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.