The Grammarphobia Blog

The borne conspiracy

Q: I recently submitted an essay that discussed whether the French Revolution had sprung from the philosophical tenets of the Age of Reason. One sentence referred to the belief the revolution was so horrific that it “couldn’t be born of a time of reason.” I now wonder if I should have written “borne” instead of “born.” What are your thoughts?

A: You used “born” correctly in your essay. As we’ll explain later, “born of” is sometimes used figuratively to mean “sprung from.”

But first things first. The verb “bear” has two past participles that sound identical and look very similar: “borne” and “born.” You’re not alone in finding them confusing!

The thing to keep in mind is that “bear” has two distinct meanings: (1) to carry, support, endure, uphold, and so on; (2) to bring forth or give birth to.

The simple past tense, “bore,” is the same for both meanings, as in (1) “She bore a heavy burden” … “He proudly bore his father’s name”; (2) “The tree bore both flowers and fruit” … “She bore a child.”

But the past participles (the ones used with auxiliary verbs) differ.

“Borne” is used for all senses, both No. 1 and No. 2, when the auxiliary verb is a form of “have.” For example:

(1) “She had borne a heavy burden” … “He has proudly borne his father’s name”; (2) “The tree has borne both flowers and fruit” … “She had borne a child.”

The other form, “born,” is used only in passive constructions referring to birth (literally or figuratively), and is accompanied by a form of the verb “be”: “I was born in Cincinnati” … “Has the baby been born yet?” … “Puppies are born with their eyes closed” … “His wisdom was born of experience.”

The differing forms have had a long and complicated history, with three past participles—“bore,” “borne,” and “born”—being shuffled like cards over the years since “bear” was first recorded in Old English (as beran) in Beowulf, perhaps as early as 725.

The various past participles didn’t sort themselves out until the mid-1700s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

That’s when “bore” disappeared as a past participle, leaving “borne” and “born,” which took on separate functions in conventional usage.

“Born,” according to convention, is used only in the sense of giving birth, either literally or figuratively, and only in the passive voice without the preposition “by” (“Sarah’s twin sons were born”).

“Borne” is used in every other sense—carrying, supporting, enduring, and giving birth in the active voice (“Sarah has borne twin sons”) or in the passive with “by” (“Twin sons were borne by Sarah”).

Getting back to your question, you used the word “born” correctly in your essay when you wrote that the revolution “couldn’t be born of a time of reason.”

As the OED says, “born” is used figuratively when it means “come into existence, sprung.”

The dictionary provides examples in which authors have used “born” figuratively as you did, including the following two:

“These distinctions, born of our unhappy contest” (from a speech on American taxation by the politician Edmund Burke, 1775).

“The Roman Empire and the Christian Church, born into the world almost at the same moment” (from Charles Kingsley’s novel Hypatia, 1853).

 If you’re still confused, here’s a tip: “born” is misused a lot more often than “borne.”

As the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, “Our collection of errors shows that born is used in place of borne about twice as often as borne for born. The errors are both British and American.”

We hope we haven’t bored you! (No, the verbs “bear” and “bore” are not related.)

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