Q: Your article about “bring” and “take” got me thinking about a similar pair. My dad (a former journalism professor) is always correcting people about “come” and “go.” If we’re going to the beach and want our friends to join us, do we say “Are you coming?” or “Are you going?” My dad says it should be “going.” Is there a rule about this?
A: We hate to interfere with parental authority, but we must disagree with your dad here. We vote for “Are you coming?” rather than “Are you going?” We’ll explain later, but first let’s talk about this business of coming and going.
The verbs “come” and “go” are similar to “bring” and “take,” which we discuss our Nov. 14, 2011, posting.
Like “bring,” the verb “come” usually indicates movement toward the speaker’s present whereabouts. And like “take,” the verb “go” usually indicates movement away from the speaker’s current location. But there’s a lot of wiggle room in using these two pairs.
In the example you give (“Are you coming/going?”), the implication is that this is an invitation to join you for a trip to the beach. “Are you coming” is another way of saying “Are you coming with us?”
People often use constructions like “We’re going to the movies. Do you want to come?” The meaning is “Do you want to come along?”—that is, join the group.
The destination in the second sentence is not the movie theater but the group itself, which in turn is en route to the movies. The friends come to join you, then you all go to the movies.
On the other hand, if the friends aren’t being invited to join you, then this would be appropriate: “We’re going to see Moneyball tonight. Are you going?”
As you can see, the choice of verbs here can sometimes be confusing. As a result, “one doesn’t know whether one’s coming or going,” an expression that showed up in the early 20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Here’s an example from The Hamlet of Stepney Green, a 1959 play by the British dramatist Bernard Kops: “What with one thing and another, I don’t know if I’m coming or going.”
Check out our books about the English language