Etymology Grammar Usage

Is bringing hard to take?

Q: I come from Des Moines (like Pat), but I live in New York City now. What is it about New Yorkers? Why do they bring things that should be taken? I find this hard to take.

A: New Yorkers aren’t the only ones who stray from the traditional rules for using “bring” and “take.” In fact, people have been straying since at least as far back as Shakespeare’s day.

But let’s discuss the rules first before trying to explain why a lot of people ignore them. When it comes to choosing the right verb—“bring” or “take”—the key is your perspective. Which end of the journey are you speaking of?

Each of these notions—bringing and taking—implies both a starting point (that is, an origin) and an end point (a destination). In each case, someone or something is moving from one point to the other.

The basics are easy enough to grasp. Here’s how they work, on the simplest level.

(1) If the merchandise or the person is moving toward you (that is, you’re the destination), the appropriate verb is “bring.” Example: “I have something for you to read, so bring your glasses.”

(2) If the merchandise or the person is moving away from you (that is, you’re the point of origin), the appropriate verb is “take.” Example: “I’ve finished, so you can take my plate to the kitchen.”

Those examples are pretty clear, because in both situations you’re speaking from YOUR perspective—that is, you yourself are at the end point (as in #1) or the starting point (as in #2).

However, this won’t always be the case. And it’s these fuzzier areas that give people problems, as Pat writes in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.):

“There are gray areas where the bringing and the taking aren’t so clear. What if you’re the one toting the goods? Say you’re a dinner guest and you’re providing the wine. Do you bring it or do you take it? The answer depends on your perspective—on which end of the journey you’re talking about, the origin or the destination. ‘What shall I bring, white or red?’ you ask the host. ‘Bring red,’ he replies. (Both you and he are speaking of the wine from the point of view of its destination—the host.) Ten minutes later, you’re asking the wine merchant, ‘What should I take, a Burgundy or a Bordeaux?’ ‘Take this one,’ she says. (Both you and she are speaking of the wine from the point of view of its origin.)”

So the key to all of this is the speaker’s perspective or point of view, not simply which way things are moving.

Why, you ask, can’t New Yorkers keep “bring” and “take” straight? As we said, New Yorkers aren’t the only ones to stray from the traditional rules.

The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (2nd ed., 1985) says, “The distinction between bring and take is one that today is honored in the breach almost as often as in the observance.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage suggests that the rule books, not the rule breakers, may be partly to blame: “The problem, however, is not one of usage; it is of oversimplification on the part of the prescribers.”

The usage guide quotes the Longman Dictionary of the English Language (1984) as saying, “Either verb can be used where the point of view is irrelevant.”

M-W offers an example in which a woman notices clouds in the sky as she and her husband are about to go to an outdoor concert. “Don’t forget to bring the umbrella,” she says.

The use of “bring” here, M-W says, suggests that the woman “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,” the usage guide says.

Merriam-Webster’s adds that the “direction implicit in bring (or take) in this instance is irrelevant” to the man or anyone else who may overhear the woman.

It offers two examples of this use of “bring” from Shakespeare. In Much Ado About Nothing (1598-99), for example, Dogberry tells Verges: “Go good partner, get you to Francis Seacoal; bid him bring his pen and inkhorn to the jail.”

However, many language authorities condemn this looser usage. The Harper usage guide describes it as “a debasement of our language.”

But M-W disagrees: “If it is such, the process of debasement has been going on for nearly 400 years, if not longer.”

Merriam-Webster’s also notes that in Elizabethan times the verb “bring” could mean to escort or accompany. In The Tempest (1612), for example, Shakespeare writes, “I’ll bring you to your ship.”

Although this sense of “bring” is now considered obsolete or dialectal, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it has survived in several US regions.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has citations from New York, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Minnesota, and (yes) Iowa. Here’s a 1968 example from Louisiana: “I’ll go bring him home and then I’ll come back and get you.”

It’s possible that at least some of the bringing in New York that you find hard to take may be examples of this regional usage or instances in which M-W  would consider the choice of verbs irrelevant.

In other words, this “bring” and “take” business is a bit messier etymologically than most usage guides present it.

Nevertheless, we still follow the traditional distinction between “bring” and “take,” though Stewart (an ex-New Yorker) sometimes finds it hard to “take.”

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