Episode 61: March 15, 2012
Today's topic is “bring” versus “take.” I’ll give you an overview of the basics, and then in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll give you an Irish spin on the topic at the end.
Many listeners have asked me to talk about today's topic. Here's a caller:
Hi Grammar Girl. It's Clint in Chester, VA. I have two children reaching high school age and they still don't know the difference between "bring" and "take." Can you put that on your Web? Thanks.
Thanks to Clint and the others who asked similar questions.
An interesting pattern has emerged in the questions and comments: A lot of people in Britain seem to think it is only Americans who have a problem with “bring” and “take.” I don't know if that's true, but I'll take their word for it and do my part to fix the problem.
What Is the Difference Between "Bring" and "Take"?
Whether you use “bring” or “take” generally depends on your point of reference for the action. You ask people to bring things to the place you are, and you take things to the place you are going. As one listener named Simone put it, you bring things here and take things there.
You ask people to bring things to you, and you take things to other people. You ask people to bring you coffee, and you offer to take the dishes to the kitchen. You tell people to bring you good news, and you take your camera to the beach.
You ask people to bring things to you, and you take things to other people.
For example, I would ask Aardvark to bring Squiggly to my party next week, and then Aardvark would call Squiggly and ask, “May I take you to Grammar Girl's party?” I am asking Aardvark to bring Squiggly because I am at the destination—from my perspective, Aardvark is bringing someone here. Aardvark is offering to take Squiggly because he is transporting someone to a remote destination—from Aardvark's perspective, he is taking someone there.
Here are two more examples that help me remember.
First, think of a restaurant where you can get food to go. It's often informally called getting “take out.” When you get take-out food, you're moving the food from your location—the restaurant—to somewhere else—a destination. And it's take-out food, not bring-out food. You're taking the food to a destination: out.
Second, if I'm sitting at home feeling lazy and wishing dinner would appear, I would say, “I wish someone would bring me dinner.” I imagine Pat stopping at a restaurant and getting dinner to go. From my perspective, he is bringing me dinner because dinner is coming to my location.
Exceptions: "Bring" and "Take" in Idioms
I suspect one reason some people are confused about "bring" and "take" is that there are many exceptions to the basic rules. For example, idioms such as "bring someone down a peg" and "take a bath" and phrasal verbs such as "bring up," "bring about," "take down," and "take after" don't comply with the rule that "bring" means to cause something to come to the speaker and "take" means to cause something to go away from the speaker.
Exceptions: “Bring” and “Take” for Future Events
Further, the simple rules fall apart when you consider an event in the future where nobody has arrived yet. Do you bring rum cake to the school bazaar or do you take rum cake to the school bazaar? It simply depends on where you want to place the emphasis of the sentence—which perspective you want to adopt.
If you want to focus on the school and write from the perspective of the bazaar, you bring the cake to the bazaar.
If you want to focus on your kitchen and write from the perspective of home, then you take the cake to the bazaar (which puts the focus on taking it away from your home).
When you start writing about the future and have to choose between “bring” and “take,” imagine where you are in the scenario, and make your word choice based on that location.
The Past Tense of “Bring”
As an aside, the past tense of “bring” is “brought,” as in, “He brought me flowers.” In some regions people say “brung” or “brang,” but it isn't standard English.
What About "Come" and "Go"?
An interesting note is that the words “come” and “go” follow rules that are similar to those for “bring” and “take.”
“Come” is like “bring”: you ask people to come here—to come to where you are. “Go” is like “take”: you tell people to go away—to move away from your location. Aardvark and Squiggly will come to my party, and when Aardvark calls Squiggly, he'll say, “Let's go to Grammar Girl's party.”
The Irish Twist
Finally, here’s the Irish twist. A number of people have told me that Irish speakers handle “bring” and “take” differently. Apparently Irish speakers use “bring” in more circumstances than American or British speakers would. For example, Wikipedia says an Irish speaker would think it is fine to say “Bring your umbrella with you when you leave,” even though the American and British rules would favor “take” in that sentence.
Gaeilge has words that are roughly equivalent to “bring” and “take”—beir and tóg—but the meanings aren’t exactly the same. “Beir” can mean “bring” and “take,” and “tóg” means “take,” but it can also mean “collect, build” and lots of other things. According to a commenter on the blog going by simbad, in Irish, “take” has more to do with transferring possession than changing location.
To summarize, there’s an interesting Irish deviation from the rules, but if you’re in America or Britain, remember that when the locations are clear, you ask people to bring things to you and your location and you take things to other people and locations. If you’re talking about an event in the future, the word you use indicates where you are imagining yourself in the scenario.
Thanks to Stan Carey, an Irish writer who helped me with Irish section. Any errors are my own, but he pointed me in the right starting direction.
NOTE: This is a significant update to an article that was originally published in 2007.