“X v Y”: Take me to your leader, but bring me the head of John the Baptist

Kicking off a series of “X vs Y”, Glossophilia is digging out some of its more popular earlier posts examining differences between commonly muddled up words and phrases. First up: take v. bring

It’s a common mistake, to believe that ‘take’ and ‘bring’ are interchangeable words describing a simple act of transporting, guiding or carrying something somewhere. But the English language is never that simple, and it’s a shame to lose sight of the subtle distinction in meaning between these seemingly innocuous verbs.

Perspective is the key here, and it’s all about the relative location – geographical – of the person uttering or writing the words (but not of the person doing the transporting). Yes, it’s a little complicated. Bringing describes an action coming towards the speaker/writer; taking transports away from the speaker, or at least not towards her. If in doubt, use take: it’s probably what you mean. Bring has much more of a sense of orientation – inwards, whereas take often lacks direction.

When I ask my friend Jane to ‘bring my children home from school’, it suggests that I will be at home – with milk and cookies – to welcome them with open arms. But when I call Jane from the office, in a panic because the babysitter has bailed on me, I ask her to ‘take my children home’. Jane’s action is no different in either situation: she’s collecting the little babes from their place of learning and transporting them to their residence. But from my perspective, in the first case I’m asking her to ‘bring’ them to me; in the other case, I’m having her take them from A to B – but not towards me.

“Take it and leave!”, we command, and the meaning is unambiguous: transport it away from where we are. “Bring it with you,” we ask, leaving no doubt that it’s coming to us, or at least in our direction.

Which brings me (or does it take me?) to a thought about Chinese food: shouldn’t it be take-out only when we pick it up, but bring-out when it’s delivered?

First posted Nov 2011


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