it?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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