You Can’t Take It With You Anymore

There’s a new kid on the block and he’s a bully.  Yes, the language police report that “bring” is muscling in on “take,” and ask you to keep a watchful eye in your neighbourhood for this intruder.

I’ve only heard about this new kid—he avoids me as not worth his trouble.  That’s hardly surprising.  After all, at my advanced age, I still take things with me from here to there.  If I were under 30, or maybe even under 40, I’d be bringing things from here to there.  

My use of bring and take varies with my point of reference, marking me as an old-fashioned speaker.  Last month, for example, I took some boxes up to the receptionist in my temporary office, but my younger colleague brought one there.  I admit that I talked about bringing a pie with me to a friend’s house, but only because I was on the phone, adopting her point of reference.

Sure, I’ll bring a pie with me.

Otherwise, I’d have taken that dratted pie with me, I swear.  And I never, ever, ask someone to bring a folder to someone at the other end of the office, when what I mean is to carry it from here to there.

“Yikes,” I hear you thinking.  “This woman should get a life.  Does this matter at all?”

Nope.  Not if what you mean is: Does this hinder communication?  Whether you bring or take, your meaning is clear.

What it is, though, is interesting.  The language changes: that’s evident when we read something by Jane Austen or Shakespeare or Chaucer.  But it’s kinda cool to be in the midst of a change, able to watch it happening.  Today, the changing usage of bring and take gives us such an opportunity.

My dictionary gives 20 distinct meanings for take.  It’s an amazingly versatile verb, forming many idiomatic expressions.  Some might even call it a tad unfocused.  You can take sick; take the dog for a walk; take a hike; take a queen in chess; take comfort; take someone at their word; take a risk, an oath or a bow; take one day at a time; take tricks in bridge; take action; eat take-out; and take away, back, down, in, off, on, out, over, up and after.  But unless you’re 50 or better, you pretty much can’t take it with you anymore.

With so many uses for take, maybe it’s just overworked and in need of a rest.  Since language is as unpredictable as the people who use it, maybe this substitution of bring for take won’t stop with the one meaning—that of “causing to come or go with one”—but will gradually overtake the other uses as well.

I’m going to bring the bull by the horns and bring a chance here, as ABBA recommended, and say, “Yes.  Keep your eye on the idioms.”  Even if we brought care in how we speak, I’m betting that bring will gradually bring charge of most English expressions that today use take.  If you bring sick over this you can bring to your bed, but it won’t help.  The train has left the station.

You might as well bring a load off, or bring a break, or even bring five—there’s no point in bringing a position against this impending change.  There’s even less point in bringing the Lord’s name in vain.  Just “Bring it easy,” as the Eagles sang, or should have.  Once native speakers bring to a new mode of expression, it’s impossible to stop the momentum.

Don’t bring it to heart.  Don’t bring cover.  Don’t even bring others to task over it.  Instead, bring a good look at what really matters in life.  Start by bringing a deep breath and then carry on with your normal activities: bring the kids to school tomorrow, bring someone out to the ballgame, bring a vacation with your family.  You can also continue to bring pride in your work, and bring pity on those who are less fortunate.

You can tell me to bring a flying leap if you want to, or otherwise bring issue with my prediction, but I’ve brought my best shot here.  And, certainly, I admit that I haven’t really brought complete account of other influences on the language.  Maybe schools will start insisting that kids bring more English classes, or maybe the fashion for ‘bring’ will bring a sudden swerve to the right.

Or maybe, just maybe, take will fight back, finding unsuspected depths of resistance, bringing after bring in this regard.  So far, all the substitution has been one-way: bring for take.  But maybe take will start to encroach on bring’s turf.  We can’t bring it for granted that this won’t happen.  After all the adjustments we’ve had to make, wouldn’t that just bring the cake?

You probably can’t take yourself to believe it to be possible, but it could be that the vagaries of the language will take it about.  And wouldn’t that be enough to make you take up your lunch?

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16 Comments

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Mike – Thanks kindly. I brought it out and dusted it off. Regrettably, it is as true as when it was first written. Now the point of view slippage is happening with ‘come’ and ‘go’…

  1. steven

    Does this hinder communication? Whether you bring or take, your meaning is clear.

    I am less sanguine. Example: in Angel S04E03, “The House Always Wins”, at 35:01, the bad guy tells his subordinates how to deal with the good guys, thus: “Take them out into the desert. Shoot them. Bring the demon. I’d like him to watch.” So, is the speaker dispatching his subordinates into the desert to carry out his instructions independently, or is he accompanying them? In this kind of implicature — which the conventions you call old-fashioned handle reliably — the point-of-view aspects of these words do real semantic work, and are not a mere matter of style or courtesy. Disrupting that does make meanings unclear, for the interval when both conventions are widespread.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Steven – Fair enough – there are places where the meaning would be ambiguous. That isn’t really why it bothers me, though. I have almost stopped doing a double-take (mental or actual) in most instances – but I always hear it.

  2. steven

    By the way, for readers who don’t track what you’re talking about with bring v. take, here’s an explanation designed for “advanced students of English as a foreign/second language”. (The author endorses the conventions you call “old-fashioned”, and doesn’t seem to mention any ongoing change.)

      1. Hi,
        As the ‘author’ of that explanation, thanks for the mention. Amazingly enough, some people have even downloaded my somewhat basic stick men pictures.

        I had read that there had been some controversy over certain ads in the States inviting people to bring something when they went somewhere, but I think this ‘ongoing change’ is a peculiarly American English phenomenon. I don’t think I’ve heard it in British English, which is what I teach. My main interest was that foreign learners can have problems, especially with adopting the other person’s point of reference, for example: ‘Hi Mum, I’m coming to to see you tomorrow and I’m bringing the kids.’

        My students’ biggest problem, incidentally, is not so much the difference between bring and take> as between take and get, as in “I’ll just go and take a pen”. That’s what got me writing it in the first place.

        1. Isabel Gibson

          Warsaw Will – Hey, thanks for dropping in. I’m glad to hear that bring and take are as they ever were in Britain. I think the “take with” sense is close to gone over here – in the US of A and in Canada too. Spanish tutors report that this distinction–still used in Spanish–is one of the hardest for North American students to get. As for ESL students, long may they continue to learn the “old way” – and the one that, as Steven notes, actually communicates important information.

  3. Last week, a 50-year-old friend I hadn’t seen awhile told me, “I took a heart attack in April.” Ottawa Valley — gotta love it.

    Of your post, I take heart there is at least one other person out there who shrivels up inside when somebody uses “bring” where I would have used “take”.

    Now, if only (just about everyone now) people would stop using the verbal dandruff of “I mean”. Youth even START their sentences with it. AAAAAK.

    A speech therapist friend says, “When people ask me why is it important to speak clearly, I say, ‘So when you are in a Home at the end of your life you can get your needs satisfied.'”

    I would add that the “take” and “bring” issue could be a real problem if we are requesting a bedpan be removed…

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – “Took a heart attack” is in the same family as “taking sick”…I like it. At least no none has started to bring sick yet (other than bringing up). Clarity is an ongoing battle and I wonder whether the loss of distinctions around point of view (as with bring/take and come/go) contributes in even a small way to problems with thinking of things from another’s point of view.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – I brought my time with it, certainly. I find it sort of interesting, how some seem to write themselves almost, and some are a bit more of a trudge. This one took time, but was fun to do.

        1. Isabel Gibson

          Barbara – Hah! Nice, indeed. Funny how we want to live longer – subjectively, anyway – but also want to do the things that make time fly (away) as opposed to those that make it drag.

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